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Weekly Frontline Update: Russian debacle in Avdiyivka

The Avdiivka offensive forces Russian troops to walk a mile in Ukrainian shoes. Like the Ukrainians during the counteroffensive on the southern front, the Russians have to wade through vast minefields under relentless artillery fire.
Ukrainian soldiers of the 110th Mechanized Brigade. Credit: Ukraine’s General Staff.
Weekly Frontline Update: Russian debacle in Avdiyivka
Our weekly review focuses on events and trends on the frontlines of the Russian-Ukrainian war. We analyze the latest developments in the hottest spots on the war map, strikes on logistics and command posts behind the enemy lines, and the impact of such strikes on combat operations.

Last week, the Russian army mounted a massive onslaught on the eastern front, attempting to encircle and occupy the Ukrainian stronghold of Avdiivka in the Donetsk Oblast. Russian General Staff amassed forces north and south of Avdiivka to attack the Ukrainian garrison from the flanks instead of ferocious frontal assaults.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army continued its slow but steady advance on the southern front. The Russians launched counterattacks to regain the lost ground and stop Ukrainian forces from consolidating their positions on the flanks near Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast (southeastern Ukraine).

Ukraine continued to attack the Russian Black Sea Fleet in occupied Crimea, using maritime kamikaze drones to damage yet another Russian patrol ship, Pavel Derzhavin. Unable to provide security for its warships and deal with Ukrainian drone attacks, the Russian military command redeployed part of its fleet from occupied Crimea to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk (southwestern Russia).

Russia intensified its attacks in the Kupiansk sector of the eastern front in the Kharkiv and Luhansk Oblasts to divert Ukrainian forces from other sectors. Despite Russian attempts to reverse the overall dynamics, Ukraine’s Armed Forces still hold the strategic initiative along almost the entire frontline, stretching more than 1,200 kilometers.

Battle of Avdiivka

Avdiivka is located about ten kilometers north of Russian-occupied Donetsk City, an important logistics hub of the Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian army has been trying to break through Ukrainian fortifications and occupy Avdiivka, albeit with little success.

The Ukrainians still control 100 percent of the city and vital commanding heights around it, despite Russian pressure on the flanks. Currently, Avdiivka is surrounded by Russian forces from the east, southwest, and northeast. However, the critical supply routes west of Avdiivka are under Ukrainian control.

Avdiyivka on the map
Avdiivka in the Donetsk Oblast (eastern Ukraine).
Map by Deep State.

Once a city of 32,000 residents, Avdiivka became a ghost town after Russia launched an all-out war against Ukraine. Most people have already left the city, fleeing indiscriminate Russian shelling. In August 2022, the population of Avdiivka was estimated at 2,500 people. Now, it is about 1,600 civilians left in the city, ruined by Russian air strikes and artillery fire.

Avdiyivka
An apartment building ruined by Russian bombs in Avdiivka.
Credit: Ukraine’s National Police.

Last week’s assault on Avdiivka was the most massive offensive by Russian troops in 2023. Apart from the attempt to capture a strategically important Ukrainian stronghold, the Russian military command tried to divert Ukrainian reserves from the Bakhmut sector (eastern front) and Zaporizhzhia Oblast (southern front), where the Ukrainians are slowly grinding forward.

“It was probably the largest Russian attack on the city in the entire full-scale war. The enemy used almost two thousand soldiers and over a hundred armored vehicles and tanks. The invaders came from ten directions simultaneously,” the head of Avdiivka’s City Military Administration, Vitalii Barabash, said on 10 October.

The Ukrainians were well prepared for such a development. All important strategic positions in and around Avdiivka are cast in reinforced concrete. An extensive network of fortifications is connected by passages, trenches, and underground tunnels that allow Ukrainian troops to survive intensive artillery shelling. All approaches to the city from the Russian-occupied territories are packed with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.

ISW: Ukraine anticipated Russian offensive operations around Avdiivka

According to a Russian war reporter, Boris Rozhin, the visible above-ground parts of the Ukrainian dugouts have anti-shock grids welded on them. Such grids can protect Ukrainian soldiers from Russian anti-tank missiles, which both sides use extensively against infantry who hold off the enemy onslaught in well-fortified dugouts.

Unlike the battle of Bakhmut, where the Russians suffered heavy casualties in frontal attacks on the city, the Avdiivka offensive was based on a different approach. Russian General Staff concentrated forces on the northeastern and southwestern flanks of Avdiivka, seeking to encircle the city and cut off vital supply routes west of the Avdiivka salient.

The dense urban areas of Donetsk City and Yasynuvata east of Avdiivka facilitated the covert deployment of Russian artillery among residential buildings and allowed for the stealthy maneuvering of armored vehicles. According to a Ukrainian war reporter, Yurii Butusov, Russia amassed four times as many troops as Ukraine to attack Avdiivka.

From 1 October to 9 October, the Russian 114th Brigade conducted reconnaissance by combat, preparing an assault on Avdiivka, Yurii Butusov reported. The Russian army intensified artillery shelling and air strikes, pounding Avdiivka and ground lines of communication to cut off the Ukrainian garrison from the supply of ammunition, fuel, and food.

On 10 October, three Russian brigades started the onslaught, trying to advance from occupied Kransnohorivka (northeast of Avdiivka) toward the Ukrainian-controlled towns of Berdychi and Stepove and from Vodiane (southwest of Avdiivka) toward Sievierne and Lastochkyne.

Avdiyivka
The Avdiivka sector.
Map by Deep State.

The Ukrainian 110th Mechanized Brigade, which formed the core of the Avdiivka garrison, had to confront the 114th, 15th, and 21st motorized rifle brigades, reinforced by special forces of the 1st Army Corps of the Russian Armed Forces and the 30th motorized rifle brigade in reserve, according to Yurii Butusov.

During the first day of the Russian offensive in the Avdiivka sector, Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions on the northern and southern flanks of Avdiivka day and night. The assaults of the infantry were supported by armored vehicles, tanks, mortars, heavy artillery, attack helicopters, Lantset kamikaze drones, and fighter jets that dropped KAB-500 guided bombs on Avdiivka and its vicinities.  Some Ukrainian platoon strongholds were attacked by Russian troops and columns of up to 30 armored vehicles, Yurii Butusov reported.

The Russian army attacked in waves. After one wave of the Russian assault was repelled, another wave would soon follow. The extensive use of armored fighting vehicles and tanks during the assaults marked the departure from attacks by platoon-sized tactical groups that both sides have employed within the past months of fighting, according to a Ukrainian OSINT analyst, Tatarigami.

Due to the large number of reconnaissance drones employed by both sides, intensive artillery fire, and air strikes, Russian and Ukrainian forces try to avoid amassing mechanized groups and prefer to attack with small platoon-sized groups of infantry supported by artillery fire.

However, during the Avdiivka offensive, the Russian military command decided to overwhelm the Ukrainian defenders with large-scale attacks of tanks and armored vehicles from several directions combined with intensive artillery fire and air strikes by attack helicopters and fighter jets.

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Such a plan required an ample supply of ammunition and implied heavy losses on the offensive side in manpower and equipment. Without a rapid breakthrough of the enemy’s defense lines, artillery supplies and reserves dry up, and it becomes difficult to maintain a high offensive tempo.

During the most critical initial phase of the Avdiivka offensive, the Ukrainian defenders came under relentless artillery fire and crushing air strikes combined with multiple attacks by Russian infantry, armored vehicles, and tanks.

On the offensive’s first day, the Russians pushed Ukrainian troops from their positions northeast of Avdiivka. Although Russian troops managed to occupy a slag heap near the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant (AKHZ), a strategically important height north of Avdiivka, the Ukrainian artillery fire pushed the Russians out. The Ukrainians regained control of the slag heap in a successful counterattack on 11 October.

H0542
Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant and highway H0542.
Map by Deep State.

The Russian advance south of Avdiivka bogged down. According to Russian military bloggers, the attempt to quickly encircle Avdiivka failed, and eventually, both sides switched to positional war.

Despite a significant superiority in the number of artillery systems, the Russians lost the counter-battery fight and failed to effectively suppress the long-range Ukrainian self-propelled howitzers, which were constantly changing their positions. Russian military bloggers noted that Ukrainian artillery systems were striking from distances where Russian artillery could not reach, “pinning the infantry to the ground.”

“The Ukrainian command almost immediately assessed the scale of the threat and began to redeploy reserves of troops and artillery, even using expensive HIMARS to hit our [Russian – ed.] advancing infantry and stabilized the situation by morning [11 October – ed.]. The operation had taken on the familiar character of a “battle for the woodsman’s hut.” Heavy fighting for every stronghold. There is a continuous exchange of artillery strikes,” a Russian war reporter, Ramzay, wrote on Telegram.

The main thrust of the Russian attack was to advance from occupied Krasnohorivka to Berdychi and Stepove, the northeastern suburbs of Avdiivka.

Berdychi
Berdychi and Stepove.
Map by Deep State.

Despite heavy losses, the Russians continued to push forward, aiming to cut off the highway H0542. This road leads to Avdiivka from the northwest and is the main supply route for the Ukrainian garrison. Although the highway H0542 is unsafe and Russian artillery can hit the road, the Ukrainians still use it to supply the Avdiivka garrison.

Thus, the Russian plan to isolate the battlefield, cut off the supplies and reinforcements from the Ukrainian grouping in Avdiivka, and encircle the city failed. Ukrainian military command redeployed reserves and additional artillery systems to support the Ukrainian garrison in Avdiivka, which maximized Russian losses.

“Lack of firepower, weak concentration of artillery systems, and poor interaction, multiplied by the length of the frontline and fortification of enemy positions, do not allow to completely isolate the area of combat operations, prevent deployment of reserves and suppress enemy fire,” one of the Russian military bloggers wrote on Telegram.

Ukrainian attempts to disrupt Russian logistics in the Avdiivka sector were more successful. On 12 October, Ukraine’s Armed Forces destroyed a bridge near Panteleimonivka between Russian-controlled logistics hubs in Yasynuvata (east of Avdiivka) and Horlivka.

Panteleimonivka
A bridge between Yasynuvata and Horlivka.
Map by Deep State.

The Russians used this route to concentrate forces in Donetsk and south of Avdiivka. After the destruction of the bridge, the Ukrainian army started to target Russian military equipment stuck between Horlivka and Yasynuvata.

Bridge on the highway between occupied cities of Yasynuva and Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast, destroyed on 12 October 2023. Photo via Telegram/UNIAN

In addition to concerted artillery fire, the Ukrainians actively used cluster munitions and kamikaze drones to hit infantry and armor. Russian armored vehicles and tanks snaked along narrow mine-free pathways among the vast minefields around Avdiivka only to get hit by Ukrainian drones or artillery fire.

Although the Russians failed to achieve any major breakthroughs and sustained heavy casualties during the first four days of the Avdiivka offensive, they continued their attempts to advance.

The Ukrainian 110th Brigade, reinforced by the 2nd Battalion of the Presidential Brigade and several special forces units, showed high combat and held the first line of defense north and south of Avdiivka, Ukrainian war reporter Yurii Butusov reported.

“On 15 October, the enemy [the Russians – ed.] was forced to stop for regrouping, as they ran out of infantry. Ukrainian defenders destroyed and damaged 135 units of armored vehicles around Avdiivka in four days. All of these losses are visually confirmed and geolocated. Imagine the scale of the attack and the high combat effectiveness of the 110th Brigade and its attached forces,” Yurii Butusov wrote on Telegram.

Russian sources confirmed heavy losses of the Russian army during the offensive on Avdiivka. On 14 October, a Russian volunteer, Natalia Khim, recorded a video message on Telegram calling for help. She said that there was an urgent need to buy “a lot of body bags” for Russian soldiers killed in action during the attack on Avdiivka.

Steady degradation of the Russian army

The Russian blitzkrieg near Avdiivka failed. On the fifth day of the offensive, the pace of the Russian advance sharply decreased. The Russian forces in the Avdiivka sector began to run out of manpower, armor, and ammunition, which did not allow them to maintain a high offensive tempo and make significant breakthroughs.

Various independent sources, including Oryx (a Dutch open-source intelligence monitoring group that documents Ukrainian and Russian military equipment losses based on photo and videographic evidence), confirm the heavy losses of Russian equipment during the offensive on Avdiivka.

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The enormous problems of the Russians with equipment are evidenced by using a rare example of an armored vehicle, BTR-90, which was spotted for the first time on the battlefield near Avdiivka last week. This wheeled infantry fighting vehicle was manufactured in 1993. It was never put into service with the Russian army and never went into mass production.

BTR 90 IFV
BTR-90 infantry fighting vehicle of the Russian army near Avdiivka.
Screenshot from a video.

The offensive on Avdiivka showed that in addition to problems with armored vehicles, the Russian army faced the problem of degradation of artillery systems. According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), worn-out barrels reduced the accuracy of Russian artillery near Avdiivka. A lack of experienced and motivated assault infantry also significantly influenced the Avdiivka offensive, according to some Russian military bloggers.

“It is clear that the return to offensive tactics after almost a year of defense is not easy for the troops. The units are ‘ingrown’ in the trenches, too used to trench warfare, and cannot attack confidently. The problem is well known since the World War I. The same units, which have been on the defense for a year, should get accustomed to offensive operations and trained in the rear to attack the enemy correctly and effectively,” a Russian war reporter, Ramzay, wrote on Telegram.

Vast minefields became another obstacle that slowed the Russian offensive and gave the Ukrainian military command time to reinforce the Avdiivka sector. Ukrainian troops faced the same problem during the counteroffensive on the southern front. The Avdiivka offensive forced Russian troops to walk a mile in Ukrainian shoes.

Repelling evil, not avoiding It: Ukraine’s warrior values

Unlike the Ukrainians, the Russians did not adjust their tactics once they suffered heavy casualties. Undeterred by the losses in manpower and equipment, Russian troops continued to advance until they ran out of resources.

Although Russia suffered a crushing defeat in the battle of Avdiivka, this does not mean the Russian military command has no plans to occupy the Ukrainian stronghold after regrouping and replenishing losses. Despite setbacks at the initial stage, the Russian offensive on Avdiivka still goes on. It could gain momentum if Russia has enough reserves to throw them into the meat grinder.

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