UK News

Ukrainian forces withdraw from Avdiivka to avoid encirclement, army chief says

Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from the eastern city of Avdiivka to avoid encirclement, army chief Oleksandr Syrskyi has said, marking the biggest change on the frontlines since Russian forces captured Bakhmut in May last year.

In a Facebook post on Saturday, Syrskyi said he had acted to “preserve the lives and health of servicemen”, stabilise the situation and move troops to more favourable defence lines.

“Our soldiers performed their military duty with dignity, did everything possible to destroy the best Russian military units, [and] inflicted significant losses on the enemy in terms of manpower and equipment,” he said. “The life of military personnel is the highest value.”

A day earlier, the Ukrainian commander responsible for forces in the south-east of the country had said Kyiv’s forces had withdrawn from some positions in the town.

“New positions have been prepared and powerful fortifications continue to be prepared, taking into account all possible scenarios,” Oleksandr Tarnavskiy had said in a statement on social media on Friday. “Our troops are using all available forces and means to restrain the enemy,” he added.

As the two-year mark of Russia’s full-scale invasion approaches, Ukrainian troops are under pressure along the frontline, with depleted and exhausted ranks and a shortage of artillery shells that has been exacerbated by the stalling of a large US funding package.

Avdiivka has been pounded by the Russians for months, but it is only in recent weeks that they have been able to make significant breakthroughs, with small groups of advance troops making it into the city itself.


Ukraine’s recently appointed army chief, Oleksandr Syrskyi, has sent in reinforcements to aid the defence of Avdiivka, but Tarnavskiy’s announcements suggested Kyiv might be preparing for a retreat from the city, which was surrounded on three sides by Russian forces.

“We value every piece of Ukrainian land, but the highest value and priority for us is the preservation of the life of a Ukrainian soldier,” said Tarnavskiy.

Taking over the remains of Avdiivka, much of which has been decimated by fighting, would give Russia full control of the area surrounding Donetsk, a large Ukrainian city that was seized by Russian proxy forces in 2014. It would also be a symbolic gain for Vladimir Putin as he prepares to stand in a rubber-stamp election next month that will grant him another six years in office.

An industrial city once known for its sprawling coke plant, Avdiivka became a Ukrainian military stronghold after the loss of Donetsk in 2014, but has been decimated by the recent fighting. Vitaliy Barabash, Avdiivka’s mayor, said 923 civilians remained in the city, down from a prewar population of about 32,000. Most of them are elderly people who have refused to leave their homes, even as fighting has intensified in recent months, and there is no possibility to evacuate them.

Fierce battles have been going on around Avdiivka since October. Ukraine’s Third Assault Brigade, which had been deployed around Avdiivka to reinforce Kyiv’s troops, said in a statement on Thursday that the situation in the city was “hell”, describing it as “threatening and unstable”.

Ukrainian soldiers west of Avdiivka in Donetsk region. Photograph: Kasia Strek/The Guardian

John Kirby, the White House national security spokesperson, said in a briefing on Thursday that Avdiivka was at risk of falling under Russian control. “In very large part, this is happening because the Ukrainian forces on the ground are running out of artillery ammunition,” he said.

At a forest base near a section of the frontline in Donetsk region, west of Avdiivka, soldiers from a self-propelled artillery unit that forms part of Ukraine’s First Tank Brigade said during a visit on Thursday that their ability to strike the Russians had been cut dramatically since November.

“Back then, we could fire every half hour, to stop them from relaxing and disrupt their movements, now we have to be very selective, and only fire for defence,” said their commander, who gave his call-sign, Titushko, in accordance with Ukrainian army regulations.

“We cannot target only one vehicle, we only aim when we see a concentration of hardware,” he added.

With the frontlines largely static in recent months, the capture of Avdiivka would mark Russia’s first major gain since taking Bakhmut last May.

“Avdiivka is important for them to control the space around Donetsk, you have control of dominant heights there, and they can build logistics corridors to supply a large area of the front,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in an interview in Kyiv earlier this month, explaining the importance of holding on to Avdiivka. “This is not about symbolism, this is about the operative importance of a particular territory,” he added.

Some in Ukraine have suggested that the situation in Avdiivka resembles the fierce fighting during last year’s defence of Bakhmut, during which Ukrainian forces suffered heavy losses during an ultimately unsuccessful defence of the city.

“I don’t think Avdiivka is like Bakhmut, but I worry that Ukraine’s leadership will choose to freight it with political significance, which it need not have, as part of an observed tendency to not cede ground anywhere no matter the cost or military reality,” said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment thinktank.

Zelenskiy fired his top army commander, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, last week, and replaced him with Syrskyi, the former commander of the land forces, citing a need for a new approach.

Some Ukrainian soldiers blame Syrskyi for the losses at Bakhmut and expressed concern that more lives may be lost in Avdiivka before the Russian takeover that most believe is inevitable.

“Most likely we will lose it and the only other option is we spend tens of thousands of Ukrainian lives to hold it a bit longer, and then who will replace those people,” said one Ukrainian army officer, who asked not to be identified.


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.