Ukraine reinforces embattled stronghold Avdiivka as Russia advances

Ukraine dispatched reinforcements to the embattled eastern city of Avdiivka, a first major test for the country’s new military chief as he seeks to hold off an advance by Russian forces.

Days after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered the biggest shakeup of his military leadership since the Russian invasion began two years ago, Oleksandr Syrskyi, the new top commander, is pouring reserves into a Ukrainian-held city facing a three-pronged attack by the Kremlin’s military.

“We are doing everything possible in order to prevent the enemy from pushing deeper into our territory and keep the positions that we are holding,” Syrskyi said in a statement on Telegram Wednesday as he visited troops on the front line.

Russia is pressing its advantage as Ukraine’s military runs low on ammunition and crucial backing by the US is stalled in Congress. For Kyiv, a failure to seize back territory with a counteroffensive last year has given way to an effort to defend areas under its control.

The Kremlin has made taking Avdiivka a priority in a year when neither side is expected to make major strategic gains on the battlefield, according to western officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Even if Russia succeeds — the officials expressed confidence Kyiv will maintain control of the stronghold — there would be little strategic gain from taking Avdiivka, they said.

Elsewhere, Ukraine’s military said it destroyed a Russian warship off the coast of Crimea early Wednesday, the latest in a string of operations targeting Kremlin navy vessels. Kyiv says it’s destroyed 24 Russian ships and a submarine since the start of the war.

It’s a contrast with ground operations, which have effectively ground to a halt. Syrskyi and Defense Minister Rustem Umerov visited troops stationed near Avdiivka and in the northeastern city of Kupyansk, another flashpoint where Ukrainian troops are facing a stiff Russian offensive operation.

Avdiivka, an industrial satellite city located just north of Donetsk — the regional capital effectively under Kremlin control since 2014 — has been battered by bombardment and heavy fighting since the spring of 2022.

Kyiv’s ‘mousetrap’

Several units of Ukraine’s 110th motorized brigade, many of which have been dug in the city’s ruins for almost two years, were withdrawn to make way for the reinforcements, Ivan Sekach, a spokesman for the brigade defending the nearly-surrounded city, told Radio Liberty on Tuesday.

“We don’t have enough capability to keep holding the city, but reinforcements are arriving and we’re counting on the friendly units,” Sekach said.

Zelenskyy’s top general confirmed the shift in the military balance, saying that Russian attacks across a 1,500-kilometer (923-mile) front had created a “difficult” situation for the Ukrainian military.

“The enemy is now on the offensive practically along the entire frontline,” Syrskyi told German broadcaster ZDF in an interview recorded days before his appointment was announced Feb. 8. “We have moved from offensive actions to conducting a defensive operation.”

Syrskyi, who led Ukraine’s ground forces, was touted by Zelenskyy as his “most experienced” commander. He’s been celebrated for his involvement in successfully defending Kyiv in the first months of the war and uprooting Russian forces from a swathe of the northeast Kharkiv region months later.

But the general, who was born in Soviet Russia in 1965, is also known for spearheading the defense of Bakhmut, an eastern city seized by Kremlin forces last year after months of siege reduced it to ruins and left heavy casualties on both sides.

That battle prompted criticism from allied militaries that Kyiv was sapping the strength of its planned counteroffensive by diverting manpower to the defense of a city known for its salt mine rather than its strategic value. Russia’s Wagner mercenary army sent droves of soldiers to their death in the battle.

Syrskyi later defended that operation as a “mousetrap” that ensnared ever greater numbers of Russian invaders.

The new general, who replaced the popular Valeriy Zaluzhnyi as army chief after months of tension with Zelenskyy, weighed in on his priorities last week, underscoring the need to improve planning, embrace technological progress and master drone warfare.

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