Ukraine pulls troops from Avdiivka as Russian pressure mounts; air force downs three jets

Amidst escalating tensions, Ukraine is facing a critical moment as it withdraws troops from the besieged city of Avdiivka under intense Russian pressure, marking a significant victory for advancing Russian forces. President Zelenskiy emphasised the decision as a necessary step to preserve Ukrainian lives, echoing the urgent need for increased support from Western allies. However, with dwindling military supplies and reports of Russian advancements, Ukraine’s struggle against entrenched forces grows more precarious by the day. As the conflict enters its third year, the loss of Avdiivka underscores the mounting challenges and the urgent call for bolstered international assistance to combat Russian aggression.

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By Michael Heath, Aliaksandr Kudrytski and Volodymyr Verbianyi

Ukraine’s military said it’s withdrawing troops from the besieged eastern city of Avdiivka after a months-long fight, a move that gives fast-advancing Russian troops a major battlefield victory. 

“Based on the operational situation around Avdiivka, in order to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of servicemen, I decided to withdraw our units from the city,” Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a post on Facebook on Saturday. Troops will move over to defense “on more favorable lines,” he said.

The move comes as Ukraine is struggling with dwindling military supplies and as Russian forces press their offensive at a time of uncertainty over ongoing aid from the US. Even as Kyiv struggles in the ground war, its air force commander said Ukrainian units on Saturday shot down three Russian fighter jets.

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The pullout is a particularly symbolic loss after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy this month changed his military leadership and the mood in the country turns darker as Russia’s full-scale invasion is soon to enter a third year.

Speaking Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, Zelenskiy said that Kyiv’s forces were withdrawing from Avdiivka to save lives.

“It’s an absolutely logical, justified and professional decision to preserve the maximum number of Ukrainians,” Zelenskiy told the assembled security and foreign policy officials. 

In his comments, Zelenskiy reiterated that Ukrainian troops need more weapons for their bid to push back entrenched Russian forces. 

Avdiivka. Donetsk Oblast. Once a thriving city, today is devastated by Russian attacks that daily echo here 💔#RussiaIsATerroristState— MFA of Ukraine 🇺🇦 (@MFA_Ukraine) January 31, 2024

Units of Ukraine’s armed forces are in “flight” from Avdiivka, Ian Gagin, head adviser of the Russian-occupied Donetsk region, told state- run RIA Novosti.  

Russian sources have claimed that Ukrainian retreats are becoming increasingly chaotic and costly, the US-based military analysts at the Institute for the Study of War said in an update. 

“ISW has not observed any visual evidence of large or chaotic Ukrainian withdrawals, however, and the continued marginal rate of Russian advance in and around Avdiivka suggests that Ukrainian forces are currently conducting a relatively controlled withdrawal,” the think-tank said. 

Destroyed and damaged buildings in Avdiivka, Ukraine, in December. Photographer: Libkos/Getty Images

Avdiivka, an industrial satellite city located just north of Donetsk — the regional capital effectively under Kremlin control since 2014 — has been battered by bombardment and heavy fighting since the spring of 2022. 

The Kremlin has made taking the city a priority in a year when neither side is expected to make major strategic gains on the battlefield, according to Western officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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Moscow is now pressing its advantage as Ukraine’s military runs low on ammunition. The last time large swaths of territory changed hands in Ukraine was more than a year ago, when Kyiv’s troops liberated part of Kherson region in the south.

The loss of Avdiivka, once home to 30,000 people, adds to problems piling up for Ukraine’s political and military leadership as they race to secure vital support from Western partners, struggle with the lack lack of soldiers and face overall war fatigue.  

The US Senate this week approved $95 billion in assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan after months of delay, but the legislation still faces formidable obstacles in the House of Representatives. 

European officials, who recently approved a more than $50 billion aid package for Ukraine, have been increasingly concerned by the delays in Washington.

“Our soldiers performed their military duty with dignity, did everything possible to destroy the best Russian military units, inflicted significant losses on the enemy in terms of manpower and equipment,” Syrskyi said in his post.

Syrskyi, who only took the top job this month, had dispatched reinforcements to Avdiivka a few days ago. Ukraine’s supply issues mean it has now switched to defending areas under its control, following the failure to seize back territory with a counteroffensive last year.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will hit the two-year mark on Feb. 24. For the first time since Moscow’s troops attacked in 2022, more Ukrainians believe things are moving in the wrong direction, according to a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

The poll was carried out around the time Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the highly popular military chief resigned after months of tension with Zelenskiy. He was replaced by Syrskyi.

The share of people with a pessimistic outlook rose to 46% in early February from 32% in December, while those seeing things moving in the right direction dropped to 44% from more than half. 

Mykola Oleshchuk, commander of Ukraine’s air forces, said in social media posts that three Russian aircraft – two Su-34 fighter-bombers and one Su-35 fighter, were “destroyed” on Saturday “in the eastern direction.” There was no immediate comment from Russia’s defense ministry.  

Separately on Saturday, Russian air defense systems intercepted and destroyed 33 Ukrainian drones in the Belgorod, Voronezh, Kursk, Bryansk and Kaluga regions, according to Defense ministry statement in Telegram. No significant damage was reported.

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