Exhaustion, dwindling reserves and a commander who disappeared: How Ukraine lost Avdiivka to Russia

The loss of the city of Avdiivka last month marked the end of a long, exhausting defense for the Ukrainian military

Alex Babenko,Hanna Arhirova,Susie Blann,Lori Hinnant
Monday 11 March 2024 05:04 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


One Ukrainian brigade had defended the same block of industrial buildings for months without a break. Another had been in Avdiivka for nearly the entire two years of the war, bone-tired but with no replacements to relieve them.

Ammunition was low, and the Russians conducted dozens of airstrikes every day, using “glide bombs” to obliterate even fortified positions.

Russian soldiers came in waves: First lightly armed grunts, to force the Ukrainian defenders to spend precious bullets, followed by well-trained soldiers. Sometimes groups of Russians popped out of tunnels in front of them and opened fire.

As morale plummeted, a battalion commander — in charge of hundreds of men — vanished under murky circumstances, according to law enforcement documents seen by The Associated Press. One of the soldiers with him was found dead. The commander and another soldier with them have not been seen since.

Within a week, Ukraine had lost Avdiivka, the city in the Donetsk region that it had been defending since long before Russia’s full-scale invasion. Nearly surrounded and vastly outnumbered, the Ukrainians made the decision to withdraw and avoid the same kind of deadly siege soldiers experienced in the port city of Mariupol's Azovstal steel mill, where thousands were taken captive or killed.

The Associated Press interviewed 10 Ukrainian soldiers to reconstruct how dwindling ammunition, overwhelming Russian numbers and military mismanagement led to the worst Ukrainian defeat in a year. The same problems pose risks for Ukraine's near future.

“We weren’t so much physically exhausted as psychologically, being chained to that place,” said Viktor Biliak, an infantryman with the 110th Brigade who had been in the area since March 2022.

His unit was on the southern outskirts of Avdiivka, in a position called Zenith. Normally the men would dig fortifications, but Biliak said there were constant Russian attacks, and no energy or equipment beyond hand shovels.

A soldier named Oleh arrived in mid-October with the 47th Brigade. Ill-trained Russian infantry, wearing new uniforms and marching in rows, made easy targets, he said. The Ukrainian equipment worked and ammunition supplies were enough to return fire.

But by the end of November, during a major Russian assault, the Ukrainians realized something had changed: The skies filled with glide bombs, unguided Soviet-era weapons retrofitted with a navigational targeting system, as well as motion-sensing explosive drones that could enter buildings and hunt down personnel.

With ammunition stocks running low, the Ukrainians fought back with whatever caliber of ammunition was left in the warehouses. For every shell they fired, the Russians fired eight or nine, the men said.

“The longer it went, the more we got this stew of shells for all kinds of weapons,” Oleh said.

Among the Ukrainian soldiers, the idea of defeat took seed.

Hundreds of Ukrainian forces withdrew to Avdiivka’s coke plant after repeated Russian onslaughts last fall. The Soviet-era factory, a warren of alleys, railways and tunnels, was a near-perfect defensive position.

But as the new year began, even the coke plant felt vulnerable.

Ukrainian brigades try to rotate men out of direct front-line positions after a matter of days or a week at most. And brigades with long-term engagements are supposed to be pulled back and reinforced to allow them to replace people lost to death or injury, rest their nerves and resupply.

That didn’t happen in Avdiivka.

As officials in Kyiv argued over the delicate question of expanding the draft, many of the soldiers in the east felt abandoned by Western allies who no longer sent weapons, by their high command, and by fellow Ukrainians.

In addition to endless frontal assaults, Russian soldiers started popping up, opening fire on the Ukrainians before disappearing.

“They just kept throwing themselves at the coke plant, leaving piles of their corpses there. Mountains of bodies and heaps of smashed equipment,” said Maksym, a soldier in the Presidential Brigade.

But the Russians had a seemingly limitless supply of men and ammunition. The Ukrainian men saw their options narrowing.

With the constant pressure and the lack of foreign help, there was talk of retreat, Oleh said. “Their constant assaults exhausted us.”

The 3rd Assault Brigade arrived early in the second week of February, with orders to head to the coke plant. By the time the seasoned Ukrainian fighters got there, Russian troops had nearly closed a wide pincer around it.

On Feb. 8, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired Ukraine’s military chief, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi. It was the biggest shake-up of the military since the start of the war.

The next day just outside Avdiivka, officers fighting to save the town gathered in a command post a few kilometers (miles) from the coke plant. There was a heated discussion and the commander and two soldiers got into a car. What happened next is unclear, at a time when emotions were running high and Russian saboteurs were appearing behind the Ukrainian lines.

Authorities don’t believe the missing officer had classified information or military hardware on him when he disappeared with the two others. One of the soldiers was found dead nearby of gunshot wounds. The commander and the other man vanished.

The AP is not naming the men to avoid endangering anyone who might be prisoner.

On Feb. 15, Biliak received the order for a nighttime retreat for the 110th Brigade from his point on the southern flank of Avdiivka. He had been at the same intersection for just under two years.

“It would have been joyful if it had happened earlier. We were always ready to drop everything and flee from there because we had known for a long time that the end was coming,” Biliak said. “But then we already knew it was too late, and it was out of desperation.”

The 3rd Assault Brigade received the command to retreat from the coke plant the next day.

On Feb. 17, Russia claimed control of Avdiivka and its coke plant.

Ukraine’s new military chief, Col. Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi released a statement Feb. 29 emphasizing the importance of experienced and decisive commanders and noting that an inspection of Donetsk had revealed “certain miscalculations in mastering the situation and assessing the enemy.”


Associated Press journalists Illia Novikov and and Evgeniy Maloletka in Kyiv and Volodymyr Yurchuk in Sloviansk contributed to this report.

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