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Both Sides Pay a Bloody Price for Coveted Ukrainian City

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The tall chimneys of the Avdiivka Coke Plant stand out against the skyline. Beside it a sprawling slag heap juts into the sky, offering a high point overlooking the city of Avdiivka and surrounding villages.

The two landmarks have been the focus of furious fighting since Oct. 10 as thousands of Russian troops began a major new offensive in eastern Ukraine to seize Avdiivka, a long-coveted prize that would extend Russia’s control of the coal mining region of the Donbas.

Yet within days this battle for Avdiivka was shaping up to be perhaps the costliest of the war for Russia. Ukrainian artillery destroyed Russian armored columns on the approaches to the city, and drones armed with explosives struck down infantry as they dismounted from vehicles and advanced on foot, according to Ukrainian soldiers and commanders, Russian military bloggers and independent military analysts.

Waves of Russian soldiers scaled the industrial waste heap to gain its heights. Each time they were shredded by Ukrainian artillery.

Nearly three weeks into the battle, the Russian army has failed to make the swift breakthrough it wanted. It has lost hundreds of men and more than 100 armored vehicles and tanks, the Institute for the Study of War reported, and twice that amount by Ukrainian accounts. In the main direction of the attacks, it has advanced barely a mile, and in other places only a few hundred yards.

As both sides have found in nearly two years of heavy artillery battles, a mechanized assault against a strong defensive line is always a brutal experience.

The Ukrainians are taking heavy casualties, too; one soldier described how only six soldiers from his unit of more than 50 remained uninjured after the first days of fighting.

The Russian losses at Avdiivka are even more numerous than those suffered by the Russian army in battles last year and at Vuhledar in March this year, Ukrainian officials and analysts said.

Those earlier losses of equipment severely restricted Russia’s ability to maneuver as it had planned, and the new losses may hamper its operations in the same way again, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Virginia-based research group.

The city has been a target of Russian guns ever since Russian proxy forces seized it and then lost it to Ukrainian forces in 2014.

“The most we have had is half a day of quiet,” said a former lawmaker now serving in the 109th Territorial Defense Brigade near the city, his hometown. “But this assault was the harshest that we have had in the whole war.”

He asked to be identified only by his call sign, Deputat, for security reasons, as did all members of the military interviewed for this article.

Over the past nine years Avdiivka has become a bastion of Ukraine’s defense in the east. The city stands a few miles from Donetsk, the largest city of the Russian controlled eastern provinces, well within range of its airport and main installations.

Even as Ukrainian troops have lost surrounding territory, they have continued to block Russia’s use of the main highway and railroad along the frontline.

That gives Avdiivka strategic military value, since capturing it would push Ukrainian forces back from the threshold of Donetsk and open up the main rail and road routes for Russian forces in the area.

But it carries political value as well. To capture the city after so many years of resistance would be a major coup for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia heading into the winter.

Most of the people in the city fled under the relentless Russian bombardment. Of the prewar population of 36,000, not many more than 1,000 people remain, officials said. “Most of them are pensioners,” said Lyuty, the commander of a special forces unit of the Interior Ministry in the city. He was scathing about civilians who refused to leave, saying they put themselves and his men at risk.

Ukrainian reconnaissance teams saw signs of a Russian buildup around Avdiivka in the weeks before the first attack on Oct. 10, said Baloo, commander of the brigade’s drone unit. The number amounted to at least three brigades, he said.

“Military vehicles and armor were gathering,” he said. “Lots of civilians cars too, which looked like commanders were arriving in the area.”

The Russians followed a predictable pattern, Ukrainian soldiers said, opening the battle with heavy artillery and aerial bombardment and then advancing in columns of armored vehicles. They were well prepared, sending demining equipment forward first to clear the way and groups of armored vehicles racing in behind to drop off infantry.

But with fleets of drones in the air, the Ukrainians saw their advance and began targeting the vehicles on the approaches, the commanders said.

“We have an important task, as all drone units do,” said Baloo. “We have to locate and dispose of the enemy before they attack.”

Over the last year Russian forces have been steadily pushing in a pincer movement to encircle Avdiivka, focusing the main thrust of their recent assaults on closing the last six-mile gap that would cut Ukrainian access to the city.

Russian troops attacked from the northeast to try to cut the main road at the village of Berdichi. From the southwest, other forces pushed up toward the village of Sieverne, which lies on a smaller road into the city.

Russian soldiers broke through to Ukrainian positions in tree lines in the northwest, and began scaling the waste heap that overlooks the coke plant.

The fighting was so intense the first day that the 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade began running low on drones and called on the 109th brigade, positioned nearby, for reinforcements.

For a day and half, a drone pilot, call sign Boomer, and his navigator, Grek, joined the fight, zooming in on advancing Russian infantry from a bunker on the edge of the battlefield. A third team member loaded their drones with explosives and launched them into the air.

“We were pushing them back but during the night they were sending in fresh soldiers,” Boomer said of the Russian forces. “We killed so many we ran out of stocks.” The unit had to call volunteers to send more drones, he said.

On the third day of fighting, Oct. 12, they started to see Russians fleeing. Boomer played a video he had saved on his cellphone of a Russian soldier running way from a bunker. “He understands he will die if he stays there,” he said.

After three days of ferocious fighting, there was a lull. The drone team scoured Russian positions for targets. They showed footage of their hits on a reserve tank set back from the frontline and a van hidden in a farmyard that they said was ferrying drones and equipment to Russian forces. Then Russian troops attacked again on Oct. 19.

In the tree lines on the edges of the city, soldiers are fighting hand-to-hand, as the Russians have stormed trenches and the Ukrainians have counterattacked. But much of the battle at Avdiivka is being fought remotely from bunkers and hidden positions.

In a well-constructed underground bunker, set well back from the frontline, commanders of the 1st Strike Battalion of the 59th Mechanized Brigade monitored the fighting on a bank of video screens livestreaming different views of the battlefield.

One screen showed the bodies of Russian soldiers splayed at awkward angles on an empty road. “One is still alive,” said Bardak, the battalion’s head of reconnaissance. The wounded soldier moved, raising an arm, and then fell back.

“He’s dead,” a duty officer said.

Even as they recounted successes on the battlefield, Ukrainian soldiers did not play down Russian strengths.

Battalion commanders from the 59th Brigade showed a video of a Russian multiple rocket system carrying thermobaric warheads on its approach through a village during the assault of Oct. 19. The Ukrainians destroyed the weapon, but it could have smashed Ukrainian defenses, and soldiers’ morale, if it had not been stopped, Bardak said.

Ukraine could lose Avdiivka under the weight of such Russian firepower, as they did the nearby city of Bakhmut, he said.

“It’s possible, if we run out of men and ammunition,” he said.

His commander, who uses the call sign Condor, was more upbeat.

The Russians had some small successes but at great cost, he said. “They gain some territory, but a very small area, and they lose the possibility to advance.”

“If these tactics they use were successful, we would not be here talking to you now.”

Vladyslav Golovin and Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Donetsk region. Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting from London.

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