Russia claims capture of Bakhmut from Ukraine, a win for Putin

Casualties and counteroffensives

Russian forces sought to surround and relentlessly shell Bakhmut after claiming control of the neighboring town of Soledar in January. As the Russians ramped up their assault, officials in Kyiv voiced increasing alarm for the troops clinging on in Bakhmut.

NBC News visited the city in February and found a dire situation for the few thousand civilians who had stayed behind from an estimated pre-war population of around 80,000. Known for its salt and gypsum mines, Bakhmut had become a ghost town, with residents sheltering in basements from the relentless thuds of artillery fire.

But Zelenskyy defied the urging of some analysts and opted to reinforce his troops defending the city rather than withdraw, hoping to frustrate the Russians further and inflict more costly losses on the invaders.

Those hopes appear to have been fulfilled, though Ukrainian troops undoubtedly suffered huge losses themselves.

Ukraine opted to reinforce Bakhmut in recent months despite a dire situation that saw it control just a single road into the city.Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP – Getty Images

20,000 of the Kremlin’s forces were killed in Ukraine between December and May alone, the United States estimated recently — half of them Wagner fighters whose combat was focused in Bakhmut.

Prigozhin, a longtime Putin associate and oligarch, has become a public face of Russia’s war in recent months behind vocal criticism of Moscow’s military leaders and the assault led by his band of ex-convicts.

The mercenary leader has angrily denounced Russia’s regular army, accusing them of starving his men of ammunition and abandoning ground they had captured. On Saturday he said his Wagner forces would now pull out of Bakhmut in five days to rest, handing the city’s ruins over to the military.

Prigozhin had threatened to withdraw from the city after releasing a series of furious video messages aimed at Russia’s military leaders.@concordgroup_official / AFP – Getty Images

His public feud with the Kremlin’s top brass has escalated in recent weeks as his troops inside Bakhmut edged forward even as Russia’s army was suddenly driven back on the city’s flanks, in Ukraine’s first significant gains for months.

While Moscow’s capture of the city belies the challenges it now faces, Kyiv has its eyes on prizes to come.

Zelenskyy spent the weekend in Japan attending the Group of Seven summit of world leaders, the latest stop on a recent global tour that has seen him rally allied support and secure new military aid that could prove decisive in the battles ahead.

Ukraine is preparing a sweeping counteroffensive that will aim to seize back land across the front lines of the war.

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