On Saturday, mercenaries from the Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group claimed victory in the east Ukrainian town of Bakhmut after a gruelling battle that lasted for eight months. For the most part, the pro-Moscow camp has been elated at finally dislodging the stubborn Ukrainian defenders.
Although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has denied on Sunday that Bakhmut has fallen, Russian businessman and Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed otherwise in a voice memo to his 420,000 Telegram followers.
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“There is not a single Ukrainian soldier in the village of Bakhmut, for the reason that we have stopped taking prisoners,” he declared.
“There are a huge number of corpses of the Ukrainian military. Bakhmut is taken completely along all its legal boundaries, to the last centimetre. Vladimir Alexandrovich [Zelenskyy] is disingenuous, or he, like our military leaders, is simply not aware of what is happening on the ground.”
Through a statement on the Kremlin’s official press service, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin congratulated the Russian army and Wagner mercenary group on the capture of Artemovsk, as the city was known in Soviet times and until 2016.
Footage on both Russian TV and Telegram channels showed the Russian flag waving from the rooftop of an apartment building still standing among the ruins of Bakhmut.
“Without exaggeration, a historical moment – the Wagner fighters are hoisting the Russian flag, and the flag of their company, on the last street of Artemovsk,” Amir Yusupov, a correspondent embedded on the front line, reported for the state-owned Channel One.
“The city has been cleared … Many could have left at the end of their contract, but every single one stayed.”
One masked mercenary interviewed on camera compared the experience to World War II.
“How could I leave the lads?” he asked. “I had to see this moment. These are probably the same emotions as our grandfathers felt in Berlin.”
The Wagner Orchestra, a Telegram channel describing themselves as “fans” of the mercenary outfit, published a video of bearded commander Alexander “Ratibor” Kuznetsov raising the Russian and Wagner flags over the ruined city and yelling ethnic slurs at Ukrainians, telling them to “go f*** themselves!”
Another video on the channel shows a group of Wagner fighters triumphantly firing their weapons into the air as a Wagner flag waves in the background.
An article by the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti on the “liberation of Artemovsk” blames Ukrainian forces for any civilian casualties.
“Before the conflict began, more than seventy thousand people lived here,” it read.
“Most have left the city. According to the refugees, Ukrainian soldiers deliberately fired on civilians.”
The article assured that, despite Ukrainian propaganda, “fortress Bakhmut” had indeed fallen, which will allow Russian forces to move on to the nearby town of Chasiv Yar.
“This is a victory, one of those that bring the main victory closer,” Andrey Medvedev, former journalist and Moscow politician, wrote on Telegram.
“The path we still have to go is long and difficult, and we still have a lot to go through. There will be failures and disappointments. There will be days of dark despair and unbelief. But on such days we can remember just Bakhmut … Glory to the Russian soldier!”
Not a tactical victory
Despite Moscow’s claims of victory, Igor Girkin, nom de guerre Strelkov, a former Russian soldier and intelligence officer who led the original 2014-15 uprising of east Ukrainian separatists, painted a bleaker picture to his nearly 800,000 Telegram subscribers.
He describes the capture of Bakhmut as not a victory in any tactical sense, but part of the Kremlin’s policy of “freezing the conflict through a compromise agreement”, and as such, only intending to wear the enemy down until Kyiv and its Western allies agree to let Russia keep Crimea and the Donbas. Strelkov is a hardline Russian nationalist who believes Moscow is not taking the conquest of Ukraine seriously enough.
“On the whole, the operation ended in a strategic failure of our troops,” wrote Strelkov. “The enemy has NOT been ousted from the Donbas in all the main directions, in most directions – not moved at all.”
He added that the Russian military had exhausted weapon stockpiles, ammunition and manpower that will be “necessary for further offensive operations”.
“That’s why Bakhmut was given increased attention for the last two months – it was necessary to achieve at least some result ‘for propaganda’ in order to ‘take a breath’ afterwards. And so we won, sort of,” Strelkov said.
Strelkov also warned that the resources spent on Bakhmut, an “unnecessary” and “Pyrrhic” victory that was “not worth the effort and money spent on it”, will leave the Russian side vulnerable to the Ukrainian counteroffensive.