Ukraine is on the verge of losing Avdiivka the strategic.jpgw1440

Ukraine is on the verge of losing Avdiivka, the strategic city that Russia has long targeted

AVDIIVKA, Ukraine – The Russians were already so close that the road to the Avdiivka coking plant and chemical plant was only allowed to be used at night. The vehicles' headlights were turned off and covered in hopes of preventing blinding effects to an enemy drone hovering overhead.

As fighters from the Ukrainian security service's Alpha special unit drove through the darkness wearing night vision goggles last week, Washington Post journalists who were along for the ride only saw an occasional flash of light on the horizon – yet there were more explosions in the besieged city that is now the focus of the fiercest fighting of the war. The Russian drone above was not visible, but a handheld device confirmed its presence.

The destroyed coking plant and chemical factory, once an economic pillar in Ukraine's eastern Donbass region, is believed to be the last Ukrainian stronghold in Avdiivka, which has been contested since 2014. Ukrainian troops say it is only a matter of time before they are forced to hand over the city, and on Thursday the military said a partial withdrawal had already begun.

Avdiivka may represent a first critical test for Ukraine's new commander-in-chief, Oleksandr Syrsky, who was appointed by President Volodymyr Zelensky last week and must decide whether and when to admit defeat and withdraw. Many troops accuse Syrsky, who once led Ukraine's ground forces, of waiting too long to do the same last year in Bakhmut, another besieged eastern city.

The capture of Avdiivka would be Moscow's most significant battlefield victory since the failure of Ukraine's counteroffensive last year – and the clearest sign yet that Russian forces are regaining the initiative as Kiev lacks soldiers, weapons, ammunition, morale and money.

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Located just 15 miles outside the occupied regional capital of Donetsk, Avdiivka is of greater strategic importance to Russia than Bakhmut. The ousting of Ukrainians from the city of Donetsk and its residential areas, which Russian President Vladimir Putin claims Ukrainian forces regularly shell, could boost the mood of Moscow's armed forces as the bitter war nears its two-year mark.

“It all comes down to logistics,” said Serhiy, 41, an infantry platoon leader with Ukraine’s 53rd Brigade who is fighting in the area. “Roads, junctions, everything: a lot of logistics are tied up in the streets of Avdiivka.”

Russia captured Bakhmut in May. Ukraine's military and political leadership said the continued defense of Bakhmut had cost Russia tens of thousands of casualties. But the battle has also weakened Ukraine's armed forces.

While a full withdrawal from Avdiivka now appears likely, when Post journalists visited last week, fresh forces from assault brigades were deployed to help repel Russian attacks and continue the defense of Avdiivka.

Some Ukrainian soldiers compare the fortress-like coking plant and chemical plant to Azov Valley, the massive iron and steel plant in Mariupol where the Ukrainians took up a final defensive position before abandoning the city in 2022. Dozens of Ukrainians captured in Azov Valley but “stormed the coke.” The facility will be very difficult and probably won’t make sense,” said an Alpha drone pilot in Avdiivka, whom The Post would identify only by his call sign Vitamin.

“They'll try to get around it and encircle it, and then that's it. “Our forces will be forced to withdraw,” he said.


The Russian troops advanced slowly

on Avdiivka from the north and are nearby

Access was cut off and the city isolated.

Control areas from February 14th

Source: Institute for the Study of War and staff reports


The Russian troops advanced slowly

on Avdiivka from the north and are nearby

Access was completely cut off and the city was isolated.

Control areas from February 14th

Source: Institute for the Study of War and staff reports

UkraineAvdiivka2024 medium

Russian troops have and are slowly advancing on Avdiivka from the north

on the verge of completely cutting off access and isolating the city.

Control areas from February 14th

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI's Critical Threats Project and staff reports

Earlier this month, the Russians advanced into Avdiivka itself, sparking street fighting amid the city's largely destroyed buildings. When Post journalists visited the plant for a night and day last week, a team from Alpha Unit, officially known as Detachment “A” of the Ukrainian Security Service's Special Operations Center, used part of the abandoned chemical plant as a base for Launching first-person view (FPV) drones loaded with explosives – as well as an onboard camera that allows the operator to see what the drone sees.

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Within minutes of arriving at the compound, the Alpha fighters were on the lookout for any noise – even the sound of mice running across the stone floor – fearful that it might be a Russian soldier who had slipped in unexpectedly. Hearing someone coming down the stairs, an Alpha Rifleman, whose call sign is Mirage, stiffened.

“They run too loudly not to be one of ours,” said Serhiy Stakhovsky, a former professional tennis player who is now a member of the Alpha Special Forces.

The plant was once a symbol of eastern Ukraine's economy – the largest producer of coke, a coal-based fuel, in Ukraine and owned by Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. Like the Donbass region itself, much of it lies in ruins after years of war.

Last fall, the Russians often bombarded it with about 20 aerial bombs a day, Vitamin said. As Vitamin and his team were working from the facility last week, a shell came through the roof near the area they were using as a launch pad for their drones, missing everyone by about 100 meters. But its underground hideouts and sturdy concrete foundation still make it a convenient defensive base for the Ukrainians.

In one area of ​​the plant, only two members of the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade were sleeping – even though there were enough bunks for a dozen people. It was bitterly cold, although there was a small fire burning. At 2 a.m., a white-haired man, Yura, woke up to the sound of his alarm. He took a deep breath before getting up from his bunk, which was decorated with a child's painting of a cat. He then boiled hot water over a propane tank burner to make his coffee with four types of sugar. His comrade was still snoring loudly nearby.

“Rats will crawl on him and wake him up eventually,” Yura said.

Ukraine's ammunition shortage is particularly felt here, as the tremors from incoming Russian artillery fire shook the building far more often than the sounds of the outgoing fire. The periodic explosions were followed by the cawing of birds flying from the area.

The Russians are “currently trying to put pressure on the right flank of the coking plant, and they are succeeding,” Vitamin said. “They continue to push forward regardless of casualties, and our forces are forced to retreat under the pressure.”

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The increasing number of cheap self-destructing drones on both sides of the fight has made every activity dangerous. For Ukrainians, FPV drones are a more accurate alternative to grenades and can be produced domestically – faster and easier than artillery ammunition, which Kiev still relies on the West to produce and supply. Each drone can cost as little as $400. But the Russians also have FPVs – more so – largely entrenching both forces that fear even a single soldier wandering around will be targeted.

Previously, the Ukrainians saved their FPV drones for larger targets – tanks, personnel carriers, artillery systems, etc. – but now there is a green light to attack even a small group of enemy infantry. The aim is to use weapons to stop the regular small group attacks and at the same time save artillery for other targets.

Vitamin watched a transmission from several reconnaissance drones flying over Avdiivka and was frustrated that the Russians were not showing up for this very reason. “Nobody wants to… die today,” he said.

He pointed to a Russian soldier sprinting from one house to another, pleased that he was afraid. This is part of what Kiev calls an “active defense strategy,” which involves finding ways to harm the invaders in a defensive posture.

“This is where our active defense comes into play – when it makes no sense to hold Avdiivka, but we hold it anyway,” Vitamin said. “Because we exchange far more enemy lives here than our armed forces. We are destroying their reserves.”

Vitamin maintained constant contact with another unit in the area and tracked a group of Russians as they entered a house and then waited for them to leave. Three ran out. Vitamin piloted the drone while wearing goggles that allowed him to see the camera. He descended and landed between two men, probably injuring both men.

“Go to hell!” Vitamin screamed after the reconnaissance report confirmed a successful attack.

But the next day, Ukrainian defenses continued to deteriorate. The Russians reached part of the coking plant but were pushed back. On Wednesday, the road that Alpha used to get to the plant was under Russian fire control.

Anastacia Galouchka in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, and Serhii Korolchuk and Serhiy Morgunov in Kyiv contributed to this report. Maps by Laris Karklis.