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Ukraine withdraws from Avdiivka, in Russia's first major battlefield win in months

In this file photo, a Ukrainian soldier sits in his position in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Aug. 18, 2023.
AP Photo/Libkos
In this file photo, a Ukrainian soldier sits in his position in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Aug. 18, 2023.

Updated February 17, 2024 at 7:17 PM ET

DNIPRO, Ukraine — Russian troops have occupied the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka after a months-long assault that wore down Ukrainian troops running low on ammunition.

It's Russia's first major battlefield win since last May and a boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of next month's presidential elections.

Ukraine's newly appointed military chief, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, said in a statement that he decided to withdraw units from the embattled town to "avoid encirclement [by Russian troops] and preserve the lives and health of servicemen."

President Biden acknowledged the significance of Avdiivka's fall in a call to Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday. A readout of the call from the White House said Ukraine's military "was forced to withdraw from Avdiivka after Ukrainian soldiers had to ration ammunition due to dwindling supplies as a result of congressional inaction, resulting in Russia's first notable gains in months."

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, Zelenskyy said the withdrawal was "a correct decision" and that Russia achieved very little other than depleting its army by losing "thousands of soldiers." But he told Ukraine's Western allies that holding up military aid, especially artillery and "long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war."

"We're just waiting for weapons that we're short of," he said. "Our weapon today is our soldiers, our people."

Avdiivka, known for its large plant that produces a coal-based fuel called coke, has been resisting Russian assaults since 2014, when Russian proxies occupied parts of the eastern Donetsk region. Last October, Russian troops turned up their attacks following the takeover of another city in the region, Bakhmut. The Russian assault drove out most of Avdiivka's 30,000 residents. A few hundred remain, hiding in basements.

Some Ukrainian soldiers fighting in Avdiivka took to social media to describe the hellish last days of battle. "The road to Avdiivka is covered with our corpses," Viktor Biliak, who serves in the 110 Separate Mechanized Brigade, wrote on Instagram a couple of days before the withdrawal. The brigade defended the city for two years.

Another unit, the Third Separate Assault Brigade, joined more recently. Maksym Zhorin, a major and deputy commander in that brigade, posted a video with an injured fellow soldier and described troops who ranged in age from 18 to "old men" in their 40s fighting on the frontline. "Real life is here on the frontline, not in Poland picking strawberries," he said, referring to men who had left Ukraine to avoid being conscripted.

Oleksandra Ustinova, a Ukrainian lawmaker who leads a parliamentary committee on international aid and arms procurement, told NPR that Ukraine is struggling to defend itself from Russia's guided aviation bombs, which can "eliminate cities." She criticized the U.S. House, saying representatives were "playing internal politics" with an Ukraine aid package that the Senate has already approved.

"Our soldiers and civilians are dying as there is no munition left to protect them," she said.

NPR producer Hanna Palamarenko contributed reporting from Kyiv.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is an international correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she leads NPR's bureau and coverage of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.