Ukraine scorned Russian claims to have captured the eastern city of Bakhmut on Monday, saying its foes had raised a victory flag over “some kind of toilet” while combat was raging.
The battle for Bakhmut, a mining city and logistics hub, has been one of the bloodiest of the conflict, now in its second year, with many casualties on both sides and the city largely destroyed by bombardments.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary force spearheading the siege, said on Sunday his troops had raised a Russian flag on the city-centre administrative building even though Ukrainian soldiers still held some positions.
“From a legal point of view, Bakhmut has been taken,” he said in video on Telegram. “The enemy is concentrated in the western parts.”
Prigozhin has previously made premature claims.
Ukraine’s military said fighting was still raging around Bakhmut’s city council building, as well as in several other nearby towns.
“Bakhmut is Ukrainian and they have not captured anything and are very far from doing that,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the eastern military command, told Reuters.
“They raised the flag over some kind of toilet. They attached it to the side of who knows what, hung their rag and said they had captured the city. Well good, let them think they’ve taken it,” Cherevatyi added by telephone.
John Kirby, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, told reporters in Washington on Monday Ukraine was still fighting hard for Bakhmut, describing the battles as “quite, quite violent and quite close”.
“Even if the Russians do get it, it isn’t going to change the battlefield dynamics from a strategic perspective,” he said.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said fighting had engulfed the centre of Bakhmut, with 25 Russian attacks repelled but the AZOM metal plant captured.
“The enemy is attacking the city centre from the north, the east and the south and is trying to take the city under its full control,” Zhdanov said in a video on YouTube.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
Lying on the edge of a chunk of Donetsk province under Russian control, Bakhmut had a population of 70,000 before Moscow invaded Ukraine in February last year.
Russian forces, bogged down in a war of attrition after a series of setbacks, are seeking a victory from their winter offensive but have suffered huge casualties around Bakhmut.
Ukrainian military commanders have said their own counteroffensive – backed by newly delivered Western tanks and other hardware – is not far off but have stressed the importance of holding Bakhmut and inflicting losses in the meantime.
Finland, which shares a 1,300-km (810-mile) border with Russia, will join NATO on Tuesday, marking the completion of a swift journey into the Western military alliance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, officials said.
In response, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said Russia would strengthen military capacity in its western and northwestern regions, state-owned news agency RIA reported.
“In the event that the forces and resources of other NATO members are deployed in Finland, we will take additional steps to reliably ensure Russia’s military security,” he told RIA.
In warnings to the West against arming Ukraine, Russian officials increasingly play up the risks of nuclear weapons being used in the war, and last month said they would station tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus.
Moscow’s ambassador to Minsk said on Sunday that Russia would move nuclear weapons close to its western border with Belarus – a move that would place them at NATO’s threshold.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, will visit Moscow on Wednesday, a Russian envoy said.
Grossi would meet with a Russian delegation and discuss the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, located in a Russian-controlled part of Ukraine, near the front line of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation”, claiming Kyiv’s ties to the West posed a security threat. Kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides have been killed. Russia has destroyed Ukrainian cities and forced millions of people to flee their homes, and it claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine.
In Moscow, the Kremlin accused Ukraine of organising the murder of a prominent war blogger on Sunday in a St Petersburg cafe and arrested a Russian woman shown in a police video admitting planting the bomb.
A Ukrainian official said it was only a matter of time before Russia became consumed by “domestic terrorism”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Monday paid tribute to nearly 400 residents of the village of Yahidne in north Ukraine who were held in a school basement under Russian occupation for 27 days before they were set free a year ago.
Asked about a Ukrainian counteroffensive, he said: “We will do it, and they have to know that we will do it, and they have time to go away, or we will kill them.”