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Zelenskyy signals Bakhmut falling, Russian casualties high in Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers west of Bakhmut, just after rotating out following a month of fighting inside the city, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Saturday.  (TYLER HICKS)
By Jordan Fabian and Jenny Leonard Bloomberg News

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested his country was losing control of Bakhmut after months of fierce fighting but downplayed Russian claims it now fully occupied the eastern city.

“Today our people are performing an important task – they are in the Bakhmut, Zelenskyy said in Japan where he had met with leaders from the Group of Seven nations and other invited guests. “I will not share the points where. Bakhmut is not covered by the Russian Federation, there must not be multiple interpretations.”

Russia claimed overnight that the Wagner mercenary group had taken Bakhmut, with the Defense Ministry saying in a statement that the forces “completed the liberation of the city.” Asked earlier by a reporter during a meeting on Sunday with President Joe Biden if Bakhmut was still in Ukrainian hands, Zelenskyy said: “I think no.” But his spokesman Serhiy Nykyforov later said journalists misunderstood the comment.

The to and fro reflects the confusion that has reigned over Bakhmut for months, with frequent claims by both sides that the other was losing ground. Either way, the city is now in ruins.

“But for today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing,” Zelenskyy said earlier on Sunday, referring to the devastation the fighting has caused. The only thing left, he said, is “a lot of dead Russians.” Pictures he saw in Hiroshima of the devastation caused by the atomic bomb attack on the city in 1945 reminded him of the state of Bakhmut, he said.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar also signaled that fighting there continued. While the Russians may control the city proper, Russian forces failed to surround the Bakhmut and lost part of the high ground they had controlled on the outskirts. Ukrainian troops also maintain control over some industrial facilities.

“The advance of our troops in the suburbs along the flanks, which is still ongoing, makes it very difficult for the enemy to stay in Bakhmut,” she said in on Telegram. “Our troops have partially encircled the city, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy. “

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin also said in a video posted Saturday to his Telegram channel that his forces would withdraw from Bakhmut on May 25 “for rest and retraining” and hand over operations to the Russian military. “We completely took the whole city, from house to house,” he said in the video.

While the Bakhmut news cast a shadow over Zelenskyy’s unscheduled appearance this weekend in Hiroshima, he did receive some good news as the U.S. and other allies sought to shore up Ukraine in anticipation of a major counteroffensive. Biden said in Hiroshima after speaking to Zelenskyy, that he was convinced the counteroffensive would proceed.

The U.S. president paved the way for F-16 fighter jets to be sent to Ukraine by allowing Ukrainian pilots to train on the aircraft, a move that Washington previously resisted but was urged by European allies. Biden also announced more military aid including ammunition, artillery and armored vehicles. The package amounts to $375 million, according to the Defense Department. Zelenskyy gave the US assurances that the jets wouldn’t be used to attack Russian territory, Biden said.

G-7 nations also widened existing export bans to Russia, with the U.S. placing dozens more individuals and companies on its entities list in an effort to stop Moscow from getting key inputs for its war machine.

With assistance from Áine Quinn and Olesia Safronova.