Ukraine withdraws from Avdiivka amid ammo shortage


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is on a western Europe tour calling for more aid.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is on a western Europe tour calling for more aid.

Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from the devastated eastern town of Avdiivka, Kyiv’s military chief has said, paving the way for Russia’s biggest advance since it captured the city of Bakhmut last May.

The pullback, announced as Ukraine faces acute shortages of ammunition with US military aid delayed for months in Congress, aimed to save troops from being fully surrounded by Russian forces after months of fierce fighting, Kyiv said.

Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who took command of the Ukrainian military in a major shake-up last week, said Ukrainian forces had moved back to more secure positions outside the town, which had a pre-war population of 32,000.

“I decided to withdraw our units from the town and move to defence from more favourable lines in order to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of servicemen,” he was quoted as saying in an armed forces statement.

Nearly two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion, the withdrawal is the clearest sign yet of how the tide of the war has turned in Moscow’s favour after a Ukrainian counteroffensive failed to break through Russian lines last year.

The withdrawal was conducted according to plan, but some Ukrainian soldiers were captured by Russia in the final stages, Brigadier-General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi said, without specifying how many.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy praised his troops for “exhausting” Russian forces in Avdiivka and said he agreed with the decision to withdraw in order to save lives.

In a speech at the Munich Security Conference, Zelenskiy implored his Western allies to step up supplies of military aid and suggested the withdrawal was partly caused by a lack of weapons.

“Now, (the military) will replenish, they will wait for the relevant weapons, of which there simply weren’t enough, simply aren’t enough,” he said. “Russia has long-range weapons, while we simply don’t have enough.”

US President Joe Biden warned earlier this week that Avdiivka could fall to Russian forces because of ammunition shortages following months of Republican congressional opposition to a new US military aid package for Kyiv.

Capturing the town will hand President Vladimir Putin a battlefield victory as he seeks re-election next month, and is a another small step towards Russia’s aim of securing full control of the two provinces that make up the industrial Donbas region.

Avdiivka has borne the brunt of mounting offensive pressure by Russian forces in the east since October last year, as wavering Western military aid has compounded the fatigue of troops fighting since early 2022.

“We are taking measures to stabilise the situation and maintain our positions,” Syrskyi said.

The Russian defence ministry did not single out the battle for Avdiivka in a statement on Saturday, but said that Russian forces had “improved their positions” on the Donetsk front.

Tarnavskyi, the commander who has been overseeing the fighting in Avdiivka for months, said Ukrainian troops had fallen back to a second line of defence.

“At the final stage of the operation, under the pressure of the overwhelming enemy forces, a certain number of Ukrainian servicemen were captured,” Tarnavskyi wrote on Telegram.

Ukraine’s positions had looked fraught for weeks.

The Third Assault Brigade, a prominent infantry assault unit, was rushed to the town to help reinforce troops this week as other Ukrainian forces pulled back from its southeast.

The unit described the fighting as “hell” and said on social media that Ukrainian defenders had been outnumbered by Russian forces by a ratio of about six to 100 in some places.

Russia has not given details of its losses in the brutal fighting for the town, but Ukrainian officials and Western military analysts say its advances have come at a staggering cost in terms of personnel and armoured vehicles.

The town, where fewer than 1000 residents are left, lies just north of Russian-held Donetsk, which Ukraine lost control of in 2014 when Moscow’s proxies began an uprising. Avdiivka has a vast coking plant that has stopped working during the war.