Updated February 17th, 2024 at 19:10 IST

After Months of Intense Fighting, Ukraine Starts Withdrawing From Avdiivka

Looking to avoid a situation where its troops may be encircled by Russian forces, Kyiv has started withdrawing from the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka.

Reported by: Digital Desk
A Ukrainian position in the city of Avdiivka. | Image:AP
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KYIV: Following months of heavy fighting during which outnumbered defenders held out against waves of Russian attacks with steadily dwindling supplies, Ukraine's military chief, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi posted a short statement on Facebook on Saturday, stating that he had made the decision to start withdrawing troops from the frontline city of Avdiivka. The decision, as per Syrskyi's announcement, was made to avoid the possibility of encirclement and to preserve the lives of soldiers by moving Ukrainian defensive lines to more favourable positions.

The development is not altogether unexpected as there were increasingly visible indications that Russia was expending a considerable amount of resources to capture the city that lies mere kilometres from Russian-held Donetsk.

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On February 16, General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, commanding officer of Ukraine's southeastern sector defence, was quoted by local media sources as saying that Russia was throwing all of its nearby reserve forces into assaults on Avdiivika.

As per Tarnavskyi, on February 16 itself, Russia had launched no less than 20 airstrikes and over 150 artillery shells, with Ukrainian defenders reportedly fending off 30 Russian attacks.

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Ahead of the withdrawal order, Rodion Kudriashov, deputy commander of the 3rd Assault Brigade, was quoted by the Associated Press on Friday as saying that Ukrainian defenders were holding out against 15,000 Russian soldiers, a situation that he expected would get considerably more dire as Russian forces attempted to penetrate or even bypass defensive lines.

‘Artificial deficit’ of weapons blamed

The Ukrainian leadership and its allies have blamed the shortage of weapon systems, particularly artillery, for the situation in Avdiivka. While speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodmymr Zelenskyy said that while his nation had proven previously that Russia could be forced back, Kyiv's military capabilities were being held back by the “sufficiency and length of range of our strength.”

“Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” said Zelenskyy.

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During a press briefing on Thursday, White House National Security Spokesperson John Kirby had likewise conceded that Ukraine was losing ground in Avdiivika largely as a result of artillery ammunition shortages and the fact that Russia is “sending wave after wave of conscript forces to attack Ukrainian positions."

His comments made note of the American role in this shortage, stating that the US was not able to provide more artillery shells to Ukraine as Congress has yet to pass a supplemental bill for military aid.

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Strategic and symbolic value of development

During his aforementioned speech at the Munich Security Conference, Zelenskky asserted that the Avdiivika withdrawal order was a “correct decision” and that Russia would likely achieve little by taking the city, adding that Moscow has only succeded in depleting its army with the constant assaults.

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Ukrainian General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi had previously claimed that Russia had lost over 20,000 troops, 199 tanks and 481 armoured vehicles in assaults on the city in 2024 alone.

Though attacks on the city have intensified in recent months, Avdiivika has been on the frontline of Ukraine's conflict since 2014 as it is considered a gateway to the Russian-held city of Donetsk.

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Repeated Russian assaults on heavily fortified Ukrainian lines have previously yielded little for Russia up until recent months when its forces have successfully pushed into parts of the city.  

These assaults have resulted in large parts of the city being destroyed and its pre-war population of 31,000 being reduced to just around 1,000 people with many civilians having left the city in recent months.

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The city has been compared to Bakhmut in that it too, despite heavy losses on both sides for its possession, holds little strategic value. The Washington think tank, Institute for the Study of War, said that Russia's victory at Avdiivika would do little to change its 1,500 km-long frontline with Ukraine.

“The potential Russian capture of Avdiivka would not be operationally significant and would likely only offer the Kremlin immediate informational and political victories," said the ISW.

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The timing of this victory is particularly significant as the capture of the longstanding Ukrainian stronghold comes ahead of the second anniversary of the February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The general election in Russia is also just around the corner, with the current dispensation likely to make use of the battlefield victory in the March 2024 election.  

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With inputs from AP.

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Published February 17th, 2024 at 19:10 IST