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Russia and Ukraine intensify fight over Avdiivka, another ruined city

An official from Avdiivka’s military administration holds a tarpaulin for delivery and walks past a destroyed building on Oct. 24. Ukrainian forces are coming under increased pressure as Russia’s military drives to capture the destroyed city. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)

AVDIIVKA, Ukraine — Russia and Ukraine are once again locked in a fierce battle for control of a dead city.

In recent days, Moscow’s forces have gradually advanced to the north of Avdiivka — about three miles north of the occupied regional capital of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine — hoping to encircle the city and seize control of one of Ukraine’s most well-fortified points on the front.

The fierce escalation in fighting bears ominous echoes to the hellish months-long battle for Bakhmut in which tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers died over control of a city that was largely razed, leaving little more than smoldering ruins.

In response to ferocious Russian attacks, Ukraine in recent days has redeployed battalions from at least one brigade on the southern front to Avdiivka — a sign that Kyiv is drawing on resources that otherwise might be focused on its counteroffensive to oust Russian occupiers.

Losses on both sides have already been high.

Ukraine claims that Russia has lost a significant amount of military equipment attacking Avdiivka. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Friday that Moscow had lost an entire brigade of fighters. Those assertions could not be independently verified.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that Russia’s attack on Avdiivka was a “sobering reminder” that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to capture all of Ukraine. Kirby warned that Moscow “may achieve some tactical successes” in the coming months, but at the expense of “thousands” of Russian soldiers.

“We have information that the Russian military actually executed soldiers who refused to obey orders,” Kirby said.

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Avdiivka has been a target since Russia began fomenting war in Ukraine in 2014, and arguably has more strategic value than Bakhmut, which Russia seized in May.

Over the past decade, Russian forces have repeatedly tried to encircle the city. Capturing Avdiivka could open up a 30 to 40 mile stretch of the front line and could create a gateway from occupied Donetsk to other cities, like Kostiantynivka to the north, which are key to Putin’s goal of conquering the entire Donetsk region.

In a stark parallel between Avdiivka and the battle for Bakhmut, Zelensky on Monday described the resilience of Ukraine’s forces in Avdiivka as “the strength of all Ukraine.”

After “Bakhmut holds!” became a national rallying cry last year, Kyiv sacrificed thousands of soldiers in a futile bid to hold the city. Debate still rages about whether it was worth the cost.

The head of Avdiivka’s military administration, Vitalii Barabash, said that Russia’s recent attacks were unlike anything he had seen in nearly a decade of fighting, with Moscow deploying huge numbers of personnel and equipment.

The last road to Avdiivka from Ukrainian-held territory cuts past a high tree line before veering off to the south at the entrance to the city’s giant Coke and Chemical Plant. Once the economic heart of Avdiivka, which had a prewar population of 32,000, the plant is now smashed and deserted.

Russia’s strategy to claim Avdiivka is to

surround it along two fronts from the north

and southwest. On Wednesday, the Russian

flag flew on the highground slag heap across

the railroad from the coke plant.

Control areas as of Oct. 26

Source: Institute for the Study of War

Russia’s strategy to claim Avdiivka is to surround it

along two fronts from the north and southwest.

On Wednesday, the Russian flag flew on the

highground slag heap across the railroad

from the coke plant.

Control areas as of Oct. 26

Source: Institute for the Study of War

Russia’s strategy to claim Avdiivka is to surround it along two fronts from the north

and southwest. On Wednesday, the Russian flag flew on the highground slag heap

across the railroad from the coke plant.

Control areas as of Oct. 26

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

The few people who risk traveling the road — usually volunteers helping the city’s 1,600 or so remaining inhabitants — must drive fast. Last week, a Russian drone dropped an explosive on a truck delivering bread, blowing out its roof. Miraculously, the driver survived.

As staff from Avdiivka’s military administration sped toward the city on Tuesday, an intense battle was underway. Thick plumes of dark smoke rose into the sky one mile northeast of the road.

In recent days, Russian forces advanced past Krasnohorivka four miles north of Avdiivka, toward the city’s railroad. On Tuesday, Moscow claimed it had captured the plant’s slag heap — a tactical blow to Ukraine.

Russian footage of the battle showed nightmarish scenes of drones dropping grenades into Ukrainian positions as soldiers desperately tried to crawl away. Russian troops later planted a Russian tricolor and a Soviet flag atop the heap. One soldier had scrawled “the slag heap is ours” across the flag.

Moscow’s renewed assault on Avdiivka began on Oct. 10, when Russia sent in three brigades and up to 100 units of equipment, according to Ukrainian officials.

“It’s clear the Russian military is trying to seize the initiative,” said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Taking Avdiivka by itself isn’t going to significantly improve their position,” Kofman said. “But Russian forces are unlikely to sustain momentum or attain a major breakthrough.”

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On Tuesday, the administration was finally able to bring supplies into the city during a brief lull in the bombing.

The city’s water supply stopped before Russia’s invasion; electricity was cut off in April 2022. Parts of the city are a moonscape. Shrapnel carpets the streets. Some buildings have gaping holes blown through the middle of them. Others have just collapsed.

On Tuesday, Avdiivka felt like it was at the eye of a storm. Outgoing artillery thundered every few minutes, as Ukraine pounded the northeast periphery of the city, trying to halt the Russian advance.

“Today it’s a bit quieter,” Barabash said. “We can see that their military is reinforcing their positions. We believe there will be a third wave in their offensive soon.”

Barabash and his team were in the city to document the impact of seven missile strikes that hit overnight. As he spoke, explosions rang out close by. “That is a Zushka,” he said, referring to a ZU-23 antiaircraft cannon. “There might be a Russian Orlan drone flying somewhere, they are trying to shoot it down,” he said.

On the outskirts of Avdiivka, a unit from the 59th brigade had been at the same artillery position for 12 days straight, living in a dank underground trench overrun with mice.

The commander, call sign Benjamin, was smoking a cigarette when the Russians unleashed a hail of artillery on nearby positions. Benjamin flinched and ducked for cover.

“We spend most of our time shooting at the Russians to stop them advancing, so that our assault groups can move forward and reclaim our land,” Benjamin said. “It seems to me that they wanted to take Avdiivka quickly. And I think they’re just trying to distract us so that we deploy more troops here and don’t advance in different parts of the front.”

Unlike Bakhmut, Ukrainian soldiers are not locked in urban combat in Avdiivka. The residents who remain mostly live underground and are totally dependent on humanitarian aid. After a decade of war, most are used to near-apocalyptic conditions.

At a local distribution point, aid workers were visibly exhausted. The location had been closed for a week due to intense shelling and fear that Russia would target the lines of citizens seeking help.

A few blocks away, Tetiana, 56, the last inhabitant of her building, had gathered stocks of firewood for the approaching winter.

Tetiana, a former janitor, does not want to burden her children, who live near Kyiv. The stairs and corridors leading to her third-floor apartment are stacked with tree branches, planks of wood and cardboard boxes; anything to burn to stave off the cold. “In winter, this will all be eaten up quickly,” Tetiana said.

Her one room apartment has become her bunker, packed with tinned food and water. “Everyone is afraid,” she said. “Even the ants are afraid.”

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Hospital director Vitalii Sytnyk, 55, and four medical workers, were hunkered in the empty dark hallways of what was once Avdiivka’s city hospital. The building’s top floors are now rubble. The staff now go up there only to catch enough signal to make brief, precious phone calls.

Sytnyk has lived full-time in the hospital since March 2022. He now maintains what’s left of the wards, smoking cigarettes in sweatpants and slippers.

With no electricity, the hospital serves as a stabilization point. The city’s emergency services stopped working long ago. The injured are brought in by volunteers, on bicycles or on foot.

Sytnyk, who worked at the hospital for 28 years and says he spent some of the best years of his life in Avdiivka, has seen the way a decade of fighting has changed the city.

“Finally people started to hide themselves properly,” he said. “But some have become slightly mentally unstable. When the shelling starts, people just continue on their way — they don’t care anymore.”

Still, Sytnyk, plans to stay. “Our boys are staying, and so we are staying too,” he said, adding: “There is still a desire that Avdiivka will hold, although I honestly don’t know what is left of it anymore.”

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