The owner of Russia’s Wagner Group military company has claimed his troops have extended their gains in the key Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut as fierce fighting continues.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said Wagner troops have taken full control of the eastern part of Bakhmut.
He claimed they now control all districts east of the Bakhmutka River that crosses the city in the eastern Donetsk region. The centre of Bakhmut is located west of the river.
Ukrainian authorities have not commented on Prigozhin’s claim.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank that closely monitors the fighting in Ukraine, said in its latest analysis that “Russian forces have likely captured the eastern part of Bakhmut, east of the Bakhmutka River, following a controlled Ukrainian withdrawal from eastern Bakhmut as of March 7”.
The Wagner Group has spearheaded the Russian offensive in Bakhmut that has lasted for six months and reduced the city with a prewar population of more than 70,000 to a wasteland.
The only highway west has been targeted by Russian artillery fire, forcing Ukrainian forces defending the city to rely increasingly on country roads, which are hard to use before the ground dries.
Ukrainian authorities have hailed the defenders of the “fortress Bakhmut,” and President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed Monday not to retreat from Bakhmut after chairing a meeting with his top generals.
Western officials have emphasised that even if Ukrainian troops eventually retreat from Bakhmut, its capture will not have strategic significance or change the course of the conflict.
The Ukrainian military has already strengthened lines west of Bakhmut to block the Russian advance, including in the nearby town of Chasiv Yar that sits on a hill a few kilometres west.
For the Kremlin, capturing Bakhmut is essential for achieving its stated goal of taking control of the whole of Donetsk, one of the four Ukrainian regions that Moscow annexed in September.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said the seizure of Bakhmut would allow Russia to press its offensive deeper into the region.