Russian President Vladimir Putin formally declared the capture of Bakhmut and congratulated the Russian soldiers hours after Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said his mercenaries had taken complete control of the key battleground.
"As a result of offensive actions of the Wagner assault units, with the support of artillery and aviation of the 'Southern' unit, the liberation of the city of Artemovsk was completed ... Vladimir Putin congratulated the assault units of Wagner as well as all servicemen of units of the Russian armed forces who provided them with the necessary support and flank cover, on the completion of the operation to liberate the city," Russia's defence ministry said.
Zelensky Says Bakhmut is in Ukrainians' Hearts
The capture of Bakhmut by the Russians came even as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is in Japan to meet with the G-7 leaders and lobby for more military and financial aid.
Meanwhile, Zelensky said Bakhmut is completely destroyed even as he refused to confirm if Russia has taken control of the city. "It's a pity, it's a tragedy, but for today Bakhmut is only in our hearts," Zelensky said when asked if his forces still control the city, according to the Guardian.
False Stories Around Prigozhin?
Significantly, the fall of Bakhmut comes weeks after the Western media reported a fallout between Putin and Wagner boss Prigozhin. According to the western press, Prigozhin's differences with long-term ally Putin meant the Russian campaign for capturing Bakhmut was fizzling out.
On Saturday, Prigozhin shared a video featuring his fighters holding Russian flags against a backdrop of ruins in Bakhmut. "Today on May 20, around midday, Bakhmut was taken in its entirety," Prigozhin said in the video.
He added that the Wagner fighters will conduct a search of Bakhmut and then hand it over to the Russian military. "By May 25 we will completely examine (Bakhmut), create the necessary lines of defence and hand it to the military ... We ourselves will go into field camps," he said, according to AFP.
Why is Bakhmut Important?
Bakhmut is not a militarily strategic city, nor a key industrial town. However, Russia has been determined to capture Bakhmut as it is the main city in the lone territory that Ukraine can call its stronghold inside the Donbas region.
In October last year, the Russian Dumas formally approved the annexation of four occupied territories in the Donbas region. Earlier, President Vladimir Putin had declared the intention to annex the region, which comprises Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Russia had also held a referendum in the region, seeking legal sanction for the annexation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin's move to annex the region was necessitated by the intention to 'defend Russian language, culture and borders.'
Some analysts have said the capture of Bakhmut by the Russians could lead to a military push to take control of key cities in the region. The larger cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk could under attack by the Russians, Branislav Slantchev of the University of California, told The Hill. "It's an important transport hub, a lot of supply lines go through there and Russia could use it as a base ... It's fairly well fortified, so it would be difficult to take it back," he said.