Pounded by the Russians, the town itself is unrecognizable.
Concrete carcasses mark what were once the town’s tallest buildings, seemingly floating amid small hills of rubble. The cross atop the town’s church, bent double by an explosion, points accusatorially at the Russian lines.
Amid the ruins, Russian and Ukrainian troops clash, preyed upon by drones and the occasional tank. Casualties are heavy on both sides but especially among the Russian attackers, who have thrown wave after human wave against the entrenched defenders.
“Meat assaults” is how one Ukrainian sniper, “Bess,” described these attacks to CNN. His callsign means demon in Ukrainian and the scene he recounts is hellish. The dead soldiers, “just lie there frozen,” the Omega Special Forces Group officer said from a house several miles behind the frontline in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
“Nobody evacuates them, nobody takes them away,” he said. “It feels like people don’t have a specific task, they just go and die.”
“Teren,” the commander of a Ukrainian drone reconnaissance unit in the town, said that even “if we can kill 40 to 70 servicemen with drones in a day, the next day they renew their forces and continue to attack.”
In 18 months of fighting around the town, he said, his pilots from the 110th Mechanized Brigade have killed at least 1,500 Russians. Still, they keep coming.
Ukrainian casualties are a closely guarded secret, but the battle has turned into an attritional slog, matching seemingly chaotic Russian attacks against the limited, but determined, resources and manpower of the Ukrainians.
In a surprise trip to Avdiivka in late December, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the battle for the town as an “onslaught,” adding that the battle could in many ways “determine the overall course of the war.”
Ukraine’s leaders appear conscious of the criticisms around the defense – but subsequent fall – of Bakhmut in 2023, acknowledging the obvious tensions between holding on to locations without huge strategic significance and protecting the lives of soldiers.
“Every piece of our land is precious to us,” army chief Valery Zaluzhny said, but in Avdiivka, “there is no need to do anything remotely reminiscent of a show.”
Arms for the fight
But those lives depend on weapons and arms.
On an ice-bitten January morning, the mercury idling at -22 degrees Celsius (-7.6 Fahrenheit), CNN watched another team of Omega special forces troops race to their firing position around Avdiivka.
Rushing to set up their Soviet-era rocket launcher – bolted on to the back of an American pick-up – one of the men flicked the switch to launch a salvo.
Clicks – and curses – followed. Frozen solid, the rockets wouldn’t fire.
Reliant on the kit they have, not the Western hardware they crave, they know that each lost chance to fire back at Russians may cost Ukrainian lives.
A few days later, a supply truck chewed through the mud of a field around the nearby town of Marinka, bringing much-needed shells to a gun position.
But the cannon – a US-supplied M777 howitzer – is silent for much of the day, rationed to around 20 shells a day, 30 on a “good day” the gunners said. Last summer, supporting Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive, the gun crew would fire at least twice as many foreign rounds, many American-made, at the Russians, they said.
And in an artillery position 90 minutes north of Avdiivka, around the town of Bakhmut, that CNN visited, the ammunition compartment of a US-supplied Paladin howitzer sat cavernously empty. The crew had no shells to fire at all.
A delivery later in the day brought four shells but nothing that would do the Russians much harm: they were only smoke shells.
“Every shell that is suitable for the Paladin we use,” the gun commander “Skyba” told CNN, “It’s better than no shells.”
“10 to 1” is the difference between Russian and Ukrainian artillery supplies, the artillery commander in Ukraine’s 93rd mechanized Brigade told CNN.
“They use old Soviet systems,” Korsar said, “but Soviet systems can still kill.”
However, US support to Ukraine – including much-needed shells – no longer seems assured. Future aid packages are still mired in Capitol Hill squabbling, and the specter of a possible Ukraine-aid-averse Trump presidency on the horizon adds further uncertainty.
US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby put it plainly this month: “The assistance that we provided has now ground to a halt. The attacks that the Russians are conducting are only increasing.”
But when they can put their Western weapons to use, the Ukrainians have much more to celebrate in Avdiivka.
The tip of the spear during last year’s ill-fated Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle – gifted to Ukraine by the US and designed to support infantry – is reinforcing its reputation blunting waves of Russian attacks.
Without the Bradley, “I doubt that we would be here talking with you,” crew commander “Barbie” told CNN from behind the Avdiivka frontline.
“The vehicle is a tough one,” he said. “It’s not afraid of anything.”
In video provided to CNN by another Bradley unit in the 47th mechanized brigade, a US-trained crew take on a Russian T-90 tank – one of the most powerful in Moscow’s army. Their fire disables the tank, its turret spinning uncontrollably, before an exploding drone slams into its side.
But the US-made Bradleys are in limited supply along the front.
Some 200 Bradleys were promised by the US and dozens have been damaged and destroyed in battle. Some of these will likely have been repaired and sent back to the frontlines.
Ukrainian crews, although admirers of the Bradley’s power, have also criticized its ability to weather the harsh Ukrainian winter and the state of some of the older vehicles shipped by the US.
Ukraine’s lack of firepower compared to its adversary is a common theme on the front line. “Teren” the commander of a nearby drone reconnaissance unit, said outright that Ukraine doesn’t have enough arms and equipment to win against Russia.
The Ukrainians are forced to be better pilots and more inventive with their limited resources, he said.
“At the beginning of the war, their advantage in drones was 10 times greater than ours,” he said. “At the moment, I think we are a worthy opponent in the drone format. We cover the sky around the clock.”
Observing their hunt for Russian troops from the unit’s command post, CNN saw multiple drones from his unit circling one Russian foxhole.
The powerful cameras on one drone caught two Russian soldiers desperately take aim at a weaving suicide drone, the smoke from their rifles and cigarettes billowing into the cold air. The Ukrainian drone dives into the narrow dugout behind them and explodes.
CNN does not know the fate of the men, but drone pilots in the area told CNN that they were unlikely to have survived given the number of drone units operating in the area.
An overflowing cup
Still, the Russian assaults continue, meaning holding Avdiivka is now a matter of numbers, said “Bess,” the special forces sniper.
“If there is a liter bottle, there’s no way you can fit a liter and a half in it,” he said.
To balance Russia’s superior numbers, Ukraine’s leadership – under pressure from the country’s top generals – is weighing a possible half a million extra troops to bolster the military’s ranks.
Life in Ukrainian cities away from the front appears relatively untouched by the fighting, at least on the surface. Although recruitment posters and military checkpoints dot highways and men in uniform are a regular sight, there’s little overt sign of wartime restrictions or changes to daily life. Supermarkets are full and cafes brim with customers.
But conscription is a touchy subject.
The Ukrainian president does have the power to enforce further mobilization – currently limited to those aged over 27 – but has chosen to seek parliamentary approval for it. The bill is slowly – and not without difficulty – making its way through lawmakers’ scrutiny.
Zelensky has also questioned how to pay for the mobilization, with six taxpayers required to pay for the salary of each soldier in uniform, he said.
His reticence is a sign of the political sensitivities around public opinion in Ukraine, even as the country’s enemies make no secret of their violent ambitions for Kyiv.
“The existence of Ukraine is deadly for Ukrainians,” Russia’s former President Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and one of the most hawkish Russian politicians, posted on Telegram on January 17.
“Why? The existence of an independent state on the historical Russian territories will now be a constant pretext for the resumption of combat actions,” he continued.
Back on the front line, morale among the troops with whom CNN spoke was high.
The soldiers, tired though rarely disgruntled, acknowledged that reinforcements would provide a welcome increase in their rotations off the front line.
For now, though, that remains a distant hope, as in Avdiivka the fight rages on.
“We are doing everything possible and impossible to hold this line,” Omega Special Forces officer “Sayer” told CNN.
“I don’t know what will happen next,” he said. “But Avdiivka is holding on. We are on our land. We have nothing to lose.”