“The operation to capture Bakhmut lasted 224 days,” Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video posted to Telegram on Saturday, seeking to claim a final victory in the city.
CNN could not independently verify Prigozhin’s claim and initial responses from the Ukrainian side disputed it.
“The president has denied Bakhmut has been taken over,” Sergiy Nykyforov, spokesperson for Zelensky, told CNN later.
Zelensky met US President Joe Biden on Sunday on the sidelines of the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Japan, where he was asked by reporters whether Russia had taken the city.
“I think no,” he replied, but he conceded little remained.
“There is nothing. They destroyed everything. There are no buildings. It’s a pity, it’s a tragedy, but for today Bakhmut is only in our hearts,” Zelensky said.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar, in a Telegram post less than an hour after the Russian mercenary’s claim was published, admitted the situation in Bakhmut was “critical” but said Ukrainian troops were still “holding the defense” in a district on Bakhmut’s western-most edge.
“As of now, our defenders control certain industrial and infrastructure facilities in the area and the private sector,” she said.
In a later update the Armed Forces of Ukraine said: “The battles for the city of Bakhmut continue”.
Moscow has thrown huge amounts of manpower, weaponry and attention toward the city but for months failed to break down a stubborn Ukrainian resistance that had outlasted most expectations.
In his latest message Prigozhin said his forces will hand control of the city to the Russian military on Thursday.
“Until May 25, we will completely inspect it, create the necessary defense lines and hand it over to the military so that they can continue to work, and we ourselves will go to field camps,” he said.
Wagner received a message of praise from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Vladimir Putin congratulates the Wagner assault detachments, as well as all units of the Russian Armed Forces, which confirmed the presence and closure of the flanks, on the completion of the operation to liberate Artemovsk,” Russian state news agency TASS reported the Kremlin as saying, using the Soviet-Russian name for Bakhmut.
But French President Emmanuel Macron struck a more skeptical tone over the latest claims.
“I think it is up to the Ukrainian authorities to state the developments of their forces on the ground and so I will stay at this stage extremely cautious,” Macron said in the Japanese city of Hiroshima, on the sidelines of the G7 summit which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is also attending.
The operation “shows the difficulty the Russian army had in advancing” on the city, Macron added.
Battle that became a ‘meat grinder’
Bakhmut sits toward the northeast of the Donetsk region, about 13 miles from the Luhansk region, and has been a target for Russian forces for months. Since last summer the city has been a stone’s throw from the front lines.
Donbas – the vast, industrial expanse of land in Ukraine’s east, encompassing the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – has been the primary focus of Russia’s war effort since last spring, after its initial lunge toward Kyiv and central Ukraine failed.
The battle has been compared to the kind of fighting seen in World War One, with soldiers fighting in a hellish landscape of mud and trenches, trees and buildings mangled by artillery fire.
While Russian forces have continued their slow street-by-street advance in Bakhmut for many months, over the past two weeks Ukrainian forces have managed to re-capture small pockets of territory held by Russian troops to the northwest and southwest of the city.
If confirmed, Russia Bakhmut’s capture would mark the country’s first gain in months, but the city’s symbolism always outweighed its strategic importance.
Russian forces, bolstered by members of the Wagner mercenary group, have taken heavy losses trying to capture the city.
There are no official casualty figures, but earlier this year a NATO source told CNN they estimated that for every Ukrainian soldier killed defending Bakhmut, Russia lost five.
The battle has also highlighted an extraordinary rift among Russian forces, with Prigozhin at one point accusing a Russian brigade of abandoning its position in the city and railing several times at the Defense Ministry over a lack of ammunition.
Prigozhin, a former catering boss who has grown in prominence throughout the war, compared the battlefield to a “meat grinder.”
If Bakhmut’s fall is confirmed it would be an undoubted boost to Prigozhin, who recently announced his men would pull out entirely because dwindling ammunition supplies and mounting losses meant there was “nothing left to grind the meat with.”
Over the early part of 2023, the routes into Bakhmut had gradually come under the control of Russian forces and the battle for the city turned into an inch-by-inch grind, with Ukrainian forces repelling dozens of assaults each day.
Rather than drive directly toward the city center, Wagner troops sought to encircle the city in a wide arc from the north.
In January they claimed the nearby town of Soledar, and later took a string of villages and hamlets north of Bakhmut, making Ukraine’s defense of the city increasingly perilous.
But even as Moscow’s troops closed in and most residents fled through dangerous evacuation corridors, a small group of Ukrainian civilians remained in the ruined city. Before the war, around 70,000 people lived in Bakhmut, a city once famous for its sparkling wine.
As of March the population stood at less than 4,000 and most of the once thriving city has been reduced to ashes and rubble.