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World

Ukraine withdraws from Avdiivka, Putin hails 'important victory'

Published February 18, 2024
An injured Ukrainian soldier is helped in a location given as Avdiivka, Donetsk Region, Ukraine, in this screen grab taken from a video released. Photo: Reuters
An injured Ukrainian soldier is helped in a location given as Avdiivka, Donetsk Region, Ukraine, in this screen grab taken from a video released. Photo: Reuters

KYIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin called the capture of Avdiivka "an important victory" after Ukraine's military chief said on Saturday that his troops withdrew from the devastated town in the east of the country after months of intense combat.

Although the Russian defence ministry said that Ukrainian units were still entrenched at the town's coke plant, the advance on Avdiivka was Moscow's biggest advance since it took the city of Bakhmut last May.

It came days before the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion on Ukraine and amidst Ukraine's acute shortages of ammunition with fresh U.S. military aid delayed for months in Congress.

It is also the clearest sign yet of how the tide of the war has turned in Moscow's favour after a Ukrainian counteroffensive failed to break through Russian lines last year.

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

U.S. President Joe Biden warned this week 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 on Saturday said Biden called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday to underscore the U.S. commitment to continue supporting Ukraine and reiterated the need for Congress to urgently pass the package to resupply Ukrainian forces.

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."

Capturing the city is likely to provide a morale boost for Russia ahead of Putin's bid for re-election next month, which he is almost certain to win.

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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.

Russia has not given details of its losses in the brutal fighting, but Ukrainian officials and Western military analysts say its advances have come at a staggering cost in terms of personnel and armoured vehicles.

Putin's telegram paid tribute to soldiers who had died in the campaign, saying: "Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in fulfilling the tasks of the special military operation!"

Also, it seems that Russia still does not have a full control of the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical plant on the northwestern edge of the town.

Ukraine's largest coke producer before the war and now in ruins, it has been the Avdiivka's last stronghold.

"Measures are being taken to completely clear the city of militants and to block Ukrainian units that have left the city and are entrenched at the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant," Russian Defence Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a video published on the ministry's Telegram channel.

Zelenskiy implores west for supplies

Addressing the Munich Security Conference, Zelenskiy who praised his troops for "exhausting" Russian forces in Avdiivka, implored his Western allies to step up supplies of military aid 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."

"We discussed the current frontline situation," he said of his call with Biden. "I am grateful to have President Biden's full support."

Zelenskiy said he had met in Munich with a delegation of Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"We hope that the House of Representatives will make decisions to ensure further necessary U.S. support for Ukraine," he said. "We must win this war."

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, which had a pre-war population of 32,000, "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.

Avdiivka has borne the brunt of mounting offensive pressure by Russia in the east since October, as wavering Western military aid has compounded the fatigue of Ukrainian troops fighting since early 2022.

Ukraine's positions had looked fraught for weeks.

The Third Assault Brigade, a prominent infantry assault unit, was rushed to the town to help reinforce troops this week as other Ukrainian forces pulled back from its southeast.

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