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Russia claims ‘complete’ control of Avdiivka after Ukraine withdraws

By David L. Stern and Andrew Jeong Washington Post

KYIV – Ukrainian forces withdrew from the strategic city of Avdiivka in the eastern part of the country Saturday, paving the way for advancing Russian forces to clinch their most significant battlefield victory in nearly a year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the military on the “important victory,” state media reported. A statement from the Defense Ministry said Russian forces took “complete” control of the city in the Donetsk region but were still clearing some areas, including a coke and chemical plant Ukrainian troops used as a final stronghold in the battle.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, acknowledged earlier on Saturday that a pullback from Avdiivka was underway. Ukrainian forces are struggling with shortages of ammunition, weapons and soldiers as a roughly $60 billion aid package proposed by President Biden remains blocked by Republicans in Congress.

Ukrainian commanders sought to put a positive spin on the pullback, but it amounted to a stinging defeat. Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s recently appointed military chief, said the withdrawal aimed to avoid Russian encirclement and reduce casualties.

“I decided to withdraw our units from the city and move to defense on more favorable lines,” Syrsky said. “Our soldiers performed their military duty with dignity, did everything possible to destroy the best Russian military units, inflicted significant losses on the enemy.”

Ukrainian military officials reported that Russia had launched large-scale attacks in the Avdiivka area on Friday. Some Ukrainian troops were captured while trying to move to new positions, they said, adding that it was difficult to evacuate the wounded amid continued Russian shelling.

Ukrainian forces were greatly outgunned, Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavsky, commander of Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk region, said in a statement announcing the withdrawal.

“In the situation where the enemy is advancing on the corpses of his own soldiers with a 10-to-1 shell advantage, under constant bombardment, this is the only correct solution,” Tarnavsky said.

Capturing the city would mark the most significant battlefield victory for Russia since Kyiv’s counteroffensive last year ended in heavy casualties and a failure to retake large swaths of occupied territory defended by well-fortified Russian positions. The withdrawal will also boost Russian morale ahead of the second anniversary of the war on Feb. 24 and reinforce concerns about Ukraine’s dwindling military supplies and personnel.

Avdiivka, located 15 miles from the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk, has strategic and logistical value for Moscow and has been the target of its attacks since 2014. The city has become the latest symbol of the grinding war of attrition unfolding in Ukraine, as Ukrainian forces there in recent months weathered Russian missiles and ground assaults involving infantry, armored vehicles and air support.

Zelenskyy named Syrsky as Ukraine’s top commander on Feb. 8, replacing Gen. Valery Zaluzhny. In his previous position as commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Syrsky was criticized for possibly waiting too long to withdraw from Bakhmut, another eastern city, when it was under siege last year.

Bakhmut became a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity, as Ukrainian defenders held on for months and inflicted heavy losses on Russian forces before retreating and surrendering the city in May. However, Ukrainian forces also suffered heavy casualties – raising questions of whether the losses were justified, given Bakhmut’s relatively low strategic value.

By contrast, the decision to pull back from Avdiivka, a more strategically valuable location, was made just days after Syrsky took overall command – a clear reflection of Ukraine’s difficulties on the front line and its need to preserve ammunition and soldiers.

“The big questions now are how costly the withdrawal will be, and the quality of the next defensive line,” Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank in Philadelphia, said on social media.

Ukrainian forces appear to be conducting “a relatively controlled withdrawal” while Russian troops attempt to complicate or prevent it, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in a report published Friday.

Ukrainian military leaders praised troops for their efforts to hold Avdiivka and the coke plant, once a main employer in the region.

“I thank the fighters for the worthy battle they gave to the enemy in Avdiivka, in the conditions of the total numerical superiority of the Russians in manpower, equipment, and ammunition,” Andriy Biletsky, commander of the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, wrote Saturday on Telegram, announcing their withdrawal from the coke factory.

Russian forces “dropped 60-80” aerial bombs “in one day” on the plant, Maksym Zhorin, a member of the brigade, wrote Friday on Telegram.

“There is a feeling that this is the largest number of aerial bombs on such a piece of land in the entire time of the existence of mankind,” he wrote. “These bombs completely destroy any position. All buildings and structures simply turn into a pit after the arrival of just one.”

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Jeong reported from Seoul. Emily Rauhala in Munich, and Serhiy Morgunov and Serhiy Korolchuk contributed to this report.