Russia may have effectively captured the symbolic prize of Bakhmut, but in many ways the battle for the city might only just be beginning.
Moscow declared a triumphant victory in Bakhmut over the weekend, its first in nearly a year, with state media extolling its “liberation” and President Vladimir Putin promising “state rewards” to those who “distinguished” themselves in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.
However, Putin’s troops — exhausted and depleted by the sort of fighting not seen in Europe since World War II — may struggle to push deeper into the eastern Donbas region while Kyiv’s military will seek to take advantage of recent gains by trying to encircle them, according to Ukrainian officials and Western military analysts.
Russian state media headlines on Monday declared Bakhmut was already being de-mined after the country’s defense ministry and mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said Saturday that forces led by Wagner fighters had taken full control of the battered city.
Prigozhin posted images of his fighters raising flags over partially-destroyed buildings in the city, which has been left in ruins by months of conflict that has seen both sides suffer huge losses.
A news anchor on Russia’s Channel One called the city’s capture “an event of historic proportions” and “a mission accomplished,” at the top of a newscast Sunday afternoon, as Putin congratulated Wagner units and Russia’s regular army, despite weeks of bitter feuding between Prigozhin and Russia’s top military brass.
But the celebrations were dismissed in Kyiv, where officials insisted that the city was not completely under Russian control and that the battle was far from over.
“Despite the fact that we now control a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” the commander of ground forces for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said Sunday. “We continue to advance on the flanks in the suburbs of Bakhmut and are actually approaching the capture of the city in a tactical encirclement,” he added.
Serhii Cherevaty, spokesman for the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, also said late Sunday that Ukraine’s forces maintain control of “several buildings and fortifications in the southwestern part of the city.”
NBC News could not verify the claims from either side about the situation on the ground.
The conflicting messages about who controls the city may indicate that there are a number of things that are happening simultaneously and the battle for the city may not be over but rather entering a new phase, said Neil Melvin, the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, a London-based think tank.
Wagner forces have concentrated in the central area of the city and ceded control of the flanks to reinforced troops from the regular Russian army, Melvin told NBC News, giving the mercenary fighters sufficient strength to seize the whole of the central area of the city.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military appears to have withdrawn from its final positions in the center and concentrated on the flanks of the city to the north and south, where it began pushing back the Russian troops in the past week or so.
It now seems to be aiming to surround the city, and hence cut off and then destroy the Wagner forces in the center, Melvin added.
“We continue to advance [on the flanks],” said Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar on Ukrainian TV Monday. “The intensity is somewhat reduced, but we keep moving.”