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The Economist
The Economist
17 Feb 2024

NextImg:Avdiivka falls at last, as Russia presses along the front line
Europe | A two-year struggle ends

Avdiivka falls at last, as Russia presses along the front line

Ukraine’s new army chief stages a tactical retreat


RUSSIA HAS scored its first battlefield success for almost nine months. In the early hours of February 17th Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky, who was appointed as Ukraine’s commander-in-chief only on February 8th, announced that, in order to avoid their being encircled, he was pulling his troops out of the eastern town of Avdiivka and moving them to “more favourable lines”.

The fall of Avdiivka, with its giant coke plant, had been expected for weeks. Although the town is small, with a population of just 32,000 before the war and almost none now, and the withdrawal now makes military sense, it remains a blow for Ukraine’s armed forces and for its president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The loss of Avdiivka, well defended and strategically located, marks Ukraine’s worst defeat since the fall of Bakhmut last May.

Oleksandr Tarnavsky, the commander of troops in the Avdiivka sector, said: “In a situation where the enemy is advancing on the corpses of their own soldiers with a ten-to-one shell advantage, under constant bombardment, this [withdrawal] is the only correct solution.” Ukrainian troops are running out of artillery shells. The fresh supply of them from America is currently being blocked by Republicans in Congress.

Mr Zelensky pointed this out in a speech on February 17th at the Munich Security Conference: “We can get our land back. And Putin can lose.” But he added that his men were “limited only by the sufficiency and length of the range of our strength”, which he said “does not depend on us”. The situation in Avdiivka, he said “proves this exactly”.

Thousands of Russian troops are believed to have died taking the city. In contrast to Bakhmut, where thousands of Ukrainians died trying and failing to retain it, the decision was clearly made to sacrifice the town instead of more troops who could have mounted a last-ditch defence from the ruins of its sprawling coke plant—just as they did from Mariupol’s steelworks at the beginning of the full-scale invasion two years ago.

Avdiivka lay in a salient that was surrounded on three sides by Russian forces. Because they, and the rebel forces whom they supported, failed to take it in 2014 the city of Donetsk, which they did capture, was always vulnerable to Ukrainian shelling. That is why Russia has been attacking it since the earliest days of the war. For the Ukrainians the consequences of Avdiivka’s fall are both military and political. Since the failure of last summer’s counter-offensive General Syrsky has talked about shifting the armed forces to a defence posture , a clear sign that the counter-offensive is well and truly over and Ukraine is switching to trying to hold what it still has.

The fall of Avdiivka is more important than the fall of Bakhmut, according to Mykola Kapitonenko, a Kyiv-based security analyst. It was better defended and has more strategic value. The risk, he says, is that unless Ukrainian forces can now rapidly secure new defensive lines the Russians will surge forward and capture yet more territory. “There is no panic yet, but people are gloomy.” The fall of Avdiivka is also a blow to Mr Zelensky personally, he says, because General Syrsky is seen to answer to him directly. The general maintains little autonomy, unlike his predecessor, General Valery Zaluzhny.

In May Mr Zelensky’s term in office officially ends, but he will continue as leader because elections cannot take place under martial law. Still, this will enable Russia and increasing numbers of domestic critics to question his legitimacy. There is no immediate threat to Mr Zelensky, reckons Mr Kapitonenko, but over time “the crisis is getting deeper.”

As Avdiivka fell it was clear that the Russians were keeping up the pressure over the whole eastern front line. Shelling could be heard near important towns such as Kostiantynivka, 40km north of Avdiivka, which may now be vulnerable. At a military stabilisation point there, to which soldiers are evacuated before being sent on to hospital, there was a constant stream of wounded into the early hours of February 17th.

An intelligence official, who asked not to be named, said that bad military organisation meant that front-line troops did not have a nearby second line of defence to fall back on. This was confirmed by wounded soldiers, who are also complaining about a lack of manpower at the front.

A National Guardsman whose call sign is Oper, who came in with a colleague suffering from concussion, said their position east of Kostiantynivka had come under sustained attack several days ago. They had not been able to come to this first medical post before being dispatched for treatment before being relieved by others in a planned rotation. If they had come any earlier, he said, “the Russians would have taken the position.” 

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