Russia claims capture of Avdiivka after Ukraine withdraws from key city

President Putin hailed ‘important victory’ for Russia after Ukraine said it withdrew to preserve its soldiers’ lives.

FILE PHOTO: A view shows residential buildings heavily damaged by permanent Russian military strikes in the front line town of Avdiivka, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine November 8, 2023. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Serhii Nuzhnenko via REUTERS/File Photo
Residential buildings are heavily damaged by Russian attacks in the front-line town of Avdiivka, Ukraine [File: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Serhii Nuzhnenko via Reuters]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has hailed his army’s capture of the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka as an “important victory”, following an earlier withdrawal by Kyiv’s forces.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed Putin about the seizure of the front-line town in a meeting at the Kremlin on Saturday, his ministry said in a statement.

Avdiivka was a “powerful defensive hub” for Ukraine’s armed forces and its capture would “move the front line away from Donetsk [city],” reducing Ukraine’s ability to shell the Russian stronghold, the defence ministry said.

“The President congratulated our military and fighters on such an important victory, on such a success,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state news agencies.

Ukrainian troops earlier withdrew from Avdiivka, the new army chief announced, after months of heavy fighting and little progress in repelling Russian forces on the country’s eastern front.

“I decided to withdraw our units from the town and move to defence from more favourable lines in order to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of servicemen,” Oleksandr Syrskii said on Saturday, days after taking the helm of the Ukrainian military in a major shake-up.

The battle for the industrial hub, less than 10km (six miles) north of the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk, has been one of the bloodiest of the two-year war.

Many compare it with the battle for Bakhmut, in which tens of thousands of soldiers were killed.

‘Save Ukrainian lives’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that pulling out troops “was a professional decision that will save many Ukrainian lives”.

“Our actions are limited only by the sufficiency and length of range of our strength,” he added, pointing to the situation in Avdiivka.

Russia had been trying to capture the city since October and had surrounded it on three sides, leaving limited resupply routes for Ukrainian forces before they withdrew.

Avdiivka had about 34,000 inhabitants before the Russian invasion.

Most of the city has been since destroyed but an estimated 1,000 residents remain, according to local authorities. Videos on social media showed a town left in rubble.

Before issuing orders to pull out of Avdiivka, Oleksandr Tarnavsky, Ukraine’s army’s commander in the area, said on Friday that several Ukrainian soldiers had been captured by Russian forces.

Avdiivka lies in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, which the Kremlin has claimed to be part of Russia since a 2022 annexation that remains unrecognised by nearly all United Nations members.

The city has important symbolic value and Moscow hopes its capture will make Ukraine’s bombing of Donetsk more difficult.

Security pacts

Ukraine’s withdrawal and Russia’s capture of Avdiivka have come in advance of Russian presidential elections scheduled for March in which incumbent Putin is set to win a fifth term, allowing him to continue leading the invasion of Ukraine.

At the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Zelenskyy pushed for countries to give Ukraine longer-range weapons and more air defence systems.

“Unfortunately, keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in the deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said in Germany.

“The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”

He also promised “to surprise Russia” later this year with new drone systems and electronic warfare.

Zelenskyy on Friday signed security pacts with France and Germany to lock in support for Kyiv. He was also expected to make further pleas for financing and armaments at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

All 27 European Union countries this month agreed on an additional 50-billion-euro ($54bn) aid package for Ukraine.

United States President Joe Biden said on Thursday that Avdiivka risked falling to Russian forces because of ammunition shortages following months of Republican congressional opposition to a new US military aid package for Kyiv.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies