Russia claims ‘full control’ of key eastern town as Biden blames rebel Republicans

By Isaac M February 19, 2024

Russia has established “full control” of a key eastern frontline city, a day after Ukraine’s military chief announced a unilateral withdrawal from the area, the Kremlin’s defence minister claimed.

The fight for the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka, which had been waged for 10 years, had escalated over the past fortnight as Russian forces breached the city’s northeast and southern edges, and proceeded to launch costly but ultimately unstoppable waves of assaults.

Russia’s defence ministry yesterday said its troops had advanced 5.3 miles since Ukraine’s newly appointed military commander-in-chief, Oleksandr Sirsky, announced the withdrawal at the start of the weekend.

The ministry had earlier said that Ukrainian units were still present in the city, mainly in Avdiivka’s coke and chemical plant, which had become the last defensive stronghold.

“Measures are being taken to completely clear the town of militants and to block Ukrainian units that have left the town and are entrenched at the Avdiivka coke and chemical plant,” said Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov.

There has been no public comment yet from Ukrainian authorities. Russian state television showed blue and yellow Ukrainian flags being taken down in Avdiivka and Russia’s white, blue and red tricolour flag raised, including over the coke plant.

Ukrainian soldiers pile up earthbags to build a fortification near Avdiivka on Saturday

(AFP via Getty Images)

Footage showed Ukrainian units fortifying defensive positions in Lastochkyne, a small town northwest of Avdiivka, while the military said they had repelled 14 attacks in the area since their withdrawal. Elsewhere, they claimed to have shot down a Russian Su-34 fighter jet and stopped a ground assault in the neighbouring Zaporizhzhia region to the south.

Thus far, Ukraine have destroyed or damaged 82 Russian combat aircraft, according to war tracker Oryx. On Saturday, Ukraine claimed to have shot down three fighter jets.

The head of the Russian defence ministry, Sergei Shoigu, reportedly alerted president Vladimir Putin to the takeover of Avdiivka on Saturday night.

Mr Putin later congratulated the Russian commander in charge of the assault on Avdiivka, Colonel-General Andrei Mordvichev.

“Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in fulfilling the tasks of the special military operation!” Mr Putin said in a telegram. He called the takeover an “important victory”.

Capturing Avdiivka is likely to provide a morale boost for Russia ahead of Mr Putin’s bid for re-election next month, which he is certain to win.

It is Russia’s biggest gain since capturing the city of Bakhmut in May 2023, and comes almost two years to the day since Mr Putin triggered a full-scale war by ordering the invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a speech at the Munich Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich, Germany

(Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

It is also seen as another step towards securing Moscow’s hold on the regional centre of Donetsk, some 12 miles to the east, which has been held by Russian and pro-Russian forces since 2014.

The city, once home to 32,000 people, was completely razed to the ground by months of Russian aerial assaults. Officials said that not a single building in the city was left intact, while less than 1,000 citizens remained.

In a Saturday afternoon call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, US president Joe Biden laid the blame for the fall of Avdiivka plainly with Donald Trump-supporting Republican representatives, who continue to block a multibillion-dollar weapons package for Ukraine.

“Ukraine’s military was forced to withdraw from Avdiivka after Ukrainian soldiers had to ration ammunition due to dwindling supplies as a result of congressional inaction, resulting in Russia’s first notable gains in months,” a statement after the call said.

The US Senate, the upper chamber of Congress, has pushed through a $95.3bn (£75.6bn) foreign aid package, roughly two-thirds of which is intended for Ukraine, but House speaker Mike Johnson insists he won’t be “rushed” into approving the bill.

House speaker Mike Johnson has blocked a vote on a $95.3bn foreign aid package from the US, roughly two-thirds of which is intended for Ukraine

(Getty Images)

As the speaker of the lower chamber, he has blocked a vote on the bill despite overwhelming support from most Democrats and almost half the Republicans.

Senator ​​JD Vance, an Ohio Republican and ally of Donald Trump, said yesterday that “the problem in Ukraine — is that there’s no clear end point” and that the US doesn’t make enough weapons to support wars in eastern Europe, the Middle East and potentially in East Asia.

Mr Trump, who is expected to be the Republican nominee for the presidential election later this year, has called for the bill to be blocked.

Mr Zelensky, meanwhile, accused his Western partners of creating an “artificial deficit of weapons”, without naming the Republican Party.

In a speech at the Munich Security Conference, he said: “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war. The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”

“Our actions are limited only by … our strength,” he added, pointing to the situation in Avdiivka.

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