Epicenter of fighting in Ukraine for 224 days, Bakhmout has finally fallen. This is at least the claim made by Evguéni Prigojine, the leader of the Wagner group, in a video released on Saturday. “On May 20, 2023, today, at noon, Bakhmout was taken in its entirety,” he announced there, surrounded by armed men in front of ruined buildings. But in the communication battle in which kyiv and Moscow are engaged in parallel battles on the ground, Ukraine has replied, and confused the cards. 20 minutes sums up twenty-four hours of conflicting information.
Stage 1: Wagner winner without Moscow
Even the end of a long fight does not always mean a truce. In his statement posted on Telegram on Saturday, Yevgeny Prigojine does not forget to tackle the Russian general staff, with whom he is in open conflict. “There was only Wagner here,” he points out, announcing the total “taking” of Bakhmout. “We fought not only with the Ukrainian army in Bakhmout, but also with the Russian bureaucracy which put a spoke in our wheels,” he insists, openly criticizing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.
But it was for Vladimir Putin that the Wagner group took the city. “By May 25, we will completely search the town, create defensive positions and hand it over to the military to deal with. On our side, we will go back to the basics, ”explains Evguéni Prigojine.
Stage 2: Ukraine procrastinates, Putin rubs his hands
In the wake of the Wagner group’s announcement, kyiv denies the loss of Bkahmout, claiming to still be fighting despite a “critical” situation. According to information from the front in recent weeks, there was only a pocket of Ukrainian resistance left in the west of the city, with Russian forces controlling 90% of the destroyed city. A few hours later, the adviser to the Ukrainian presidency Mykhaïlo Podoliak maintains the ambiguity, affirming on television that “Bahmut will be liberated, like all the other territories of Ukraine”.
In the middle of the night, Moscow in turn brings out the com machine. “Following the offensive actions of Wagner’s assault units, with the support of the artillery and aviation of the “South” unit, the liberation of the city of Artemovsk is complete”, launches the ministry. Defense Russian, using the Soviet name of Bakhmout. In a statement, Vladimir Putin tries to mend his two armed arms, congratulating “Wagner’s assault units as well as all the soldiers of the units of the Russian armed forces who provided them with the necessary support”.
Step 3: On the other side of the world, Zelensky plays on words
“President Zelensky, is Bakhmout still in the hands of Ukraine? The Russians say they have taken Bakhmout. Double-edged question in Hiroshima. Invited to the G7, Volodymyr Zelensky comes out of it with “I don’t think so”. Answer to the first or second part of the question? “You have to understand that there is nothing” there. “Today, Bakhmout is only in our hearts,” he says sadly.
Immediately, his words are perceived as an admission of the loss of Bakhmout. His spokesperson then corrects the shot. “The president denied the capture of Bakhmout”, assures Serguiï Nykyforov on Facebook. Despite the presence of Russian troops, the city “is not occupied”, insists Zelensky. In his long and confusing answer in English, the Ukrainian president adds that “there is nothing in this place (…) just ruins and a lot of dead Russians”. On Sunday noon, the Ukrainian president compared the destruction in Bakhmout to that of Hiroshima in 1945. “I can honestly say that the photos of destroyed Hiroshima remind me of Bakhmout. There is absolutely nothing alive, all the buildings are destroyed (…) an absolute and total destruction”, he declared during a press conference on the sidelines of the G7 summit. As if to say that there was nothing to lose in Bakhmout?
Step 4: What now?
From “Bahmut will be liberated” to “ruins”, Ukraine seems above all to want to indicate that the loss of the city is only temporary, pending the counter-offensive. Sunday morning, kyiv also claimed to have “partially surrounded” Bakhmout, thanks to its gains on the flanks. “The advance of our troops in the suburbs on the flanks, which continues, makes it very difficult for the enemy to be present in Bakhmout”, explained on Telegram the Deputy Minister of Defense Ganna Maliar.
In recent weeks, kyiv had already claimed progress in the surrounding countryside, at the expense of the Russian regular army. The positions have almost reversed compared to the last few weeks, when the resistance of surrounded Ukrainian troops gave the battle a “symbolic more than strategic” dimension, according to Vincent Desportes, then questioned by 20 minutes. Far from opening the road to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the capture of Bakhmout could now look like a trap for the Russian army.