By 1 June, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group has pledged to hand over control of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut to the Russian army.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner, claimed to have captured Bakhmut on Saturday, but Kyiv maintains authority over portions of the city.
Ukraine reports that its forces continue to advance on the outskirts of Bakhmut.
Thursday, Mr. Prigozhin stated, his forces will begin handing over the city to the Russian army.
“Wagner will leave Artemovsk from 25 May to 1 June,” Mr. Prigozhin said in a Telegram audio recording.
Before Ukraine changed its name, Bakhmut was known as Artemovsk, in honor of a Soviet revolutionary.
He stated that Wagner had established “defense lines” west of the city in preparation for the transfer.
However, the Deputy Minister of Defence for Ukraine, Hanna Maliar, reaffirmed that its forces still have a small footing inside the city and are advancing on the city’s outskirts, adding that the “intensity” of their movement had diminished.
Later, she wrote in a Telegram message that the Ukrainian military continued to control “certain private facilities and the private sector in the ‘Litak’ area” of the city.
The capture of Bakhmut would be a symbolic victory for Russia after the longest battle of the conflict in Ukraine to date, according to analysts.
Wagner mercenaries have focused their efforts on the city for months, and their relentless, costly strategy of sending in waves of men appears to have eroded Kyiv’s resistance incrementally.
In recent days, there have been contradictory claims from both parties regarding the status of Bakhmut.
On Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Bakhmut “is not occupied” by Russia during the G7 summit in Japan.
After Wagner announced that it had captured the city, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated it. Saturday, Mr. Prigozhin posted a video to social media in which he claimed while posing with some of his combatants.
Mr. Prigozhin and his private army have staked their reputations on seizing the city.
Mr. Prigozhin recently stated, “If the Department of Defence does not have enough personnel, we have thousands of generals.”
He has repeatedly criticized senior Russian military officials in public for failing to support his soldiers. Last month, he even threatened to withdraw his forces from the city if they were not supplied with vital ammunition.
The acquisition of Bakhmut would bring Russia a step closer to its objective of controlling the entire Donetsk region, one of four regions in eastern and southern Ukraine annexed by Russia in September following widely condemned sham referendums.
Nonetheless, when Russia fought valiantly to claim the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk during the summer of 2014, Ukraine quickly reclaimed vast tracts of territory elsewhere.
The US estimates earlier this month that the battle for Bakhmut killed over 20,000 Russian soldiers and wounded 80,000.
Before the invasion, approximately 70,000 people were living in Bakhmut, but only a few thousand remain in the devastated city, which was once renowned for its salt and gypsum mining and enormous winery.