The Harrowing Retreat from Avdiivka

Fighting had intensified over the past month at the Zenith air defense base, a mile south of Avdiivka, where for years a company of Ukrainian soldiers had defended the southern approach to the city.

Russian troops had advanced on their flanks and bombarded them from all sides with tank, artillery and mortar fire, destroying their defenses and wounding men.

“Every day we tried to repel enemy attacks,” said Senior Private Viktor Biliak, a 26-year-old with the 110th Mechanized Brigade, who had spent 620 days defending the base. “All fortifications were destroyed and there was no possibility of building new ones.”

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Soldiers interviewed after their retreat described an uneven four-month battle under a brutal onslaught of Russian artillery and glide bombs that destroyed buildings and breached deep concrete bunkers. As the Ukrainians suffered casualties, they were increasingly outnumbered by the Russians who attacked the city, breaking through at two strategic points and quickly seeding areas with fighters.

The fall of the city, which occurred in mid-February, was brutal and rapid, taking place in less than a week.

For two weeks, as soldiers warned they could be overrun by Russian forces, commanders told them to continue holding their positions, a delay that cost lives, Biliak said. Some units crumbled under Russian fire. One company withdrew to the Zenith base after losing its positions.

The final retreat was dangerous and costly, as Russian artillery continuously fired on the roads leading out of the city. Many soldiers died along the way.

The biggest losses came in the center of the city from heavy Russian aerial bombardment, said Shaman, 36, a commander of the 25th Separate Battalion, who monitored his units from a command post. Some brigades lost contact with units during the bombardment. A group retreated to a house and were killed when a hover bomb hit the house, said Shaman, who like others identified himself by his call sign for security reasons.

The capture of Avdiivka was the biggest gain for the Russians in nine months and a blow to the Ukrainian forces, which were suffering from shortages of ammunition and men.

As they regrouped in the villages and training grounds after their withdrawal from Avdiivka, Ukrainian soldiers had no doubt why they lost the city, a stronghold on the eastern front that had been the target of Russian attacks for a decade.

“It was the lack of ammunition,” said Sjamaan, whose battalion was sent to Avdiivka in October when the Russians launched a new offensive against the city. “No question.”

With enough artillery, Ukrainian forces could have held the city, he said, hitting Russian supplies and logistics behind the lines and preventing reinforcements from entering.

A soldier, Roman, 48 years old, from the Territorial Defense Force, spent three months with his unit in Avdiivka last spring. “It was difficult,” he said. “We had no support.” The unit was sent in February to help defend the Avdiivka coke and chemical plant, which served as a headquarters for the Ukrainian army on the outskirts of the city.

He choked up as he described the casualties his unit suffered in the war. “We had 20 in the unit, there are eight left,” he said. Of his company of 86, only 28 remained, he added. There is no official count of Ukrainian casualties in Avdiivka, but commanders said hundreds were likely lost in the city’s fall.

Ukrainian officials say Russian casualties were much higher because their repeated attacks were met with Ukrainian artillery fire and drone strikes, leaving fields and trenches littered with bodies and broken armor.

But the Russian troops kept coming and managed to reach the edges of the city from the north and south. At the end of January they were ready to invade the residential areas. They broke in in two key places, from the northeast across the railway line, and in the south by digging tunnels through sewers to attack Ukrainian positions from the rear.

“That was an alarm bell,” Biliak said.

Soldiers at the Zenith base began urging their commanders to withdraw, he said. They were told to wait.

Within the city, Russia lobbed about 80 to 100 glide bombs, known by the acronym KAB, every day. A single fighter plane would drop four half-ton bombs, which exploded in rapid succession, creating huge craters in the earth or flattening multi-story concrete buildings.

“When a KAB falls, you wonder if the concrete will fall on you and they won’t be able to dig you out,” said one soldier, whose call sign is 42-year-old Patrick. “We have seen that happen.”

Russian drones were constantly hovering over the roads. A medic, nickname Malyi, 23, raced a wounded soldier out of town one day as a Russian drone chased him. The drone miraculously hit the spare tire at the back of the car and bounced away. Malyi and his injured passenger survived.

“It’s life or death out there,” he said.

By early February, Russian troops were about to encircle the city and cut off the last two roads. On February 9, Dmytro, 36, the commander of Stugna, a military intelligence unit, was ordered to Avdiivka to help push back Russian infiltration and secure the main road into the city for the withdrawal of troops.

The unit linked up with the 3rd Assault Brigade which had arrived a week earlier, but they found that Russian forces had spread through the neighborhood so quickly that their plans were outdated before they could use them. “The situation was changing by the hour,” Dmytro said.

Within days of Stugna’s arrival, on February 13, Russian forces captured the main road into the city and began working along a tree line toward a second road south, the final route out. Ukrainian soldiers were already driving through heavy fire to deliver supplies and evacuate the wounded, but thousands of them would be stranded if the Russians took control of that road.

Nearly surrounded, the men at Zenith air base finally received the order to evacuate. The first group did not survive, hit by artillery fire. The main group left on the night of February 15 and walked in small groups through the fields in the dark. Biliak led one group, but he said they came under shell fire and he never saw the others again.

At dawn, several dozen men gathered at some houses on the outskirts of the city. It was foggy, which meant no drones were flying, and even though they had no orders to do so, they kept falling back toward the only way out.

The Russians made six attempts to take control of the tree line, Dmytro said, and his units repulsed them with artillery each time. But in the end, the Ukrainians could not stem the flow of Russians.

He could send four to eight men as reinforcements, but he said the Russians were deploying groups of 30 men at a time. “To stop a group of thirty people, you need fifty grenades,” he said. “You need five grenades to put out the fire and we can only use ten grenades.”

Nevertheless, Stugna held the road at two intersections and Ukrainian forces steadily retreated from the city, on foot and by vehicles, mostly under cover of darkness. Biliak took a ride in an armored vehicle with other wounded people in the early hours of February 16. The last units of Zenith came out the next day.

But they left behind six men — five wounded and one helper — who were captured and killed by Russian forces, Ukrainian officials later said. “There were six. Our boys who stayed behind. We must remember that there were three times as many people dead in the streets,” Biliak said.

The road ran through the fields and was constantly under fire. “You could still run through in vehicles, but most of them came on foot,” Dmytro said.

At the chemical plant, the 25th Separate Battalion had last left just before sunset on February 17, heading north on foot.

“There were only 21 people left to guard the entire factory,” said Staf, 36, a tall soldier with an ill-fitting helmet. “They came from three sides,” he said. “They were within range of firearms,” another soldier said. “They were close enough to throw a grenade.”

The next day, on their seventh attempt, the Russians took the tree line and cut off the lower road, Dmytro said. “A day earlier,” he said, “it would have been chaos.”

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