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Russia captures Avdiivka but says Ukrainian soldiers holed up at coke plant

In Europe, World
February 18, 2024

Russia claimed the capture of the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka after Ukraine withdrew, but Moscow said that some Ukrainian troops were still holed up in a vast Soviet-era coke plant after one of the most intense battles of the war. 

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The fall of Avdiivka is Russia’s biggest gain since capturing the city of Bakhmut in May 2023, and comes almost two years to the day since President Vladimir Putin triggered a full-scale war by ordering the invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine said it had withdrawn its soldiers to save troops from being fully surrounded after months of fierce fighting. Putin hailed the fall of Avdiivka as an important victory and congratulated Russian troops.

After the failure of Ukraine to pierce Russian lines last year, Moscow has been trying to grind down Ukrainian forces just as Kyiv ponders a major new mobilisation and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appoints a new commander to run the war.

“The head of state congratulated Russian soldiers on this success, an important victory,” the Kremlin said in a statement on its website.

But Russia said some Ukrainian forces were still holed up at the Soviet-era coke plant, once one of Europe’s biggest, in Avdiivka, which is key to Russia’s aim of securing full control of the industrial Donbas region.

“Measures are being taken to completely clear the town of militants and to block Ukrainian units that have left the town and are entrenched at the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant,” Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.

There was no public comment yet by Ukrainian authorities on this.

The Russian defence ministry said Russia had taken about 32 square kilometres (12 square miles) of territory in the advance amid heavy losses for Ukraine. It gave no figures for Russian losses, which Ukraine says are huge.

Putin sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022, triggering the full-scale war after eight year of conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian forces on the one side and pro-Russian Ukrainians and Russian proxies on the other.

Avdiivka, which had a pre-war population of around 32,000 and is called Avdeyevka by Russians, was briefly taken in 2014 by Moscow-backed separatists who seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine but was recaptured by Ukrainian troops who built extensive fortifications.

Weapons Shortages 

U.S. President Joe Biden had warned that Avdiivka could fall to Russian forces because of ammunition shortages following months of Republican congressional opposition to a new U.S. military aid package for Kyiv.

A White House statement said Biden called Zelenskiy on Saturday to underscore the U.S. commitment to continue supporting Ukraine and reiterated the need for Congress to urgently pass the package.

The White House said the withdrawal had been forced upon Ukraine “by dwindling supplies as a result of congressional inaction,” that had forced Ukrainian soldiers to ration ammunition and resulted in “Russia’s first notable gains in months”.

Zelenskiy urged allies at a global security conference in Munich on Saturday to plug an “artificial” shortage of weapons and said stalled U.S. aid was imperative. He praised his troops for “exhausting” Russian forces in Avdiivka, and suggested the withdrawal was partly caused by a lack of weapons.

“Now, (the military) will replenish, they will wait for the relevant weapons, of which there simply weren’t enough, simply aren’t enough,” he said. “Russia has long-range weapons, while we simply don’t have enough.”In a post on X, Zelenskiy expressed hope that the U.S.Congress would make a “wise decision”.

Boost for Russia 

It is also seen as another step towards securing Moscow’s hold on the regional centre of Donetsk, about 20 km (12 miles) to the east, held by Russian and pro-Russian forces since 2014.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine have given details of their losses in the war or in the intense battle for Avdiivka. Western intelligence assessments say hundreds of thousands of men on both sides have been killed or wounded in the war.

Putin congratulated the Russian commander in charge of the assault on Avdiivka, Colonel-General Andrei Mordvichev.

“Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in fulfilling the tasks of the special military operation!” Putin said in a telegram.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Rustem Umerov said Avdiivka showed the need for modern air defence systems to counter guided bombs and long-range weapons to destroy enemy formations. He said artillery shells were also needed.

Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who took command of the Ukrainian military in a major shake-up last week, said Ukrainian forces had moved back to more secure positions outside the town “to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of servicemen”.

Ukraine’s 3rd Assault Brigade, which officials say was deployed to Avdiivka this week, said on Telegram that it had pulled back to prepared positions on the outskirts of Avdiivka and evened out the front line.

“At this time, the Russians are not slowing down their assault. We keep holding the line in the area of Avdiivka,” it said.

Separately, Ukrainian forces repelled a Russian offensive on the southern front in the area of Zaporizhzhia, the Ukrainian military said on Sunday.

There was no comment on that yet from the Russian side.

(Reuters) 

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