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Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers ‘captured’ in chaotic withdrawal from eastern city

A Ukrainian soldier, pictured in Avdiivka in December 2023
A Ukrainian soldier, pictured in Avdiivka in December 2023 - Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu via Getty Images

Hundreds of Ukrainian troops may have been captured by Russia during their chaotic withdrawal from the eastern city of Avdiivka.

‌Western and Ukrainian sources said between 850 and 1,000 troops appear to have been taken prisoner or are unaccounted for following the retreat, The New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s newly-appointed commander-in-chief, had decided to pull back from the symbolic city in the Donetsk region to prevent his men being encircled by advancing Russian forces.

Kyiv’s troops had found themselves outgunned and outnumbered in an increasingly desperate battle to hold the industrial town after Moscow significantly ramped up its effort to secure its first battlefield victory in months.

The retreat was believed to have gone according to plan with minimal losses after one of Ukraine’s best, battle-hardened units was deployed to stabilise the situation and cover the withdrawal.

However, General Oleksandr Tarnavsky, the commander of Ukraine’s forces in the area, acknowledged some troops had been taken prisoner.

He said: “Nevertheless, at the final stage of the operation, under the pressure of the prevailing enemy forces, a number of Ukrainian servicemen were captured.”

Kyiv has since attempted to downplay losses suffered during the withdrawal after the pullback was ordered last Friday.

An aerial photograph of a snow-covered Avdiivka, taken by a drone in December
An aerial photograph of a snow-covered Avdiivka, taken by a drone in December - Libkos/Getty Images Europe

“There are prisoners, but their number is by no means in the hundreds,” Dmytro Lykhovii, a Ukrainian military spokesman told The Telegraph.

He added a “certain number” of soldiers were missing, with some men having since been found in hospital or with their units.

‌However, the report by The New York Times, citing Western and Ukrainian sources, said the retreat had descended into chaos, resulting in the capture of a large number of Kyiv’s forces.

‘Frantic situation’

‌The Ukrainian withdrawal was described as “ill-planned”, with commanders said to have waited too long in ordering the retreat.

‌Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade had been brought in to buy time for its battle-stricken forces, but the elite unit was unable to slow the Russian advance enough to get all their soldiers out.

‌The situation became frantic as Kyiv’s troops took the only paved road available to them – which was surrounded on three sides – to escape the city.

The highway, which Ukrainians had nicknamed the “road of life”, came under direct attack by Russian forces earlier this month.

An image from the Russian Defence Ministry on Monday purporting to show two of its soldiers in Avdiivka
An image from the Russian Defence Ministry on Monday purporting to show two of its soldiers in Avdiivka - Russian Defence Ministry

S‌ome Ukrainian units on the ground were reported to have been unaware of the orders to withdraw, while others had already begun to leave their defensive positions in Avdiivka.

‌Unverified battlefield footage shared on social media appeared to show Ukrainian troops retreating under heavy artillery fire and bodies scattered along the road.

Ukraine’s prosecutor in the eastern Donetsk region has said it is investigating “the shooting of unarmed Ukrainian prisoners of war in Avdiivka”.

Dented morale

‌If confirmed, the reported losses would make Ukraine’s withdrawal more significant.

‌Until now, the loss of Avdiivka, the first city to fall into Russia’s hands since Bakhmut last May, had not been considered a major victory for Moscow by Western military planners.

However, it could now cause a further dent in war-torn Ukraine’s morale after its much-vaunted counter-offensive failed to reach its main objectives last year.

‌The situation could also make it harder for Ukraine to recruit the 500,000 troops requested by its military to continue fighting against the Russian invasion.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence said on Tuesday that the losses suffered by Russia during the capture of Avdiivka would probably lead it to pause fighting while the military replenished its forces.

‌“It is likely that Russian forces lack the combat effectiveness to immediately exploit the capture of Avdiivka and will require a period of rest and refit,” officials wrote in a daily battlefield update.