The chief of the Russian private military group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claimed Saturday that his forces have taken complete control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut after months of brutal fighting.
“The operation to capture Bakhmut lasted 224 days,” he said in a video posted to Telegram, seeking to claim a final victory in the city.
CNN could not independently verify Prigozhin’s claim, but an initial response from the Ukrainian side disputed it.
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.
While Russian forces have continued their slow street-by-street advance in the city itself for many months, over the last 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.
In confirmed, for 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.
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 towards 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. As of March it stood at less than 4,000.
The battle has been likened to the kind of fighting seen in World War One. Pictures from the area showed soldiers wading through mud with trees mangled by artillery fire.