After grueling months of fighting Russian forces, Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from the battered town of Avdiivka, the armed forces commander said Saturday.

The retreat expands Moscow’s control of Ukraine’s east and delivers a symbolic victory for President Vladimir Putin as he is about to be re-elected.

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said he ordered the withdrawal “to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of servicemen.”

“I decided to withdraw our units from the city and move to defense on more favorable lines,” Syrskyi said in a statement on Facebook Saturday local time.

This marks the most high-profile retreat for Kyiv’s forces since Russia’s capture of another eastern city of Bakhmut, just 30 miles north of Avdiivka, last May. Although the town doesn’t hold great strategic significance, its seizure could add to the mounting pressure on Kyiv to hold its positions amid faltering Western aid and critical ammunition shortages. 

Image: Russia Continues Long-Running Assault On Avdiivka Area
Ukrainian soldiers in an armored vehicle on the outskirts of Avdiivka on Feb. 14, 2023.Vlada Liberova / Libkos / Getty Images

It’s also the first major retreat under Syrskyi, who was named Ukraine’s new commander-in-chief a week ago. Syrskyi was brought in by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in hopes of a “different approach” and to turn things around on the battlefield. 

“We are taking measures to stabilize the situation and maintain our positions,” Syrskyi said in announcing the withdrawal. He also vowed to return.

Ahead of the retreat, Syrskyi’s forces tried to dig in. The country’s military said it was bringing in battle-hardened reinforcements and more ammunition. 

But an artillery sergeant fighting in the town for several months told NBC News that his unit had faced severe restrictions on how many rounds it could fire daily amid shortages compounded by dwindling human resources. 

Battles for Avdiivka, which is less than 10 miles north of the Russian-controlled regional capital of Donetsk, have been going on since the beginning of the war but intensified in October after Ukraine’s much-vaunted counteroffensive fizzled out. 

Russia-Ukraine war on the New Year's Eve
Ukrainian medical personnel treat wounded soldiers at a stabilization point near Avdiivka city, in Donetsk, Ukraine on Dec. 31, 2023. Elif Kizil / Anadolu via Getty Images

Earlier this month, Ukraine’s command and the town’s military administration began reporting that Russians were pushing in from all directions and that the situation was becoming critical. 

Military observers and U.S. officials have warned that the delay in new military aid from Washington, which has been stalled in Congress amid Republican opposition since fall, was endangering Kyiv’s positions in Avdiivka and elsewhere along the 600-mile frontline. 

The nearly-ruined town had a pre-war population of 32,000. Its seizure by Russian forces would expand Moscow’s control of the eastern Donetsk region, but Ukraine is still far from losing the remainder of the region, at least for now. 

Ukraine Frontline Soldier
A Ukrainian serviceman prepares for combat close to Avdiivka, in the Donetsk region on Feb. 11, 2024.Genya Savilov / AFP – Getty Images

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