In a strong acknowledgment of the privatization of armed conflicts, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the mercenaries of the Wagner Group on Sunday for taking the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, a strategic enclave that for eight months was the most bleeding from this war. However, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, denied from Hiroshima (Japan) that the city had fallen.

In a statement published on the Kremlin’s website, Putin said the longest battle of this war had ended in Russian victory. “The (Russian) Head of State congratulated the Wagner assault groups, as well as the members of the Russian Armed Forces units who have given them all the necessary support and flank protection in the operation to liberate Artemivsk,” the message reads. In Russia, Bakhmut, which had a population of 70,000 before the conflict, is known as Artemivsk, the name it had until 2016.

The Russian spearhead in Bakhmut has been Wagner’s militias. Its founder and owner, the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced the capture of the city on Saturday. “The operation for the dam of Bakhmut, ‘the meat grinder of Bakhmut’, has lasted 224 days”, he assured Telegram.

From the Japanese city of Hiroshima, where he attended the G-7 summit, Volodymyr Zelensky yesterday denied that Ukraine had lost Bakhmut. “Today, Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation”, he assured in a press conference.

With this statement he wanted to curb the equivocal impression that he himself had left in an ambiguous previous statement. ‚ÄúToday, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place, only ruins and many dead Russians,” Zelenski said.

Taking advantage of the place from which he was speaking, the Ukrainian leader added that the photographs of the destruction of Hiroshima, devastated during the Second World War by the first of the two atomic bombs that the United States dropped against Japan during the Second World War, it reminded him of Bakhmut and other destroyed Ukrainian cities.

From Ukraine it was insisted that the battle continues. The head of its ground forces, General Oleksandr Sirski, assured Telegram that his forces are trying to advance on the flanks to surround the city.

Located about 55 kilometers from Donetsk, capital of the province of the same name, during the autumn and winter Bakhmut was believed to be a strategic point in the Russian advance towards the west, in its intention to take Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and end up completely controlling this province. But with the arrival of spring, the scene has changed.

Now it is Ukraine that is preparing a counter-offensive with Western weapons to recover the territories occupied by Russia. It remains to be seen what role Wagner’s men will play.

Prigojin and his people have been at odds for months with the Ministry of Defense, which is headed by Serguei Xoigu. The oligarch, who is considered close to Putin, has criticized the military commands for not sending them enough ammunition and supplies. In scandalous messages and videos published on social networks, Prigojin has not hesitated to directly insult Xoigu and the Chief of Staff, General Valery Guerassimov. Three weeks ago, he uploaded a gruesome recording of dozens of corpses of his men to the internet. Using rude and aggressive language, he blamed the ministry for the deaths of his mercenaries and threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut.

After the congratulations of the head of the Kremlin received yesterday, Prigozhin and his soldiers of fortune seem to leave strengthened to play a prominent role in the coming battles.

On the other hand, Prigozhin has taken advantage of the conflict to come out of the shadows, to admit that he was Wagner’s boss, something he had denied for years, and to become in Russia one of the most emblematic faces of the conflict. This has led to speculation about his possible political ambitions, a fact that can obviously bring him enmity in Russian power circles.

Keeping the pulse with Defensa could also harm him, considering that Xoigu has always been a man very close to Putin. In his Telegram message he insisted on this challenging position. He accused top brass of using the “military bureaucracy” to obstruct Wagner and downplayed the role of Russian regular forces in Bakhmut: “Virtually nobody in the army has helped us,” he said.