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Another Ukraine City falls to the Russians. I'm shocked!

We've got Vlad right where we want him.

Too Little Ammunition, Too Many Russians: The Harrowing Retreat from Avdiivka

The fall of the city, when it came in mid-February, was brutal and fast. Soldiers fought for their lives. Many did not make it.

By Carlotta Gall and Oleksandr ChubkoPhotographs by Lynsey Addario, NY Times

Reporting from Donetsk region and Kyiv in Ukraine.

March 6, 2024

The fighting had become increasingly ferocious last month at the Zenith air-defense base a mile south of Avdiivka, where for years a company of Ukrainian soldiers had defended the southern approaches to the city.

Russian troops had moved up on their flanks and were pounding them from all sides with tank, artillery and mortar fire, smashing their defenses and wounding men.

“Every day we tried to repel enemy attacks,” said Senior Soldier Viktor Biliak, a 26-year-old with the 110th Mechanized Brigade, who had spent 620 days defending the base. “All the fortifications were being destroyed and there was no possibility to build new ones.”

Soldiers interviewed after their retreat described an uneven four-month battle under a relentless onslaught of Russian artillery and glide bombs that destroyed buildings and broke through deep concrete bunkers. As the Ukrainians took casualties they became increasingly outnumbered by the Russians assaulting the city, who broke through at two strategic points and quickly seeded areas with fighters.

The fall of the city, when it came in mid-February, was brutal and fast, occurring in less than a week.

Viktor Biliak was wounded by shrapnel while fighting in Avdiivka.

For two weeks, as soldiers warned they could be overrun by Russian forces, commanders told them to keep holding their positions, a delay that cost lives, Soldier Biliak said. Some units were crumbling under Russian fire. One company pulled back to the Zenith base after losing its positions.

The final retreat was dangerous and costly, as Russian artillery fired constantly on the roads leading out of the city. Many soldiers died along the way.

The biggest losses came in the center of the city from the heavy Russian aerial bombardment, said Shaman, 36, a commander of the 25th Separate Battalion, who was monitoring his units from a command post. Some brigades lost contact with units under the bombing. A group retreated to a house and were killed when a glide bomb hit it, said Shaman, who like others interviewed identified himself by his call sign for security reasons.

The capture of Avdiivka was the Russians’ most significant gain in nine months and a blow to Ukrainian forces struggling with shortages of ammunition and men.

As they regrouped in the villages and training grounds after their retreat from Avdiivka, Ukrainian soldiers expressed no doubt why they lost the city, a holdout on the eastern front that had been a target of Russian assaults for 10 years.

“It was the lack of ammunition,” said Shaman, whose battalion was deployed to Avdiivka in October when the Russians began a new offensive against the city. “No question.”

With sufficient artillery Ukrainian troops could have held the city, he said, by hitting Russian supplies and logistics behind lines, and preventing reinforcements from coming in.

One soldier, Roman, 48, from the Territorial Defense Force, spent three months in Avdiivka with his unit last spring. “It was difficult,” he said. “We did not have support.” The unit was sent in February to help defend the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant, which served as a headquarters for the Ukrainian military on the edge of the city.

An aerial view shows the bombed-out shell of a sprawling chemical plant, amid a desolate landscape pocked with craters from explosions.

The Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant originally served as the Ukrainian military’s headquarters in the city, but was captured by Russian troops last month.Credit...Reuters

He choked up when describing the casualties his unit had suffered in the war. “We had 20 in the unit, eight remain,” he said. Of his company of 86, only 28 were left, he added. There is no official count for Ukrainian casualties in Avdiivka, but commanders said hundreds were likely lost in the city’s fall.

Ukrainian officials say Russian casualties were far higher, as their repeated assaults were met with Ukrainian artillery fire and drone strikes, leaving fields and trenches strewn with bodies and broken armor.

But the Russian troops kept coming and succeeded in reaching the edges of the city from the north and south. By the end of January they were poised to penetrate the residential areas. They broke in at two important places, from the northeast across the railway line, and in the south by tunneling through sewers to attack Ukrainian positions from the rear.

“That was an alarm bell,” said Soldier Biliak.

Soldiers at the Zenith base began urging their commanders to request to withdraw, he said. They were told to wait.

Inside the city Russia was hurling up to 80 to 100 glide bombs, known by the acronym KAB, every day. A single warplane would drop four half-ton bombs, which exploded in quick succession, gouging out massive craters in the earth or flattening multistory concrete buildings.

“When a KAB falls, you wonder whether the concrete will fall on you and they will not be able to dig you out,” a soldier, whose call sign is Patrick, 42, said. “We saw that happen.”

Soldiers who recently pulled out of Avdiivka resting in a village west of the city.

Russian drones were constantly hovering above the roads. A medic, call sign Malyi, 23, was racing out of the city with a wounded soldier one day with a Russian drone pursuing him. The drone miraculously hit the spare tire on the back of the car and bounced off. Malyi and his wounded passenger survived.

“It’s life or death out there,” he said.

By early February Russian troops were close to encircling the city and cutting the last two roads out. On Feb. 9, Dmytro, 36, the commander of Stugna, a military intelligence unit, was ordered to Avdiivka to help push back the Russian infiltration and secure the main road into the city for the withdrawal of troops.

The unit joined the 3rd Assault Brigade which had arrived a week earlier but they found the Russian troops had spread through the neighborhood so fast that their plans were obsolete before they could use them. “The situation was changing by the hour,” Dmytro said.

Within days of Stugna’s arrival, on Feb. 13, Russian troops seized the main road into the city and began working down a tree line toward a second road to the south, which was the last route out. Already Ukrainian soldiers were driving through heavy fire to bring in supplies and evacuate the wounded, but thousands of them would be stranded if the Russians seized control of that road.

Nearly surrounded, the men at the Zenith air base finally received orders to evacuate. A first group did not make it, hit by artillery fire. The main group set out on the night of Feb. 15, walking in small groups across the fields in the dark. Soldier Biliak led one group but he said they came under shell fire and he never saw the others again.

By dawn several dozen men regrouped by some cottages on the edge of the city. It was foggy, which meant there were no drones flying, and although they had no orders to do so, they continued falling back toward the only road out.

The Russians made six attempts to seize control of the tree line, Dmytro said, and his units repelled them each time with artillery. But in the end the Ukrainians could not staunch the flow of Russians.

As they regrouped after their retreat from Avdiivka, soldiers expressed no doubt why they lost the city: a lack of ammunition.

He could send four to eight men as reinforcements, but he said the Russians fielded groups of 30 people at a time. “To stop a group 30 people, you would need 50 shells,” he said. “You need five shells to correct the fire and we can only use 10 shells.”

Nevertheless Stugna held the road at two junctions and Ukrainian troops steadily withdrew from the city, on vehicles and on foot, mostly under cover of darkness. Soldier Biliak caught a ride with other wounded in an armored vehicle in the early hours on Feb 16. The last units from Zenith came out the next day.

But they left six men behind — five wounded men and a helper — who were captured and killed by Russian troops, Ukrainian officials later said. “There were six. Our guys who remained. We should remember there were three times more lying dead and on the road,” Soldier Biliak said.

The road led through the fields and was under constant fire. “You could still dash through with vehicles, but most came out on foot,” Dmytro said.

At the chemical plant the 25th Separate Battalion were the last leave, just before dusk on Feb. 17, heading north on foot.

“There were only 21 of us left to guard the whole plant,” said Staf, 36, a tall soldier with an ill-fitting helmet. “They were coming from three sides,” he said. “They were within firearms’ range,” another soldier said. “They were close enough to throw a grenade.”

The next day, on their seventh attempt, the Russians took the tree line and cut the lower road, Dmytro said. “A day earlier,” he said, “it would have been chaos.”

Ukrainian soldiers prepare to move out from a village west of Avdiivka.

Marc Santora contributed reporting from Donetsk region and Kyiv, Ukraine.

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