Ukraine Withdraws From Eastern City Avdiivka To ‘Save Our People’

Russian forces stepped up efforts to capture the eastern city since October

Ukraine withdrew troops from the besieged eastern stronghold of Avdiivka to save the lives of its soldiers, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday, handing Russia its biggest victory in the war since May.

The pullback comes after Russian forces stepped up efforts to capture the eastern industrial hub in October, leading to mass casualties and destruction.

Facing ammunition shortages and outnumbered on the battlefield, Ukrainian forces announced they had withdrawn in the early hours of Saturday.

“The ability to save our people is the most important task for us,” Zelensky told a security conference in Munich, explaining the move.

“In order to avoid being surrounded, it was decided to withdraw to other lines. This does not mean that people retreated some kilometres and Russia captured something, it did not capture anything,” he said.

The fall of Avdiivka comes as Zelensky tries to rally allies in Munich for more aid.

Zelensky echoed earlier statements from the newly-appointed commander-in-chief Oleksandr Syrsky, who said he “decided to withdraw our units from the city and switch to defence on more favourable lines.”

“The life of military personnel is the highest value,” Syrsky said.

A number of Ukrainian servicemen were captured in the operation, several military officials said.

It was Syrsky’s first major decision since his appointment, at a time when Ukraine faces mounting pressures in the east because of ammunition shortages, with a $60 billion US military aid package held up in Washington.

A Ukrainian serviceman deployed on the eastern frontline told AFP that withdrawing was “the right decision given the lack of weapons and artillery shells, because if we don’t save the lives of the soldiers, we will soon have no one left to fight”.

“But if we keep losing ground, we will lose this war,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Avdiivka lies in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, which the Kremlin has claimed to be part of Russia since a 2022 annexation that remains unrecognised by nearly all United Nations members.

It briefly fell in July 2014 into the hands of pro-Russian separatists, before returning to Ukrainian control and remaining so despite the invasion and its proximity to the separatist capital Donetsk.

But the Ukrainian army, struggling to replenish its ranks and running low on ammunition, has faced renewed Russian assaults including in the eastern Donetsk region.

“I’m used to the sound of shelling. It’s been ongoing since 2014 already, but now much more tense — and louder,” said Viktor, in the village of Progres, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) west of Avdiivka.

The pensioner was cycling to the last open shop to buy bottles of fresh water before it closed for good after being struck by shelling early in the morning.

Punctuated by rounds of incoming and outgoing artillery fire, Viktor said his neighbour had moved away.

“But I’ve got nowhere to go,” he said.

AFP journalists nearby saw Ukrainian troops building new defensive lines with shovels and construction equipment.

Two separate groups of servicemen, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a column of armoured vehicles had left from Avdiivka around sunrise.

The city has important symbolic value, and Moscow hopes its capture will make Ukraine’s bombing of Donetsk more difficult, but analysts debate its strategic value.

“I doubt that Russia, after such staggering losses, has the capacity to turn limited local successes in a major breakthrough,” said Mykola Bielieskov, from the Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies.

The battle for Avdiivka, less than 10 kilometres (six miles) north of the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk, has been one of the bloodiest of the nearly two-year war.

Many compare it to the battle for Bakhmut, in which tens of thousands of soldiers were killed.

Bielieskov said holding Avdiivka would grant no advantage to Russia, whose positions in the city of Donetsk “even with the ruins of Avdiivka, wouldn’t be fully secured.”

Avdiivka had around 30,000 inhabitants before the Russian invasion. Most of the city has been since destroyed and less than 1,000 residents remain, according to local authorities.

“I am surprised that Avdiivka has held out for two years,” Oleksii, a 50-year-old sergeant in the Donetsk region, told AFP on the phone.

Russian forces “destroy everything, level it to the ground,” Oleksii said.

“You can’t hold the city because it no longer exists,” he said.

Avdiivka had been a Ukrainian stronghold
The eastern Donbas region has born the brunt of the fighting
The eastern Donbas region has born the brunt of the fighting
It is Syrsky's first major decision since his appointment
It is Syrsky’s first major decision since his appointment

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