“Look, this is what the Russian world looks like,” says a Ukrainian soldier while filming a charred nine-story residential building in Avdiivka. Only 2,000 people remain in the small town, which used to be home to more than 30,000 residents of the Donetsk industrial region.
While fighting has raged here for almost nine years, since the start of the war in Donbas, locals only saw what real destruction looked like when Russian forces intensified their attempts to encircle and capture the city, turning it into “a second Bakhmut.” “, in the last weeks.
Such a comparison is far from superficial. Just like some 40 miles to the north, Russian forces employ so-called “meat waves” or “human waves” tactics. Ukrainian soldiers tell of Russian infantry groups attacking, one after another, leaving dozens of bodies behind, but slowly pressing the Ukrainian troops, exhausting them in the endless fighting. Just like in Bakhmut, the Russians are trying to capture the flanks next to Adviivka and are now hanging over the city from the north and south, while trying to assault it head on from the east.
Wagner’s mercenaries are also present here, with some of the best troops sent to build on the gains made by regular troops, according to the US Institute for the Study of War. They are supported by artillery, tanks and aviation, which continue to hitting the city “Russia’s strategy is aimed at razing the city,” explains the head of the local military administration, Vitaliy Barabashin a video documenting the scale of the destruction.
It is aviation that is causing special damage with 500-kilo bombs wreaking havoc everywhere. “Not a day goes by without another nine-story residential block collapsing,” he says as the camera captures the meter-high pile of concrete blocks next to where hundreds of people lived.
It’s hard to believe, but there are still some people living in the buildings that are still standing, despite being hit several times. “People are heating their houses with firewood,” says one of the few passers-by, an elderly woman, interviewed by a journalist at a time when access to the city was still open. “Some live in the stairs, where it’s safer, and they heat candles to cook something.”
The residents of Avdiivka have been hardened by the war, explains Yana Sytna, one of the volunteers who delivers food and other much-needed goods to the Donetsk population. Some even returned home after initially leaving the city after the start of the Russian invasion, she says.
Local authorities have been desperate to urge residents to evacuate, but many are holding on to their homes for as long as they can. “It seems especially difficult for many in Donetsk to leave their homes and flee into the unknown,” Statna acknowledges. Many feel obliged to continue caring for their elderly relatives or even dozens of animals, while their children become “hostages” of this situation. According to Barabash, some of the remaining 2,000 residents are probably waiting for the arrival of Russian troops. Still he can’t comprehend how they can risk so much their lives and especially the lives of their children. After months of trying to convince them, Barabash announced the decision to evacuate the remaining six children without obtaining their parents’ consent, as conditions in the city are becoming unbearable.
The city’s communal services have already begun to withdraw to save the lives of their staff and their families, as Russian troops slowly advance in an attempt to encircle the city.
Avdiivka is of special importance to both parties due to its proximity to Donetsk. For the Russians it has been one of the epicenters of the Ukrainian attempts to retake Donetsk. For Ukrainians, holding it represents their hope of eventually liberating this regional capital.
Capturing it could also open the way for the Russians to the city of Pokrovsk and a major water reservoir at Karlivka, control of which could help the invading force achieve its goal of capturing the entire region.
As in Bakhmut, the results of the battle are still far from clear. After several heated days, a Ukrainian spokesman indicated that the intensity of the attacks had subsided as the Russians suffered losses in their forces and equipment. Yet they are redirecting forces from other parts of the front line to Avdiivka, while trying to capture as much ground as possible before the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive begins.
Ukrainian troops are hell-bent on holding the city, which sits on higher ground. President Volodomyr Zelensky stressed in early March that the future of Ukraine would be decided in Avdiivka, among other cities in Donbas.
An intense battle continues in Bakhmut, where Russian troops are trying to move towards the center. The situation remains “critical, but under control,” according to a spokesman for the Ukrainian Army. Ukrainian troops are under immense pressure in Donetsk, but are hoping their resistance will exhaust the Russian forces to give the new reserves any chance.