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April 22, 2024

Ukrainian forces withdrawing from Avdiivka

Ukrainian forces withdrawing from Avdiivka

Russia on Saturday said it has captured the key Ukrainian city of Avdiivka, both symbolic and crucial to Ukraine’s defense in its ongoing war with the invading superpower.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense said in an English-language statement on Telegram that its leader, Sergei Shoigu, informed President Vladimir Putin that Feb. 17 marks the official date of Russia’s takeover of the city.

“The town, which represented a powerful defensive stronghold of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, has been taken under control by the Tsentr Group of Forces under the command of Colonel General Andrey Mordvichev,” it said.

The takeover includes about 12 square miles of terrain, the ministry said. In a 24-hour span, Ukraine lost 1,500 troops in its unsuccessful defense, it said.

The Russian victory in the city means a front line in the war has moved away from the Russian-controlled regional capital of Donetsk, giving Russian fighters greater security from what the ministry described as “terrorist strikes” from Ukraine.

Ukraine’s armed forces commander said earlier Saturday that Ukrainian troops have indeed withdrawn from the battered town, expanding Moscow’s control of Ukraine’s east.

The retreat also delivers a victory for President Vladimir Putin as he is about to be re-elected.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the withdrawal was necessary to spare soldiers’ lives.

“We are just waiting for more weapons,” Zelenskyy said in Munich, Germany, during a high-profile security conference. “We don’t have long-range weapons, so our main weapon today is our soldiers, our people.”

He added that with more air defense systems and long-range weapons, his military could face Russia’s in a fairer fight.

Military observers and U.S. officials have warned that a delay in new military aid from Washington, which has been stalled in Congress amid Republican opposition since the fall, was endangering Kyiv’s positions in Avdiivka and elsewhere along the 600-mile front line.

Zelenskyy declined to weigh in on the funding fight in the U.S. Congress.

Avdiivka marks the most high-profile retreat for Kyiv’s forces since Russia’s capture of another eastern city, Bakhmut, just 30 miles north of Avdiivka, last May. Although the town doesn’t hold great strategic significance, its seizure could add to the mounting pressure on Kyiv to hold its positions amid faltering Western aid and critical ammunition shortages.

Zelenskyy has said that with more air defense systems and long-range weapons, his military could face Russia’s in a fairer fight.Vlada Liberova / Libkos / Getty Images

It’s also the first major retreat under Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, who was named Ukraine’s new commander in chief a week ago. Syrskyi was brought in by Zelenskyy in hopes of a “different approach” and to turn things around on the battlefield.

“We are taking measures to stabilize the situation and maintain our positions,” Syrskyi said in announcing the withdrawal. He also vowed to return.

Ahead of the retreat, Syrskyi’s forces tried to dig in. The country’s military said it was bringing in battle-hardened reinforcements and more ammunition.

But an artillery sergeant fighting in the town for several months told NBC News that his unit had faced severe restrictions on how many rounds it could fire daily amid shortages compounded by dwindling human resources.

Ukrainian medical personnel treat wounded soldiers near Avdiivka, which is less than 10 miles north of the Russian-controlled regional capital of Donetsk.Elif Kizil / Anadolu via Getty Images

Battles for Avdiivka, which is less than 10 miles north of Donetsk, have been going on since the beginning of the war but intensified in October after Ukraine’s much-vaunted counteroffensive fizzled out.

Earlier this month, Ukraine’s command and the town’s military administration began reporting that Russians were pushing in from all directions and that the situation was becoming critical.

The nearly ruined town had a prewar population of 32,000. Its seizure by Russian forces would expand Moscow’s control of the eastern Donetsk region, but Ukraine is still far from losing the remainder of the region, at least for now.

Yuliya Talmazan

Yuliya Talmazan is a reporter for NBC News Digital, based in London.

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