Ukraine says advances on Bakhmut's flanks trap Russians
Ukraine says its forces north and south of Bakhmut are advancing to entrap Russians inside the ruined city Moscow says it captured at the weekend after Europe's bloodiest battle for ground troops since World War II.
Russia's proclamation on Saturday that it had finally captured the final few blocks of Bakhmut culminated a battle both sides have called a meat grinder, and gave Moscow its first chance in more than 10 months to declare a substantial victory.
But even as the Russians pushed forward inside Bakhmut, their forces on the city's northern and southern outskirts were retreating at the war's fastest pace for six months, giving both sides reasons to claim momentum had now shifted their way.
Moscow says capturing Bakhmut now opens the way to further advances in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine says its advance on the Russian forces' flanks was more meaningful than its withdrawal inside the city, and Russian reinforcements sent to hold Bakhmut will weaken Moscow's lines elsewhere.
"Through our movement on the flanks - to the north and south - we manage to destroy the enemy," Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Monday in televised comments.
"By moving along the flanks and occupying certain heights there, our armed forces have made it very difficult for the enemy to stay in the city itself," she said.
Ukrainian forces were still advancing, particularly south of Bakhmut, Maliar said, although she said the intensity of fighting on the northern flank had subsided for now.
Reuters could not independently verify the situation in either location.
Maliar also said Ukraine still held a foothold inside the city itself, although independent monitors say any remaining Ukrainian presence there is unlikely to be substantial.
"Wagner Group mercenaries likely secured the western administrative borders of Bakhmut City while Ukrainian forces are continuing to prioritise counterattacks on Bakhmut's outskirts," the Institute for the Study of War think tank said on Monday.
The battle inside Bakhmut so far has been led by Wagner, a private Russian army whose leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has been issuing daily audio and video messages mocking the leadership of Russia's regular armed forces and accusing them of abandoning their flanks even as his own forces advanced.
In his latest message on Monday, he repeated a vow to pull his troops out of Bakhmut, beginning in three days, and hand over the defence of the newly captured city to regular troops.
"On the western edges, defensive positions have been set up, and so Wagner will be leaving Artyomovsk between May 25 and June 1," he said, using the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut.
"If the Defence Ministry's own forces aren't enough, then we have thousands of generals - we just need to put together a battalion of generals, give them all guns, and it'll all be fine."
The Ukrainians say they have pushed the front back in places north and south of Bakhmut by more than a mile since last week, the fastest it has moved since they recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November.
Moscow's defence ministry has acknowledged that some Russian troops fell back outside Bakhmut last week, but has denied Prigozhin's repeated assertion that the flanks were crumbling, or that the military had withheld ammunition from Wagner.
Coming weeks are expected to demonstrate the impact that the huge losses in Bakhmut have had on the fighting strength of both sides in the next big phase of the war - Ukraine's first counteroffensive for six months, expected to begin soon.