Avdiivka, a Ukrainian town taken by Russia, shown in ruins

By Thomson Reuters Feb 20, 2024 | 4:36 AM

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The trees are splintered, the houses wrecked, the surviving civilians live in basements, NATO ammunition has been abandoned – this is the picture shown by footage released by Russia from the ruins of the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka.

The town, once with a population of 32,000, fell to Russia on Saturday, President Vladimir Putin’s biggest victory since Moscow captured the city of Bakhmut in May 2023.

Television footage released by Russia’s defence ministry showed that almost every house in Avdiivka was branded with war. An unidentified Russian soldier walked past a wasteland of rubble, describing a chaotic Ukrainian retreat.

The cupola of a church was in pieces, roads were strewn with the detritus of war including a wrecked armoured vehicle and whole apartment blocks hung down broken, seeping out lives long abandoned into the snow.

The soldier showed baked beans and chilli military rations supplied by Canada, brand new NATO 7.62 mm M118 cartridges, 120 mm mortars and a box with “Choctaw Defense Manufacturing Group” printed on them.

Reuters was able to confirm the location of some of the footage released by the defence ministry by the structure and design of nearby buildings, a bridge and train tracks which matched file and satellite imagery. Reuters was not able to independently verify when the video was taken.

Beside dogs, a woman named Tatiana, one of just a few hundred civilians still living in the ruins, told of a life huddling in basements and running to collect water in plastic containers during any lull in the fighting.

“It was scary of course – very scary,” Tatiana said in Russian in the footage. “We are so happy that you have come.”

“We live in the basements. We don’t live in flats. All our flats are wrecked. After the start of the special operation we went down into the basements.”

Ukraine said it withdrew its soldiers to save troops from being fully surrounded after months of fierce fighting. Putin hailed the fall of Avdiivka as an important victory and congratulated Russian troops.

After the failure of Ukraine to pierce Russian lines last year, Moscow has been trying to grind down Ukrainian forces just as Kyiv ponders a major new mobilisation. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appointed a new commander last week to run the war.

Russia cast the Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka as rushed and chaotic, with some soldiers and weapons left behind. The Ukrainian military said there had been casualties but that the situation had stabilised somewhat after the retreat.

Putin sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022, triggering full-scale war after eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian forces on one side and pro-Russian Ukrainians and Russian proxies on the other.

Avdiivka, which is called Avdeyevka by Russians, has endured a decade of conflict. It holds particular symbolism for Russia as it was briefly taken in 2014 by Moscow-backed separatists who seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine but was then recaptured by Ukrainian troops who built extensive fortifications.

Avdiivka sits in the industrial Donbas region, 15 km (9 miles) north of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk. Before the war, the Soviet-era coke plant was one of Europe’s biggest.

Western intelligence assessments say hundreds of thousands of men on both sides have been killed or wounded in the war.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff)