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What happened in Avdiivka

What happened in Avdiivka
Article by: Yuriy Butusov
Translated by: Jeffrey D. Stephaniuk

The word Avdiivka has entered the lexicon of the world’s mainstream media and global diplomacy over the past several days. The reason has been the unexpected intensification of military combat in Donetsk Oblast, including the bombardment of residential areas in several city districts and the deaths of both Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

Read more: Escalation in Avdiivka, Eastern Ukraine: key facts and sources

It is precisely one year ago, February 4, 2016, when units of the 58th motorized infantry brigade, formations of Right Sector and the Ukrainian Volunteer Army began operations to gain control of the eastern areas of Avdiivka. The meaning of the term “Avdiivka promzona” is now becoming increasingly clear: it is an embodiment of intense military combat.

Avdiivka is part of the Donetsk-Horlivka complex. Donetsk, Yasynuvata, and Horlivka are all within a radius of a few kilometers. Battles are fought here for every strategic high ground, every meter of ground held, and for every building. Every 500 meters here comes at a great cost. There is nowhere to turn in retreat.

If the Minsk accord from September 2014 and February 2015 were to be followed, Avdiivka belongs under the control of Ukraine. However, the Russian command has been viciously violating the terms of the treaty both here in this raion and across the front lines. Capitalizing on the disorganization of the Ukrainian army and its weak complement of troop levels, the enemy infantry was able to consolidate itself in the eastern parts of the city, in the suburbs and among the cooperative stores, private homes, and retail stores such as the Angar chain of home renovation outlets. The enemy committed to battle their best units in order to maintain control over this raion, namely the 100 Brigade od the so-called Republican Guard, the 11th motorcycle regiment, and the independent assault battalion Somali. The violations of the Minsk accord were well known to all, but until now the Ukrainian army could not find a way to liberate the suburbs of Avdiivka

Avdiyivka Avdiivka Avdeevka

What, then is the tactical value of this promzona?

To our enemy, Avdiivka represents their forward line of advance. With it they have control over all the roads into the northern parts of Donetsk and Yasynuvata, as well as the northern outskirts of Horlivka.

If they lost the promzona, it would mean that the war has come that much closer, by several kilometers, to cities that are key to the enemy’s plans, and would complicate their defensive abilities.

Simultaneously, the enemy has fortified its control over the Donetsk-Horlivka highway, enabling freedom of movement on it as a supply route for the Russian collaborators. They have especially be successful in the transport of reinforcements. As long as they control the promzona, the Russian generals control the no man’s land between forces, making any surprise attack against them nearly impossible. The enemy is constantly disrupting the movement of the Ukrainian army in Avdiivka, creating problems for our defences, suppressing any initiatives we undertake. Our combat units were immobilized by the actions of the Russian occupation army.

Read also: Why Avdiivka is the most vulnerable spot for the Russian-separatist army in Ukraine

The liberation of the promzona at Avdiivka, therefore became a political problem as well as one that tested the battle readiness of the Ukrainian army in this army. However, because of the violations against the stated line of demarcation in the Minsk accord and the obvious failure to settle the matter diplomatically, the only possible solution could be found through military strength.

The Ukrainian military units began a concerted and methodical effort over the next year to regain territory. They fought one building at a time, one street at a time, and there were battles for every hundred meters. The tempo of this engagement was very slow, and sometimes not at all where the enemy was especially dug in. In this present was there are no large-scale attacks or epic maneuvers. The army’s battle plan is based on the safety of the soldiers’ lives. And the Ukrainian soldiers have experienced definite combat success: our troops successfully secured positions near the Donetsk-Horlivka highway, and consequently brought the area under the control of their fire. Further, the enemy no longer had complete freedom of motion and found it necessary to spend more time defending itself and reinforcing defensive positions. In short, the promzona became more and more manpower and resource intensive.


The First Battalion, 72nd Mechanized Brigade was chosen for a pilot project in military reform. It was brought up to strength with individuals from throughout the brigade, highly motivated volunteer soldiers who were then sent to upgrade their skills on a training period that lasted several months. During that time the battalion was rebuilt at the Yavoriv Training Compound. They were trained by American instructors and participated in the international training exercises known as Rapid Trident. Upon completion of this course, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine announced that this battalion now met the standards of NATO troops. Then the 72nd Brigade was given orders to leave for the Avdiivka region. The 1st Battalion was given responsibility for the most dangerous assignment, in the promzona itself. The brigade already had a reputation for having very good artillery support, employing methods developed by volunteers for the correction and control of fire.

They made good use of these newly trained reinforcements to continue with combat operations to dislodge the enemy from around Avdiivka. However, the Russians had also brought in reinforcements.

Along the Horlivka-Donetsk highway can be found a section of the front that has recently gained a high profile, namely Yasynuvata. It is the site of an enemy depot of military equipment. The epicenter of the current fighting is located slightly lower, to the south. The enemy also established two observation posts there, which have been a source of serious problems for the Ukrainian defenses. If the Minsk accord had been honored, those forward enemy posts would not be there at all. Now, that which could not be settled through diplomatic channels has been settled by the soldiers.

Beginning on January 29, after one of their regular artillery bombardments followed by clashes between enemy and Ukrainian patrols, our soldiers initiated a counter-attack. Among the assault group was the deputy commander of the battalion, 23-year-old Captain Andrii Kyzylo. They attacked units of the 3rd battalion, 11th “DNR” (“Donetsk People’s Republic”) motorized regiment.

What they accomplished was completely unexpected. The enemy abandoned two defensive positions. Our soldiers killed two terrorists and one was taken into captivity.

Actions at the front lines follow their own logic.
The focus of the battle was a small forest with a total area of about two square kilometers. That is the common pattern of this war: it is fought within a small area with the goal of strengthening the position of a particular fighting unit in a particular location. The result of our ability to reinforce our positions in this forest meant that the enemy was forced to retreat back across the highway.

Why are these details important? These details are important because war follows its own logic, and that logic is not always connected with politics. This battle was not the result of some political interests, nor was it concocted by some oligarch as part of a great public relations scenario for the purpose of drawing world attention or distracting it.

Actions at the front lines follow their own logic. The build up to the actual battle at Avdiivka was a long time in coming. The spark that brought all the attention was the unprecedented intensity of the Russian artillery bombardment.

By comparison, during the fighting last December in Svitlodarsk, heavy bombardments were also similarly employed by the enemy, except there were fewer troops and artillery pieces. The peak of the bombardments subsided within three days. At Avdiivka, however, there has been no restraint placed on the volume of shelling, and the sheer numbers of soldiers and hardware are greater. Mission accomplished. And that was just the beginning of the battle.

Read more: Forty eight hours of hell near Svitlodarsk

The enemy artillery hit us very accurately, especially the positions of the 1st battalion and the 12th motorized battalion of the 72nd brigade. Objectives were also hit in Avdiivka itself. To be sure, our artillery also opened up in reply.

And so it happened that here on this small section of Ukrainian land is where a limited battle transformed from a tactical battle into an episode of macro political games. Our army pressed forward several times, provoking gun battles, except when the international observers of the OSCE were present. What the observers saw was that this land was identified under the Minsk accord to be controlled by Ukraine, and the gunfire was a response to Russian provocation.

Successive firefights and volleys of shells continued. It’s just that there was not sustained, intensive fighting. Until now. This time events unfolded according to a different plan. The Russian commanders made the decision to initiate a complete and open war. Imagine the sheer numbers of artillery that were brought in and set up in position, and this is within Donetsk city itself. When they opened fire it was as if they had an endless supply of missiles and shells. Modern weapons systems opened fire, weaponry that had no been employed throughout the entire year of 2016 in this raion. Throughout the raion under their target area, literally thousands of shells and mortars were fired. With such a high volume in a confined area, casualties were inevitable; direct hits could not be avoided.

The 1st Battalion began to suffer one loss after another, dead and wounded, and mortal wounds were suffered in the very city from where the weapons were launched. Our artillery did its best to provide cover for our soldiers.

Brave men like Captain Kyzylo died after advancing to newly controlled territory. In the course of forcing back what remained of the forward operating units of the terrorists, our artillery struck the commander of the 3rd battalion, 11th motorized infantry regiment, a well known terrorist, Ivan Balakai. Subsequent waves of Russian army infantry corps were all forced back, assisted by tanks and artillery.

In the Avdiivka raion a full scale war erupted.

The anonymous presence of the Russian army in such great numbers had not been seen in Donbas since 2015. The enemy based firing decision not only on the needs of the positions, but also for political considerations. Such is the reason that targets were selected within the city itself and they were intensively bombarded. Interestingly, the enemy was unable to mount any counter offensives to regain forward positions that they had lost. The focus was on the artillery, which fired relentlessly.

In fact, the Kremlin, through the press secretary of president Putin, expressed their version of the escalation: “Regarding today’s escalation of violence along the line of demarcation, it proves why it is all the more urgent for dialogue and cooperation to be renewed between Russia and America, through which the Ukrainian crisis can be resolved.”

Such a statement is a clear admission by Moscow that the battle for Avdiivka is a signal from Putin to Trump. It is an unequivocal demonstration that the Russian Federation is in control of the war in Donbas. At any moment they decide when to fan the flames of war and set the city on fire. The attack on Avdiivka is an invitation to Trump by the Russian government to hold talks regarding Ukraine. The siege of Aleppo and the escalation of hostilities in Avdiivka both demonstrate that Putin controls the military personnel and resources necessary for an incursion into any conflict. The message is that there is no way the United States of America can stop such an escalation unless they become partners with him.

This strategy is the foundation of the information campaign waged in western and Ukrainian mainstream media, where pro-Russian commentators call for peace at any cost and for the establishment of bi-lateral relations with Moscow even if it means having lost Crimea and Donbas.

The Avdiivka crisis has now become the first test for Trump. What political course will he embrace regarding the war in Ukraine? The American administration, within which remain bureaucrats from the former government, was slow to respond to the war in Avdiivka. Russia used the main stream media to express its views on the necessity of a peaceful resolution. They are gambling on reaching an agreement with Trump, on making a serious impression on him.

The USA responded on February 2.

During an extraordinary session of the United Nations, the new US representative to the UN, Nikki Haley, announced that the policy of the USA with regard to Ukraine and the Russian Federation remains unchanged. “Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine. The United States is committed to this course of action.”

However, the strong language from the USA has not influenced the ferocity of the fighting. Russian artillery continues to bombard the raion of Avdiivka. It is obvious that Putin is preparing the way for the next round of talks concerning the situation in Ukraine. Having won the chess game that was Syria, the Kremlin is looking to play the same fame in Ukraine, and is constantly assessing for weaknesses that would result in the lifting of sanctions, and an admission from Ukraine that they have lost the occupied lands.

The practical result is that the war will continue. Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine is based on a limited supply of soldiers. For all its show of militarism, Putin has a severe shortage of human resources, and within the Russian Federation morale is low among the military who face a prospect of dying anonymously for the empire somewhere beyond its borders. Hence the heavy reliance on artillery.

Infantry weaponry is mainly surplus arms, for soldiers who aren’t well trained to mount counter-attacks or to hold securely key positions of defence. The Russian command relies on the overwhelming use of artillery. They are engaging in artillery style terrorism similar to wars in Syria and Egypt during the epic battles of attrition in attempts to weaken Israel throughout the decades of the 1940s-1980s.

They have made a tactical decision in this regard in Avdiivka. In response, the city and the entire front line of defence has been reliably maintained by the Ukrainian army. Strategic high ground secured by the 72nd remains in our hands with no intentions of giving it up. Reinforcements from the Armed Forced of Ukraine and the Ukrainian National Guard have arrived in the city proper. There is no basis to reports that we have been surrounded or that there have been breaks in our defences. The enemy does not have the strength to launch an offensive that would push our army out of this raion.

Realistically, however, neither do we have the resources to silence completely the guns of the Russian artillery or their missile systems in Donetsk. The enemy is opening fire from positions established among the civilian population. We do not currently have the equipment or ability to fire back at them with such pinpoint accuracy that is required to hit the military targets but to avoid civilian casualties or the destruction of city infrastructure.

Consequently, a war fought under these conditions can last for a long time yet. In addition, there are other points along the front that will increase in hostility. As for the Minsk accord, it is like what Daytona agreement was for Croatia, which didn’t conclude in any meaningful results either. One of the sides must lose, either Ukraine or the Russian Federation. Someone must take upon themselves the responsibility for making serious decisions, either through diplomatic or military means.

Putin is prodding the West to accept terms of peace at the expense of Ukraine. He has no intention of backing down. He will not return Crimea after the enormous amount of resources he has invested in it, treating it like the crown jewel of a Russian imperialist political project. What the crisis in Avdiivka shows is that decisive military actions are essential, as are proven instruments of military power. Even though a diplomatic solution in Donbas would be welcomed by Ukraine, without a continual wearing down of the Russian military through casualties at the front lines, any diplomatic prescription will not succeed on its own.

The future of the country’s independence depends on an intense and concentrated defence.

The fighting over this small area of Ukrainian soil known as Avdiivka has resulted in the deaths of 11 brave Ukrainian soldiers between January 29 and February 2nd [the number has since risen to at least 18 – Ed]. May their memory be eternal…

Yuriy Butusov is a Ukrainian journalist and editor-in-chief of
Translated by: Jeffrey D. Stephaniuk
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