Ukraine’s desperate battle to save key eastern town of Avdiivka from waves of Putin’s forces

Ukraine has sent battle-hardened troops from a crack unit into the “hell” of fighting in the key eastern town of Avdiivka – as Kyiv seeks to keep it out of the hands of Vladimir Putin’s forces.

After months of heavy fighting, Russia is trying to encircle and capture Avdiivka and use it as a stepping stone towards its aim of taking full control of the the industrial region of Donbas, made up of the areas of Donetsk – where Avdiivka sits – and Luhansk. Ukraine has vowed to ensure Russia advances no further into its territory, with the fight for control of Avdiivka taking on a symbolic significance to both sides on a level similar to the town of Bakhmut roughly 60 miles away.

That was the last significant claim of territory by Russia, in May last year, with the mercenary Wagner Group part of the vanguard.

The fight for Avdiivka has now reached a critical phase, with Russian forces appearing poised to encircle Kyiv’s troops remaining in the area and potentially break their supply lines, officials and war analysts have said. Moscow’s forces surrounded it on three sides earlier this year.

And Russian forces have fired roughly 600 shells on the city in the past month, according to Ukrainian journalist Yuri Butusov, who has just travelled back from Avdiivka. “The destruction is extensive,” he said.

Enter one of Ukraine’s most prominent fighting units, the Third Assault Brigade, which has said it has been rushed to Avdiivka to reinforce Kyiv’s troops there. The brigade, which comprises assault infantry, said the situation in Avdiivka was “hell” and “threatening and unstable”, but that it had conducted a raid against Russian forces in parts of the town and inflicted heavy casualties.

The brigade took part in a counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine last summer and fought in the battle of Bakhmut. “The enemy is continuing the active rotation of its troops [around Avdiivka] and is deploying new forces and equipment to the town,” the brigade said on the Telegram messenger app.

“The situation at the moment the brigade was brought in was extremely critical,” it added.

Avdiivka has been a flashpoint of the frontline since the Russians launched a mechanised offensive last October, but up to now Ukrainian defences had held strong. Russia, meanwhile, has lost hundreds of vehicles and tens of thousands of soldiers.

But depleted stockpiles of munitions as a result of paused Western military support have left Ukraine vulnerable on its eastern frontline.

The unit’s deputy commander, Maksym Zhorin, said the fighting was much fiercer than the battle of Bakhmut and that Kyiv’s forces were outnumbered and outgunned in Avdiivka. “The battles in Avdiivka are many times more hellish than the hottest battles of this phase of the war, which were in Bakhmut,” he said on Telegram.

And recent Russian advances over the past two weeks appear to be the result of the Kremlin switching strategies from vehicle to infantry-led assaults as they approached the eastern side of the city, analysts told The Independent.

Kyiv’s new military chief Oleksandr Syrskyi visited near Avdiivka this week, admitting that the “operational environment is extremely complex and stressful”.

But despite calls for the Ukrainian military chief to withdraw his forces from Avdiivka – it has become known by soldiers as “Avdiiv Hell” – he added that he “made a number of important decisions aimed at strengthening the combat capabilities of [Ukraine’s] military units and preventing enemy actions” in the city.

His comments appear to be a reference to the rotation of fresher forces into the city: the 110th Brigade, which has been stationed in Avdiivka for nearly two years is moving back; the Third Assault Brigade is moving in.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky takes a video in front of a road sign with the words ‘Avdiivka this is Ukraine’

Ukrainian officials say not a single building remains intact in the city after months of heavy Russian bombardment, and as the Kremlin’s forces push deeper into the city, the ability for Ukraine’s forces to withdraw will become more difficult.

“A difficult political decision will need to be made soon lest the remaining Ukrainian forces lose the ability to withdraw in good order,” wrote Mick Ryan, a retired Australian major-general and military strategist, in a note.

The city sits in an industrial region nine miles north of the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk. Before the war, its Soviet-era coke plant was one of Europe’s top producers; now, according to officials, it is serving as a crucial and final stronghold in the city’s defence.

Ukrainian war tracker DeepState reported that Russian forces had made further gains south of the coke plant, which is located in the northwest, and have effectively severed the city in two.

Soldiers stand on the Armoured Infantry Vehicle 2 (BMP-2) on the road to the city, on the outskirts of Avdiivka

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has allegeldy supplies thousands of artillery shells to Russia after meeting with Vladimir Putin late last year

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