Ukrainian troops in Avdiivka struggled on February 16 with severe ammunition shortages as Russian forces tightened the noose around the strategic eastern city in an intense Kremlin push for a battlefield win.

The timing is critical as Russia is looking for a morale boost ahead of the second anniversary on February 24 of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the March presidential election in Russia.

The four-month battle in Avdiivka appeared to be coming to a head as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on February 16 made another trip to Europe, hoping to press his country’s Western allies to keep providing military support.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on February 15 that Russian forces are beginning to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses in the eastern city. He said Avdiivka is at risk of falling to Russia, a development he blamed “in very large part” on the fact that Ukrainian forces are running out of artillery ammunition.

The United States is Ukraine’s biggest single supporter but some $60 billion for Kyiv is being held up by political disagreements among American lawmakers.

Street fighting was underway in the bombed-out city, where Ukrainian troops are outnumbered 7-to-1, according to Oleksandr Borodin, press officer of the 3rd Assault Brigade of the Ukraine Armed Forces.

Rodion Kudriashov, the brigade’s Deputy Commander, said Ukrainian troops were for now holding out against the onslaught of about 15,000 Russian soldiers, in his estimate, but that he expected the situation would “soon become critical.”

“The enemy is trying to penetrate our defense and in some places to bypass our positions,” he said.

The 3rd Brigade said on its social media account on February 16 that its soldiers are at the huge Avdiivka Coke Plant. Russian warplanes have been dropping about 60 bombs a day, relentlessly shelling the area and launching assaults with armor and infantry, the brigade said.

A video showed dense black smoke over the factory, said to be caused by burning fuel oil reservoirs. The post said: “Poisonous smog spreads all over the plant.”

Russian media reported the Kremlin’s forces are making extensive use of plane-launched glide bombs, which fly at a shallower angle, to batter Ukrainian positions.

Russian troops conducted 33 assaults in Avdiivka over the previous 24 hours, Ukraine’s General Staff said. The Russians have been trying to capture the city since last October but made only incremental progress before a recent push.

The Ukrainian defenders prepared for “any possible scenarios,” according to Brig. Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, head of the Ukrainian forces in Avdiivka.

Ukrainian officials have not ruled out a withdrawal from the city.

Zelenskyy said in Berlin that his troops are “heroically (defending) strategic points and logistic routes that might allow the enemy to advance.”

Tarnavskyi, the commander, said on social media that some units have pulled back in an effort to regroup, save lives and resupply defensive positions — movements that won’t give the Russians any advantage, he claimed.

Heavily fortified with a web of tunnels and concrete fortifications, Avdiivka lies in the northern suburbs of Donetsk, a city in a region of the same name that Russian forces partially occupy. Capturing Avdiivka could be a timely boost for Moscow and serve as a possible springboard for Russia to drive deeper into the region.

Fewer than 1,000 people remain in the city, according to the Donetsk regional governor, Vadym Filashkin. The city, with a prewar population of about 31,000, is today a bombed-out shell of what it once was.

Aerial footage of Avdiivka obtained by The Associated Press last December showed an apocalyptic scene and hinted at Russia’s staggering losses, with the bodies of about 150 soldiers — most wearing Russian uniforms — lying scattered along tree lines where they sought cover.

However, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said that taking Avdiivka would be more of a symbolic win for the Kremlin and would not bring significant changes to the 930-mile front line that has barely budged in recent months.

“The potential Russian capture of Avdiivka would not be operationally significant and would likely only offer the Kremlin immediate informational and political victories,” the institute said in an assessment on February 15.

“Russian forces would be highly unlikely to make rapid operationally significant advances from Avdiivka if they captured the settlement, and the potential Russian capture of Avdiivka at most would set conditions for further limited tactical gains,” it added.

Illia Novikov and Barry Hatton

Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine

Evgeniy Maloletka (AP) and Dmytro Smoliyenko (Sipa via AP Images)