The move was called a “defeat” by the commander of Wagner’s forces as Ukraine declared the gains made around the battlefield city.
Moscow has acknowledged that its forces have retreated north of the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, in a retreat that the commander of Russia’s private army, Wagner, described as a “defeat”.
The setback for Russia follows reports of Ukrainian advances around the city and indicates Kiev made a concerted move to encircle Russian forces in Bakhmut, Moscow’s main objective for months during the bloodiest battle of the war.
That means both sides are now reporting the biggest Ukrainian gains in six months, though Ukraine has provided few details and played down suggestions that a long-planned counteroffensive would officially begin.
Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Ukraine had launched an offensive north of Bakhmut with more than 1,000 troops and up to 40 tanks, a measure that if confirmed would be the biggest Ukrainian offensive since November.
Konashenkov said the Russians repulsed 26 attacks, but in one area the forces retreated to regroup in more convenient locations near the Birkhivka reservoir, northwest of Bakhmut.
“What Konashenkov described, unfortunately, is called a ‘defeat’, not a regrouping,” said Yevgeny Prigozhin, the commander of the Wagner forces that led the campaign in the city, in an audio message.
In a separate video message, Prigozhin said the Ukrainians had captured high ground overlooking Bakhmut and opened the main highway into the city from the west.
Prigozhin said: “The loss of the Berkhivka reservoir – the loss of these lands that they gave up – is equal to five square kilometers, just today.”
“The enemy has completely liberated the Shasiv Yar-Bakhmut road, which we have cut. The enemy is now able to use this road, and secondly, they made a high tactical round located under it,” said Prigozhin, who has repeatedly denounced the Russian regular army over the past week for failing to supply his forces at Bakhmut. Bakhmut.
Ukraine usually refrains from commenting on its operations in action, and the military leadership only said that its forces moved forward about two kilometers near Bakhmut.
Lines change back and forth.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he met top military leaders on Friday, noting that Gen. Oleksandr Sersky reported that his forces had “stopped the enemy and pushed it back in some directions.”
In his evening address to the Ukrainian people, Zelensky praised his troops and noted the low morale of the Russian forces.
“The occupiers are mentally prepared for defeat. They have already lost this war in their minds. “We must push them every day so that their sense of defeat turns into their retreats, their mistakes and their losses.”
And the Deputy Minister of Defense, Hanna Malyar, confirmed in a statement on Telegram, on Friday, that the Ukrainian forces had won on the ground around Bakhmut, repeating the statements of military leaders earlier this week.
In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the United States assessed that Bakhmut is still a disputed area.
“The Ukrainians have not given up their defense of Bakhmut, and the Russians have not given up their attempts to take Bakhmut,” Kirby said. “Every day, the lines change back and forth. I mean, sometimes one block after another.”
In other fighting, at least two people have been killed and 22 wounded elsewhere in the country since Thursday, according to figures from the Ukrainian president’s office.
Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kirilenko said a Russian attack had hit Kramatorsk, where some Ukrainian military units are stationed, destroying a school and an apartment building. He pointed out that the Russian bombing hit 11 cities and villages in the region, killing 12 civilians.
Moscow has been preparing since late last year for an expected offensive, and has built lines of anti-tank fortifications along hundreds of miles of front.
It has begun evacuating civilians who were living near the conflict zone in Ukraine’s partially occupied Zaporizhia Province.
In comments published on Friday, the commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet said its defenses had also been stiffened amid a wave of Ukrainian drone attacks targeting its main base, the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
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