Losing Ground in the War, Ukraine Seeks New Position Around Avdiivka

Ukrainian soldiers are withdrawing from positions in the shattered town of Avdiivka after advancing Russian forces breached a critical supply line and threatened to encircle scores of Ukrainian soldiers, Ukrainian military officials and soldiers said on Thursday.

Dmytro Lykhovii, a spokesman for Ukrainian forces fighting in the area, said the Ukrainians were “maneuvering” and “sometimes withdrawing to more advantageous positions and sometimes repelling enemy advances.”

He also said military commanders had set up a backup logistical route to the town to transport much needed supplies to Ukraine’s beleaguered troops.

The battle, Mr. Lykhovii said, was dynamic and changing by the hour as the two sides engaged in fierce urban combat. But his comments suggested the fighting had taken another ominous turn for Kyiv’s forces, potentially presaging their withdrawal from a town reduced to ruins by months of horrendous bombardment.

In a war of mostly small territorial gains, the capture of Avdiivka would be the Russians’ most significant battlefield achievement since taking Bakhmut last May.

Signs of Ukraine’s deteriorating hold on Avdiivka have been evident for several weeks. Ukraine recently rotated out soldiers from the 110th Brigade, which had played a vital role in the defense of the city for two years but were exhausted and severely depleted after months of brutal combat. Soldiers from the elite Third Assault Brigade were sent in to shore up Ukraine’s forces but noted that they were being sent into a situation that was already “extremely critical.”

“Avdiivka is hell,” the brigade’s commander, Andrii Biletskyi, said in a statement. The situation in the city was “ precarious and unstable,” he said, with the Russians able to rotate troops and deploy more resources to the fight.

“We are forced to fight 360 degrees against new brigades that the enemy is deploying,” he said.

Avdiivka, which is less than 10 miles from the Russian occupied city of Donetsk, has withstood months of relentless Russian assaults aimed at encircling the stronghold.

However, as U.S. military assistance stopped flowing and commanders were forced to start rationing ammunition, the Russians managed to gain two footholds within the town itself.

As Russian warplanes pounded Avdiivka with powerful guided bombs, its small assault units stormed through the ruins. The Ukrainians have turned to drones to help thwart Russian advances. But a recent stretch of foggy and rainy weather has limited the use of drones by both sides.

With the Ukrainians forced to conserve ammunition, small bands of Russian assault units were able to amass within the city itself.

“The Russians are throwing everything they have left just to symbolically take the city,” a Ukrainian soldier said when reached by phone, insisting on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “From a strategic point of view, the city no longer matters. And it’s only advantageous for us to hold it to make the losses for the Russkies as high as possible.

Another soldier fighting in the city said it was “just horrible” and the “only thing to do is pray.”

The Russian units are now advancing from the south, threatening to cut off Ukrainian forces in the southern part of city, and the north, where they have now crossed a key supply line in several places.

“The supply and evacuation of Avdiivka has become challenging, but an alternative logistics route, prepared in advance, has been activated,” Mr. Lykhovii said.

The Russians’ ultimate goal, he said, is to encircle the hulking Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant, which could be used by Ukrainian forces to mount a last stand in the city should they be forced to pull out of residential areas entirely.

Ukraine’s new top military commander, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, is under close scrutiny for how he handles Avdiivka. While military analysts agree that Ukraine has inflicted far steeper losses on the Russians than it suffered during months of fighting, the urban combat that typifies the endgame can be far more costly for both sides.

In the nine-month long fight for Bakhmut, it was the final bloody months of fighting across a bombed-out city that took the heaviest toll on both sides. General Syrsky was widely criticized for ordering his soldiers to fight inside the city long after it was clear Bakhmut would be lost. The fight for Avdiivka, a small city of 30,000 before the war but now just lifeless ruins spread across 12 square miles, has only recently descended into street fighting.

At the same time as General Syrsky has to establish trust at home, he has to plan for the future unsure what assistance his forces will get from their chief military backer, the United States.

A bill that would provide $60 billion in urgently needed military assistance is facing stiff resistance from Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Jake Sullivan, the White House. national security adviser, told reporters this week that, “the costs of our inaction are also getting higher every day, especially in Ukraine.”

Russia launched another wave of 26 ballistic and cruise missiles at cities across Ukraine early Thursday. Ukrainian air defense teams were only able to shoot down 50 percent of the barrage, a sign that decreased air defense capabilities were taking a toll.

“We need additional missiles or systems to continue conducting effective air defense battles,” Yuri Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, said after the attack. “We need missiles not only to destroy Russia’s cruise or ballistic missiles but also to deter Russian aviation from approaching Ukrainian-controlled territory.”

Maria Varenikova and Liubov Sholudko contributed reporting from Kyiv.