HIROSHIMA — A defiant Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted Bakhmut “is not occupied” by Russia after a Moscow-backed mercenary group had claimed control.
Ukraine’s president was speaking during a scene-stealing visit to Hiroshima, Japan, for the G7 summit.
He compared Bakhmut to Hiroshima, which was hit by an atomic bomb in World War Two, promising a similar “reconstruction” of his country.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin had earlier claimed victory at Bakhmut.
At a press conference on the final day of the summit, Zelensky refused to provide precise details, but said the city was “not occupied” by Russia “as of today”.
“There are no two or three interpretations of those words,” he said, after earlier confusion about his remarks on the status of the city.
Having arrived in Japan to great fanfare on Saturday, the next day Zelensky visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — whose relatives died when the United States launched an atomic bomb on the city in 1945.
After a meeting with Kishida, he strode into an auditorium at the peace park to speak to reporters.
As he entered, one journalist shouted from the back of the room: “Slava Ukraini” (glory to Ukraine). Zelensky nodded to acknowledge her.
He drew several parallels between Hiroshima and Ukraine, saying that pictures of the Japanese city in ruins after the atomic bomb attack reminded him of present-day Bakhmut. He vowed there would be a similar “reconstruction and recovery” of Ukraine.
“Now Hiroshima has rebuilt their city, and we dream of rebuilding our cities,” he said.
There had earlier been some confusion about the status of Bakhmut, after Zelensky said “today Bakhmut is only in our hearts”.
His office later clarified that he had not said that the city had fallen.
A top Ukrainian general later said Kyiv’s forces were making advances on the outskirts of Bakhmut and were getting closer to a “tactical encirclement” of the city.
Analysts say that Bakhmut is of little strategic value to Moscow, but its capture would be a symbolic victory for Russia in the longest battle of the war in Ukraine so far.
The two sides have fought over the city since August.
Western officials estimate between 20,000 and 30,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in Bakhmut, while Ukraine’s military has also paid a heavy price.
In a video released on Saturday, Wagner’s Prigozhin said his forces had control of the entire city, although Ukraine quickly denied it.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said that all troops who had excelled would get state awards.
Wagner’s forces have led the attack on Bakhmut, and Prigozhin has frequently criticized the Russian Defense Ministry for not providing his fighters with adequate supplies.
He has claimed before that his forces had taken Bakhmut, or most of it, only for the battle to continue.
The war in Ukraine has dominated the three-day summit of G7 leaders in Japan, with Zelensky meeting with several world leaders to lobby for more support.
His persistence paid off. At the summit, the US announced it would allow its Western allies to supply Ukraine with advanced fighter jets, including American-made F-16s.
However, as yet no country has committed to supplying the jets to Ukraine.
Asked by the BBC how confident he was about getting F-16s from his allies, Zelensky said: “We will be working on that, I’m sure… I cannot tell you how many – this is not a secret, we really don’t know.
The BBC also asked him when his delayed spring counter-offensive would begin.
“Russia will feel when we have a counter-offensive,” he replied.
Other issues have also been discussed at the summit, including concerns about China’s rising influence.
On Friday, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Beijing posed “the greatest challenge of our age” in regards to global security and prosperity, and that it was “increasingly authoritarian at home and abroad”.
Both China and Russia have responded angrily to the summit and its outcomes, with Beijing accusing the G7 of “smearing and attacking” China.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry described the summit as a “propaganda show” that was “whipping up anti-Russian and anti-Chinese hysteria”. BBC