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Ukraine war: Is Russia about to win another victory?

“Difficult, but under control”, “manoeuvring” but not “retreating”.

Ukraine’s military has chosen its words carefully when it comes to the situation in the eastern city of Avdiivka, which was briefly occupied by Russia in 2014 before being retaken by Ukraine.

But the inescapable reality is that Russia is likely to be about to achieve its biggest victory since Ukraine’s failed counter offensive last year – by taking it once more.

Despite suffering enormous losses, four months of relentless attacks have left the Ukrainians troops there outnumbered, outgunned, and with dwindling ammunition.

What would Avdiivka’s fall mean for the wider conflict?

The most pressing question for Ukraine is whether its soldiers can make it out of Avdiivka alive.

The 3rd Assault Brigade deployed in the city says they’re being attacked by infantry in all directions. Reports suggest the Russians have also cut off the main supply route for Ukrainian forces.

Russia has concentrated its best-trained fighters in the area and is believed to be dropping up to 60 bombs a day on Ukrainian positions.

As with other Ukrainian settlements on the front line, Russia will “liberate” an almost totally destroyed city.

Ukraine war: Is Russia about to win another victory?

The last time a Ukrainian city – Bakhmut – was taken by the Russians, the country’s now-head of the armed forces was criticised for holding on to it for too long. General Oleksandr Syrskyi was accused of pursuing a symbolic victory at the expense of needless casualties.

But in a recent interview, he said Ukraine was now moving to a “defensive operation” and that he would “rather retreat than sacrifice personnel”.

Avdiivka will test that claim.

With this now being a war of attrition, the difference in Ukraine and Russia’s size is becoming more apparent. Russia’s population of more than 140 million is several times larger than Ukraine’s.

This Russian advance hasn’t happened overnight. Since last October, Moscow has launched wave after wave of attacks towards Avdiivka.

From their raised positions and reinforced defences in the industrial city, the Ukrainians were able to hold them off with targeted strikes, leaving the scarred Donbas landscape littered with Russian bodies and destroyed armoured vehicles.

Despite losing thousands of soldiers in the process, Moscow has made its size count by replenishing them almost immediately. Ukrainian forces have suffered losses too, though not to the same extent.

Now it seems Russian troops have penetrated defences which have been reinforced over the 10 years since Moscow’s campaign of aggression first started.

To Kyiv’s frustration, Ukraine has been unable to break Russian fortifications elsewhere, which were built in a matter of months.

Ukraine war: Is Russia about to win another victory?

“Russia can’t achieve strategical goals, only tactical ones,” says Major Rodion Kudryashov, a Ukrainian deputy commander of the 3rd Assault Brigade fighting in Avdiivka. He says his troops are outnumbered by as many as seven to one. Over the phone he told me: “It’s like fighting two armies.”

He’s confident the Russians wouldn’t push further to cities like Pokrovsk and Kostyantynivka, but that is far from guaranteed.

What it will do for them is relieve pressure on the city of Donetsk 15km (9 miles) further east, which Russia has occupied since 2014.

Ukraine has been forced backwards like this before, notably in the summer of 2022.

Large, well-equipped Russian units encircled cities like Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. The Ukrainians could do little to stop them.

However, a subsequent influx of Western weapons and inspired military thinking led to a changing of the tide later that year, with liberations in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions.

But this is a different war now.

Global politics are having a more significant impact on the battlefield.

Stuttering Western help has directly contributed to this likely Ukrainian retreat in Avdiivka.

The US leads the way on providing weapons to Ukraine, because of the scale and speed it can provide them. With a $95bn package including aid for Ukraine still not approved in Washington, other allies are struggling to fill the gap.

It means the Ukrainians are having to ration ammunition and manage low morale. And Avdiivka may not be the only withdrawal Kyiv is considering.

Vladimir Putin also still wants the whole of Ukraine, and it is still possible that he could take it.

That prospect could either restore Western unity in trying to prevent it, or fuel the scepticism that Ukraine was never able to win this war, despite the extraordinary defence it has displayed in Avdiivka and elsewhere.

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