Why is Ukraine’s Avdiivka important and why does Russia want to capture it?

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Russian forces are intensifying efforts to seize the small eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka as Moscow’s war in Ukraine grinds on.

The fighting is reminiscent of the battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut, which fell to Russia last May after months of grinding urban combat, 15 months into a full-scale invasion that Moscow calls a “special military operation.”

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Ukraine’s Third Assault Brigade, which fought in the battle of Bakhmut, says it has been deployed to Avdiivka and has described the situation there as “threatening and unstable.”

What is Avdiivka?

Avdiivka, which had a pre-war population of around 32,000 and is called Avdeyevka by Russians, was briefly occupied in 2014 by Moscow-backed separatists who seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine but was recaptured by Ukrainian troops who built fortifications.

Today, authorities say fewer than 1,000 residents remain, many sheltering in cellars and basements. Officials say not a single building remains intact, and Avdiivka’s mayor says it is under attack from all directions.

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

Russian-backed officials describe Avdiivka as a “fortress” with concrete bunkers. They say defenders are holed up in tower blocks that cannot be stormed head-on without huge losses, and are using the coking plant as a base and weapons depot.

What losses have Russia and Ukraine suffered in Avdiivka?

Ukrainian and Western military analysts say Russia’s offensive on Avdiivka is taking a huge human toll.

Last November, British military intelligence said the fighting had contributed to “some of the highest Russian casualty rates of the war so far.”

“Every day there are new fresh forces, regardless of the weather, regardless of anything - of losses,” one member of Ukraine’s 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade told Radio Liberty.

“But no matter what, they keep crawling - literally over the bodies of their own.”

Russian war bloggers, whom the Kremlin has brought under tight control, have acknowledged heavy Russian losses but alleged significant Ukrainian losses too.

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They say Kyiv’s forces could be encircled if Russian forces can cut their last main supply line to the west.

President Vladimir Putin on January 31 underlined Avdiivka’s significance and said a group of military veterans had recently advanced ahead of the army to seize 19 buildings - an assertion that, like other battlefield reports, Reuters cannot verify.

Russia has been carrying out air strikes with targeting assistance from special forces, and using artillery, drones, helicopters and tanks as well as infantry, according to spare but regular Russian defense ministry updates.

Ukraine, which replaced its popular army chief and other military leaders on February 8, has not said what its military strategy for the town is, or whether it might eventually withdraw.

What’s at stake in Avdiivka?

Both sides regard Avdiivka as key to Russia’s aim of securing full control of the two eastern “Donbas” provinces - Donetsk and Luhansk. These are among the four Ukrainian regions Russia says it has annexed but does not have full control of.

Avdiivka is seen as a gateway to Donetsk city, whose residential areas Russian officials say have been shelled by Ukrainian forces, sometimes from Avdiivka.

Seizing it could boost Russian morale and demoralize Ukrainian forces, which have made only incremental gains in a broad counteroffensive since June. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself visited in December.

“If the Russian army takes control of the (supply) road, the Ukrainian armed forces will evidently be forced to withdraw from Avdeyevka. That will be a great victory for the Russian army,” Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, said on February 5.

Mykola Bielieskov of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, an official think-tank in Kyiv, said taking Avdiivka would not decisively tip the situation in Moscow’s favor but “would make the situation more tenable for occupied Donetsk as a major Russian logistics hub.”

Bielieskov believes the battle is driven by a Kremlin desire to strengthen the hand of Western sceptics calling for a cut in support for Kyiv, citing the limited impact of billions of dollars in military aid.

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