Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers are feared to have been captured or disappeared in the chaotic retreat

Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers may have been captured by advancing Russian units or gone missing during Ukraine’s chaotic retreat from the eastern city of Avdiivka, according to senior Western officials and soldiers fighting for Ukraine, a devastating loss that could deal a blow to already weakened morale.

Russia’s capture of Avdiivka proved to be a significant symbolic loss for Ukrainian troops, a sign of the impact on the battlefield of the US Congress’s failure so far to authorize more military aid as dwindling supplies of artillery shells make it difficult to hold lines.

Estimates of how many Ukrainians are captured or missing vary, and a precise number may not be possible until Ukraine reinforces new defense lines outside the city. But two soldiers with knowledge of the Ukrainian withdrawal estimate that 850 to 1,000 soldiers are captured or missing. Western officials said that range appeared to be accurate.

US officials say the loss of Avdiivka is not a significant strategic setback, arguing that Russian gains in eastern Ukraine will not necessarily lead to any collapse of Ukrainian lines and that Moscow is unlikely to be able to follow through with another major offensive.

But the capture of hundreds of soldiers could change that calculus. US officials have said in recent days that morale among Ukrainian troops has already been eroded, following a failed counteroffensive last year and the removal of the commander-in-chief. Because of those problems, officials said, Ukraine’s military is struggling with recruiting.

Ukrainian military officials have said they want to mobilize up to 500,000 more, but the request has met with political resistance and has been stalled in parliament. The capture of hundreds of soldiers, especially those with battlefield experience, would make the need for more troops more acute and complicate efforts to recruit more.

As a result, the fall of Avdiivk may be more important than first thought.

The Ukrainian military command acknowledged that some soldiers were captured in the retreat from Avdiivka, but tried to downplay the number and significance.

On Saturday, General Oleksandr Tarnavsky, commander of Ukrainian military operations in the area, said in the messaging app Telegram that the retreat went according to plan, but “at the final stage of the operation, under the pressure of superior enemy forces, some Ukrainian soldiers were captured”. He did not reveal how many soldiers were captured.

Dmytro Likhovy, a spokesman for General Tarnavski, disputed reports that hundreds of soldiers were captured, calling it disinformation. But he acknowledged that Russia had captured some military personnel and that “a number” of soldiers had gone missing.

A senior Ukrainian official insisted that only six soldiers were captured in the retreat from the city. Those soldiers, from the Third Separate Assault Brigade, were captured after they ran out of ammunition and lost communication with the Ukrainian military, the official said.

But some soldiers and Western officials said the failure to carry out an orderly withdrawal and the chaos that unfolded on Friday and Saturday as defenses collapsed were directly responsible for what appeared to be a significant number of soldiers trapped.

They said the Ukrainian withdrawal was poorly planned and started too late. The soldiers and Western officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments that contradict Ukrainian government statements.

Withdrawing under withering artillery fire, drones and airstrikes is one of the most difficult military maneuvers, challenging commanders to minimize loss of life and allow units to withdraw without giving up more ground than intended.

Based on interviews with soldiers, Ukrainian forces were unprepared for the speed with which the Russian advance in Avdiyivka accelerated last week.

Ukraine tried to buy time for its regular infantry forces to withdraw from the city, using its special operations forces and the elite 3rd Separate Assault Brigade to cover the retreat. But the units could not slow the Russian advance or extract every Ukrainian soldier.

Senior Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have also suffered heavy losses in the battle. Russia took Avdiyivka in large numbers, sending in troops and armored vehicles until Ukrainian defenses gave way. Thousands of Russian soldiers were killed and wounded, officials said.

A chaotic retreat is not inevitable. The withdrawal of troops without heavy losses is difficult, but possible, if it is done in a deliberate, unhurried operation, according to American strategists.

At Avdiyivka, Ukraine seemed to wait too long to begin its retreat, and the frantic retreat quickly proved costly.

For the Ukrainians, the challenge of withdrawing from Avdiyivka was made more difficult by the fact that Russia surrounded the city on almost three sides. A single paved road was the most feasible route into and out of town. That route, nicknamed the Road of Life by Ukrainian troops, came under direct threat earlier this month, making the retreat far more dangerous.

As Ukrainian forces began to withdraw, unverified video and open-source photos showed units retreating under artillery fire and bodies strewn along roads and in tree lines. Ukrainian military units have long struggled to communicate with each other because they often have different radio equipment. Soldiers with knowledge of the retreat said communication problems were a factor in the retreat, which led to soldiers being captured, killed and wounded.

Soldiers interviewed by The New York Times suggested that some units withdrew before others were aware of the withdrawal. This left the units vulnerable to the Russian environment.

Since the war began almost two years ago, Russian forces have been trying to encircle and capture Ukrainian forces. While well-prepared defenses and drones prevented many of those maneuvers from succeeding, in Avdijevka the Russian encirclement seems to have succeeded. Western officials have suggested that the maneuver was one of the reasons the soldiers were captured during the retreat.

Unverified videos posted on social media also show Russian forces executing Ukrainian troops in and around Avdiyevka. On Sunday, the prosecutor’s office in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk it was said on Telegram launched an investigation into the “shootings of unarmed Ukrainian prisoners of war in Avdijevka and Vesela”.

It seems that the Kremlin itself was not prepared for the speed of the Ukrainian collapse in Avdiyivka. Oftentimes, Kremlin propaganda pushed through state media drives topics on Russian social media, said Jonathan Teubner, CEO of FilterLabs AI, which studies Russian messaging and public opinion. But as Ukraine’s defenses in Avdiyivka crumbled, discussions on Russian social media began to change before the Kremlin addressed the new messages.

“Russia was not really prepared for this in terms of a prepared propaganda attack,” Mr. Teubner. “Now they’ve pounced on it, but they haven’t yet been able to launch a successful coordinated messaging campaign.”

Prisoners of war are one of the greatest challenges to morale in any war. Ukraine has repeatedly pressured Russia to agree to a prisoner exchange.

Since November, the Ukrainian government announced that Russia had 3,574 Ukrainian military personnel in captivity.

In January, Ukraine used a Western-supplied Patriot missile to shoot down a Russian cargo plane that officials thought was carrying missiles and ammunition. Russian officials said it was transporting Ukrainian prisoners of war. US officials said it appeared likely that some Ukrainian prisoners were also on board.

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