Avdiivka, Longtime Ukraine Stronghold Ukraine, Falls to Russia

Ukraine ordered the complete withdrawal from the decimated city of Avdiivka before dawn on Saturday, surrendering a position that had been a military stronghold for the better part of a decade, in the face of withering Russian assault.

“Based on the operational situation around Avdiivka, in order to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of servicemen, I decided to withdraw our units from the city and move to defense on more favorable lines,” Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s top military commander, said in a statement issued overnight.

The fall of Avdiivka, a city that was once home to some 30,000 people but is now a smoking ruin, is the first major gain Russian forces have achieved since May of last year. After rebuffing a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the summer and fall, Russian forces in recent weeks have been pressing the attack across nearly the entire length of the 600-mile-long front.

The Ukrainian withdrawal on Saturday follows a bloody endgame that saw some of the fiercest fighting of the two-year-old war. Relying on its superiority in personnel and weaponry, Russia pounded the city with aerial bombardments and ground assaults, even as its fighters suffered a staggering amount of casualties.

Outgunned Ukrainian forces had begun withdrawing from positions in the southern part of the city on Wednesday, and since then have been engaged in a desperate battle to avoid encirclement inside the city as Russian forces advanced from multiple directions. As Russian bombers pummeled Avdiivka, Ukraine said its forces had targeted and shot down three Russian warplanes.

Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, the head of Ukraine’s forces in the south, said there had been no choice but to withdraw, given the Russian advantage in firepower and the number of soldiers Russia was willing to throw into the battle.

“In a situation where the enemy is advancing on the corpses of their own soldiers with a 10-to-1 shell advantage, under constant bombardment, this is the only correct solution,” he said in a statement.

The commander said that there were losses for the Ukrainians and “at the final stage of the operation, under pressure from the superior forces of the enemy, some Ukrainian servicemen fell into captivity.”

Even if Ukrainian lines stabilize in the rear of Avdiivka, its fall into Russian control will allow Moscow’s military to move its troops and equipment more efficiently as it presses in other directions.

“Avdiivka is a very important strong point in the Ukrainian system of defense,” because it protects Pokrovsk, about 30 miles to the northwest, a logistical hub for the Ukrainian Army, Mykola Bielieskov, a military analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Ukraine, said in an interview.

“Taking control of Avdiivka might create an opening for Russia,” he said.

Soldiers reached by phone on Friday, who asked not to be identified given the ongoing military action, described a harrowing bid to escape the city. They gave accounts of racing past blasted-out buildings as shells thundered from all around and Russians pressed in from several directions.

“In one of the sectors in the town, fighters from the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade find themselves completely surrounded, but they are attempting to break through, and they succeed,” Maj. Rodion Kudryashov, deputy commander of the assault brigade, said in an interview with Radio Liberty.

Some expressed concern privately in interviews that the call to withdraw had come too late, or posted stark accounts on social media of their dangerous and chaotic retreat.

Viktor Biliak of the 110th Brigade, which has been defending the city for the past two years, described his evacuation on Thursday of the garrison known as Zenit, in a southern pocket of the city.

Mr. Biliak, who uses the call sign Hentai, said his unit was left no time for an orderly exit — neither to evacuate weapons and equipment, nor to burn papers and lay mines in the way of attacking Russian troops.

Ten men made a failed attempt to leave on Wednesday night, he said. They had to fight their way forward in a gun battle, but then came under artillery fire.

“Only three wounded made it back,” Hentai wrote on Instagram. He helped rescue one of the wounded men the next morning, he said, a dangerous movement in daylight that cost the unit four more wounded, including himself.

The troops made another attempt Thursday night, and the severely wounded were told to wait for an armored vehicle to take them.

“Groups were leaving, one after the other,” Hentai wrote. Still able to walk, he decided not to wait for the evacuation vehicle and led a group out.

“There was zero visibility outside. It was just plain survival. A kilometer across the field,” he wrote. “A bunch of blind cats led by a drone. Enemy artillery. The road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”

The evacuation vehicle never came for the wounded, he said. The last group left the bunker, and he overheard a wounded soldier asking over the radio about the evacuation vehicle. The commander replied that no vehicle was coming and that they should leave the wounded behind.

“He didn’t know he was talking to a wounded man,” Hentai wrote. “This dialogue on the radio wounded us to our very core.”

His and other accounts could not be independently confirmed, but the soldiers cited in this article are known to be members of the Ukrainian military with a public presence on social media, and the locations of landscapes shown in videos were verified as being in Avdiivka by The New York Times.

As the battle for Avdiivka intensified, Ukrainian commanders fighting in the area were forced to ration ammunition, soldiers said. White House officials have seized on similar accounts to assert that the failure to pass a $60 billion renewed military aid package in Congress was directly undermining the Ukrainians’ fight on the ground.

The Ukrainian government is also struggling to recruit and mobilize soldiers to fill its depleted ranks after two years of often brutal fighting.

Avdiivka and the surrounding communities have been on the front line ever since Russian-backed militants seized territory in eastern Ukraine in 2014, but the Russians stepped up their efforts to take the city in October, launching large-scale assaults to broadly encircle the area.

Those attempts largely failed and resulted in some of the heaviest Russian losses of the war, with tens of thousands of its soldiers killed and wounded, according to the Ukrainian military as well as British and American officials.

Early this year, the Russians managed to break into the city of Avdiivka itself, at which point Ukrainian losses started to increase significantly. At the same time, Russia stepped up bombardment of the city, seeking to smash heavily fortified Ukrainian defenses.

As the situation turned increasingly dire, military analysts inside and outside Ukraine worried that the leadership would repeat what many regarded as a past mistake: holding on after it was clear that hope was lost, and unnecessarily expending personnel and weapons.

The withdrawal from Avdiivka was still underway Saturday morning under withering Russian bombardment. The Ukrainian military command said the withdrawal from the southern part of the city had been conducted with “minor losses.”

But soldiers posting videos on social media provided a window into how dangerous movement in the area had become. In one video, several Ukrainian soldiers ride atop an armored vehicle just half a mile from the Avdiivka Coke Chemical Plant on the northwestern edge of the city, a landmark.

They drive past the sign “Avdiivka is Ukraine” at the entrance to the city, made famous when President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a selfie video from there in December. Seconds later, the soldiers duck and grimace as shells land just yards from them, throwing up clouds of dust and dirt.

On Friday, the commander of the 2nd Mechanized Battalion of the Third Assault Brigade said that the Russians had used incendiary munitions to ignite tanks storing hazardous fuel at the coke plant.

“When burning, this poisonous substance has extremely severe consequences for the health and even the lives of our fighters,” he said in a statement. The wind sent plumes of toxic black smog over the city and seeping into the plant, which the Ukrainians had long used as a stronghold in the face of Russian advances.

It was unclear early Saturday whether the Ukrainian troops holed up in the plant had also withdrawn.

Volodymyr Furayev, a soldier posted at the sprawling Soviet-era industrial plant, said that his unit had been ordered to evacuate.

“Leaving the coke plant,” Mr. Furayev said in one post on TikTok. “Everything is being targeted. Hard to know where we’re going. Hello to everyone who knows me. I don’t know if we’ll make it out.”

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kharkiv, Ukraine, and Malachy Browne from Limerick, Ireland.