HomeWorld NewsInside Ukraine’s last stand in Avdiivka and its ‘road of death’

Inside Ukraine’s last stand in Avdiivka and its ‘road of death’

DONETSK REGION, Ukraine — On Feb. 17, Russia claimed total control of the eastern city of Avdiivka — its first significant territorial gain in almost a year.

The loss was a stinging defeat for Ukraine, which up until the last minute was still rushing troops to the city in a desperate last-ditch attempt to hold the Russians off.

By many accounts, the Ukrainian retreat was panicked and disorganized, with dozens feared left behind as Russian forces attacked in seemingly endless waves.

Seven troops from the 3rd Assault Brigade spoke to The Post about their final days under Russian assault inside the former Ukrainian stronghold. Their accounts drive home the urgency of Ukraine’s battlefield disadvantage as soldiers — far outnumbered by Russians — wait for Western weapon deliveries and troop reinforcements.

All soldiers are being identified by their call signs, in keeping with military rules.

Major had just arrived in Avdiivka in the second week of February and set up in an old, two-story student dorm when waves of Russian troops began crashing against his unit’s position.

Eventually, a group of well-trained Russian soldiers hit them with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and were soon fighting their way through the building.

Russian troops backed Major into the corner of a room and screamed at him to surrender. He played along and begged them not to shoot as he frantically looked for a way out.

Other Ukrainian troops came to his rescue with an assault of their own and in the ensuing chaos, he scrambled out of a second-floor window to safety.

By the time his unit retreated, he was in charge. So many soldiers had been wounded that there was “nobody more senior left,” the 21-year-old said.

His unit was then assigned to a tree line along the evacuation routes — one of the last lines of defense — to cover the troops pulling out. Soon the Russians were “raining down very targeted artillery fire on us,” he said.

If there were more troops, artillery and air cover, Ukrainian forces could have held on to the position, he said, adding, “We just needed something to fight with.”

When his group finally left the city entirely, he watched the convoy in front of him erupt into fire as artillery took them out. “It was just a convoy of people. A convoy of the best men ever. And in front of our eyes, this convoy was destroyed by artillery. People of my age, between 20 and 30.”

“This was the road of death,” he said, “the very last one out of Avdiivka.”

Schultz arrived at his position in Avdiivka early in the morning on Feb. 9 and was working with Major inside the two-story dorm.

The fight started to feel real, he said, when a Ukrainian soldier fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a Russian infantry vehicle outside his window, hitting the driver. The vehicle lost control and soldiers sitting on top of it began jumping off and “we started taking them out.” For the next several days, “the Russians were trying to storm our positions, wave after wave after wave,” he said.

When the retreat order came in, he left in an armored personnel carrier. There were no windows from which to view the outside, but from the sounds of it, a shell landed just in front of their vehicle and another to the side as they careened out of the city.

For several days after he deployed to Avdiivka’s coke plant — a type of coal used to make steel — squad leader Kavkaz organized his troops to fend off the assaults on their positions inside abandoned houses.

Around three-quarters of the Russians they fought appeared to have decent military training, he said. The rest were “just confused.” But only a little more than half of his troops had any combat experience themselves.

His unit was getting ready to carry out the order to retreat when soldiers from the 2nd Presidential Brigade turned up, apparently lost and asking for information. They had lost all communication with their commander and had no idea about the order to withdraw.

Time was running out, so Kavkaz quickly arranged vehicles to help those troops pull out, including his own Toyota Hilux pickup truck, which the soldiers later returned heavily damaged and without a windshield.

Although his troops were scheduled to leave in shifts at 4:30 a.m., the lost troops were allowed to evacuate first. “These 30 minutes, or even an hour, were very crucial. It was a great risk for us,” he said.

Those small delays made a dangerous situation more critical.

“I believe the [retreat] order should have been given earlier,” he added. “Even five hours earlier would’ve made a difference.”

Shved, a marksman, was constantly moving between positions in Avdiivka, shooting so many Russian troops he said he “lost count after 10.”

Setting up in abandoned civilian homes, he had to get creative to find firing positions. At one point, he said, he perched on top of a wardrobe to get a better shot. “I learned everything I needed to know about unstable positions in Avdiivka,” he said.

The skill levels of Russian troops were not “really consistent,” he said. There were some with little more than uniforms and basic rifles while others had more advanced equipment. He had several close calls and after three concussions, his commander consulted a medic and suggested it might be time to leave.

By then, he said, it felt like “someone put a pan over my head, hit me with a baseball bat, and then punched and kicked me.”

He agreed to evacuate, but while being driven out with three other wounded men, a drone hit their vehicle, damaging it and giving him his fourth concussion. They all survived.

When he arrived in Avdiivka for his first-ever combat mission on Feb. 8, Bandit, 27, crossed the train tracks toward a residential area and saw “a hellscape,” he said.

Stray dogs wandered between blown-up houses. Piles of rubble were everywhere.

A machine-gunner and native of Canada, he set up in a one-story house and watched as Russia sent in inexperienced troops in waves each morning, afternoon and evening. They appeared to be in their 40s or 50s, with no protective vests or helmets.

“My first day, I took out eight,” he said. “They never came past my window again.”

On their third day in the house, Russia launched a nonstop assault around the position using small-arms fire, drones, mortars, artillery and aerial bombs — forcing them to retreat to another gutted home nearby.

A drone crashed into his window but got stuck on a wire frame, snapped into pieces and didn’t explode.

Once ordered to retreat, he and fellow troops took up positions along the tree line to cover retreating Ukrainian forces.

As cluster munitions rained down, his team leader told them not to bother waiting for vehicles but to just leave on foot. They walked through shelling in the dark, trying to keep 5 to 10 meters between each soldier to reduce the chances of being spotted by the Russians — and to minimize casualties from incoming attacks.

When they looked back, they saw white phosphorus shells falling just 500 meters behind them.

On Feb. 11, Fedya drove into Avdiivka and took up a position at a command center in the coke plant. He was tasked with briefing arriving infantry troops and conducting reconnaissance missions to scope out fallback locations. He was also overseeing operations for troops positioned in a large trench near the plant.

But within days, it became clear that the Russians were gaining control of key areas and would soon be able to cut off all exits from the city. He watched as they closed in on the front line.

When the call came for the retreat, he instructed certain troops on how they should leave their positions. The plans were then passed between soldiers like a game of telephone.

He eventually left the city, driving an unarmored car that had previously been used to transport ammunition and evacuate the injured. When they realized some units were withdrawing, the Russians ramped up their attacks to prevent troops from leaving safely.

On the road out, he said, “I was so high on adrenaline it hushed out all the other emotions.”

If they had waited much longer, he said, evacuation would have become impossible. “It didn’t make sense to hold on until everyone was dead,” he said.

Shortly before he withdrew from Avdiivka, a soldier from a neighboring drone unit burst into Gerych’s command center in the coke plant, begging for help. It was nighttime and a strike had just knocked over a large piece of concrete, crushing his partner.

Gerych and his fellow troops were torn. The story could be true or — with enemy troops closing in on their positions — it could be a Russian trap. They declined to help until they could confirm the soldier’s identity. He was ultimately able to pull his wounded friend out himself.

Hours later, once they confirmed the pair were Ukrainian, they treated the injured troop’s crushed leg, provided him with food and cigarettes, and helped him evacuate.

When it was their turn to leave, they realized Russian forces would soon take over their command centers, so they destroyed all sensitive materials: personal documents, orders, maps, handwritten notes with coordinates, shift schedules or names — even leftover food.

The Russians were in the coke plant soon afterward.

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