Fall of Avdiivka: What to Know After Russia Captures Ukrainian Stronghold

Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from the eastern frontline city of Avdiivka, Ukraine’s top general, Oleksandr Syrsky, said on Saturday, allowing Moscow to score its biggest battlefield victory in months and dealing a blow to Ukraine’s stretched and outgunned forces as the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion approaches.

General Syrsky said he had ordered the retreat “in order to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of servicemen.” Avdiivka — once a city of 30,000 people before being reduced to ruins — sat in a pocket surrounded by Russian troops to the north, east and south. In recent months, they had been slowly advancing through relentless assaults, in a pincer movement.

“The ability to save our people is the most important task for us,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said Saturday at the Munich Security Conference. He added that Ukrainian troops had been hindered by a shortage of ammunition because of declining Western military assistance.

Here’s what to know about the fall of Avdiivka.

Avdiivka is a suburb of the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk, which has been on a front line since a Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The city held through eight years of often low-intensity war in the east and then nearly two years of full-scale assaults by the Russian Army after it launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The big offensive against Avdiivka began in October, with Russia launching several battalions against the edges of the city and shelling the area day and night. After being held on the outskirts of the city for months, Russian troops broke into residential areas in late January, bypassing Ukrainian fortifications by crawling through tunnels under the streets of the southeastern part of Avdiivka. Earlier this week, they cut off Ukraine’s main supply road into the city and then advanced near a coke plant that had been a bastion of resistance.

In keeping with Russia’s scorched-earth tactics in Ukraine, Moscow bombed the place to ruins and then sent in wave after wave of troops in assaults that left thousands of dead and wounded, according to military experts. Mr. Zelensky said on Saturday that for every Ukrainian soldier killed, seven Russian soldiers had been killed. His assertion could not be confirmed independently.

“I would say the motto of their attacks is, ‘We have more people than you have ammunition, bullets, rockets and shells,’” Tykhyi, a major fighting with the Ukrainian National Guard in Avdiivka, said in audio messages in late December, using only his call sign to identify himself, as per Ukrainian military rules.

Russia’s capture of Avdiivka is a strategic and symbolic blow to Ukraine’s military. Avdiivka was a stronghold of Ukrainian defenses in the Donetsk region, protecting several key Ukrainian military positions farther west and putting the nearby Russian-controlled city of Donetsk under constant threat.

“Taking control of Avdiivka might create an opening for Russia,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a military analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Ukraine. He said that Russian forces could next turn their sights to strategic cities like Pokrovsk, about 30 miles to the northwest, a logistical hub for the Ukrainian Army.

That would also bring them a small step closer to their goal of capturing the entire Donetsk region, which the Kremlin claims to have annexed but does not fully control.

The capture of Avdiivka, Russia’s largest territorial advance since taking Bakhmut last May, could also become a bragging point for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as he seeks a fifth term in an election scheduled for March 17. Already, some Kremlin propagandists have praised that military victory as the most important of the entire war.

Avdiivka had been a symbol of Ukrainian resistance since Russian-backed forces first tried to seize it in 2014, and its fall could affect the morale of Ukrainian troops. Soldiers fighting there have spoken of exhaustion and, at times, incomprehension of Ukraine’s military strategy as the full-scale war stretches on.

The fall of Avdiivka is the latest sign that Russian forces have firmly seized the initiative on the battlefield after Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive fell short of most of its goals. Russia’s military already took control of Marinka, a small town southwest of Avdiivka, around the start of this year as part of a series of localized assaults it launched last fall in eastern Ukraine.

Fierce fighting has also taken place near Kupiansk, a small city about 25 miles from the border with Russia that was liberated from occupation last year. Months of heavy bombardment have devastated the place, forcing most people to evacuate.

The Russians have also retaken small stretches of land in the south that were hard won by Ukrainian troops at the peak of their summer counteroffensive, making progress around the village of Robotyne. Dmytro Lykhovii, a Ukrainian Army spokesman, said on Thursday that Russia now had more troops there than around Avdiivka, suggesting that Robotyne was a key target for the Kremlin.

It remains to be seen to what extent the Ukrainian Army, now undermanned and starved of ammunition, will be able to hold these towns in the face of unending Russian assaults, or whether it must fall back to more defensible positions.

In Bakhmut, Ukrainian troops held out in the town for months, trying to inflict as many casualties on Russian forces as possible but suffering heavy losses in the meantime. Many military experts and Ukrainian soldiers said the move had drained Ukraine of vital resources ahead of its own counteroffensive.

General Syrsky, who commanded Ukraine’s ground forces at the time, was widely criticized for this decision. The rapid withdrawal from Avdiivka stands in stark contrast to his strategy in Bakhmut. “The life of military personnel is the highest value,” he said on Saturday.