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How Ukraine lost Avdiivka to Russia

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — 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 there were ambushes involving special forces or saboteurs who popped out of tunnels.

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 haven’t 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, where thousands of troops 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. The men joked darkly that the only way out was to die, get wounded or go to prison.

His unit was on the southern outskirts of Avdiivka, in a well-fortified position called Zenith, which has been on the front lines since Russia first attacked in 2014. Normally the men would dig fortifications, but Biliak said there was constant Russian fire, and no energy or equipment beyond hand shovels.

Some of their trenches were hardly worthy of the name, just over knee-deep, according to images posted to various brigades’ social media accounts. That meant when soldiers retreated, nowhere was safe to withdraw.

EARLY DAYS

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 at least enough to return fire.

The Russians were easy to take prisoner, and some had served for little more than a month, according to their documents.

“They don’t know where they’re going, and when they’re asked what their job was, they usually said that they were supposed to take shelter in a basement and wait for the next forces,” said Oleh, who like most Ukrainian soldiers asked to be identified by only his first name or nom de guerre.

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

With ammunition stocks running low, 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.

“When you have different types of shells, they have different trajectories, and you have to calculate where they will fly, where they will hit. This is a kind of chaos,” Oleh said. “And the longer it went, the more we got this stew of shells for all kinds of weapons.”

Among the Ukrainian soldiers, the idea of retreat took seed. There were no reinforcements, no more ammunition and no changes in their orders.

ECHOES OF AZOVSTAL

Hundreds of Ukrainian forces withdrew to Avdiivka’s coke plant after repeated Russian onslaughts last fall.

Its 10-kilometer (6-mile) perimeter enclosed a sprawling warren of buildings, staircases, chimneys, railroad tracks and aboveground pipelines. The roughly rectangular Soviet-era property was surrounded by open fields on three sides and a neighborhood of weekend cottages on the fourth.

In other words, a near-perfect defensive position.

They tried not to think of the infamous last stand at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, one of the coke plant’s major customers before the war, and the place where hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers died or were taken captive by Russia.

But as the new year began, even the coke plant felt vulnerable. The glide bombs began exploding by the dozens every day.

Holding the flank across the fields to the north, Oleh once counted 74 airstrikes in a single shift. Oleksander, a company commander with the Presidential Brigade inside the plant, said the psychological effect was terrible.

“Everyone is used to artillery, but the aerial bombs are something new, and we are not used to them,” he said. “Their destructive power is many times greater. The effect on the psyche is also greater.”

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

That didn’t happen in Avdiivka.

The 110th Brigade had been fighting there since March 2022 and the 2nd Battalion of the Presidential Brigade since March 2023. The 47th Brigade arrived in mid-October.

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

Russian special forces started popping up, seemingly from nowhere, opening fire on the Ukrainians before disappearing again. The Russians emerged from a sewer behind Ukrainian lines and captured a commander before the stunned soldiers could react. Those men retreated to Biliak’s position, on the southern flank of Avdiivka.

The soldiers in the coke plant had similar problems, learning to guard against surprises emerging from its tunnel network and from countless, overwhelming frontal assaults.

“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. “And every time, they took the same route, we hit them and hit them, and ultimately held our ground.”

But the Russians had a seemingly endless supply of men and ammunition and weren’t afraid of wasting it. Amid the relentless airstrikes and advancing Russian infantry, the Ukrainian men saw their options narrowing with every road the enemy captured.

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

EXHAUSTION SETS IN

The 3rd Assault Brigade arrived early in the second week of February, with orders to head directly to the coke plant. The all-volunteer brigade is famous for victory against the odds. By the time the seasoned fighters got to the plant, Russian troops had nearly closed a wide pincer around it.

By then, defensive lines were partly destroyed and the enemy seemed to be everywhere.

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 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 left together in a car, according to the documents seen by the AP. 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. Still missing are the commander and the other man.

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

LEAVING AVDIIVKA

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 was assigned to withdraw in the fourth group. The first group was ambushed almost immediately.

The second group was ambushed and turned back. Wounded lightly by shrapnel, Biliak and the other men split up into smaller groups and moved out in darkness. He had been at the same intersection, just south of Avdiivka, 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,” he said. “But then we already knew it was too late, and it was out of desperation.”

He made his way out on foot, a fresh bandage on his face. Only his night vision goggles allowed him to find a path to safety, he said.

But they also revealed pure horror: Men who had fallen into bomb craters and broken legs during the retreat. Others were ripped open by shrapnel and were told to wait for a car to evacuate them, including one man who called his sister as he was lying wounded in the darkness with four other men, according to her recording of the conversation. No one could reach them.

The men were still alive the next day, but during another call home, the family heard Russian soldiers: “Get up, get out, we won’t carry you.” All five were later identified as dead by the 110th Brigade.

The 3rd Assault Brigade received the command to retreat a day after the 110th Brigade. It was orderly but hasty.

The aerial reconnaissance team folded up their drones and put them into backpacks. They smashed anything that couldn’t be carried to keep the equipment out of Russian hands and crammed into armored personnel carriers like sardines, said Lypen, a drone operator with the brigade.

The Ukrainian forces knew Russians were listening in on their radio conversations, so they communicated face-to-face when possible. By 5 a.m., the coke plant that held more than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers the day before was down to just a few truckloads.

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

The Ukrainian military said the vast majority of soldiers who withdrew from Avdiivka made it out safely and that Russian losses were far greater.

On Feb. 29, Ukraine’s new military chief, Col. Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi released a statement emphasizing the importance of experienced and decisive commanders. He said his inspection of troops in the Donetsk region revealed that some commanders “made certain miscalculations in mastering the situation and assessing the enemy, which directly affected the stability of the defense in certain directions.”

Many of the men worry about what the loss of Avdiivka means for Ukraine’s future. There is little time to waste.

“I try not to feel a sense of despair, of betrayal,” said Andrii, who had fought in Avdiivka for the 110th Brigade since 2022. “The war is still here. We need to recover and keep moving.”

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

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