Russia launched a massive onslaught on Avdiivka (Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine) on 10 October 2023. After seven weeks of heavy fighting, the Russians made minor territorial gains to the south, north, and east of the Ukrainian stronghold. Still, the Russian army has failed to cut off the key supply route to Avdiivka and encircle the city.
Tactically, capturing Avdiivka allows the Russian army to control vital roads and the railway to Donetsk, a key logistics hub in eastern Ukraine occupied by Russia since 2014. Avdiivka is a gateway to Donetsk, which is less than ten kilometers to the south.
Although the Russian army forced Ukrainians to lose ground in some areas around Avdiivka, it paid a huge price to advance and suffered heavy losses. Russia is still far from making Avdiivka untenable for Ukraine. However, the situation is dynamic, and things can change quickly.
The Ukrainian wall
Once a city of 32,000 people, Avdiivka has become a post-apocalyptic pile of rubble after Russia launched an all-out war against Ukraine. Most residents had already left the city, fleeing indiscriminate Russian shelling. Only 1,336 civilians stay in the besieged ghost town that the Russian army continues to destroy with airstrikes and artillery fire.
Currently, Avdiivka is surrounded by Russian forces from the east, southwest, southeast, and northeast. However, the critical supply routes west of the city are under Ukrainian control.
The Russian onslaught in the Avdiivka sector is the largest offensive of the Russian army in 2023. According to the spokesman for the Tavria operational group of forces of the Ukrainian Army, Oleksandr Stupun, Russia deployed up to 40,000 troops to the Avdiivka sector in October.
Since then, both sides have demonstrated the ability to move reserves into the Avdiivka sector. The Ukrainians have reinforced the Avdiivka garrison while the Russians continue throwing more troops into the meat grinder of the Avdiivka offensive.
In October, Ukraine redeployed one of its most combat-ready brigades, the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade, from the Zaporizhzhia direction in southeastern Ukraine to Avdiivka. This brigade, equipped with US-made Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and German-made Leopard main battle tanks, had previously taken part in the Ukrainian counteroffensive on the southern front, mainly near Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
The Ukrainians were well prepared for the onslaught of Russian forces in the Avdiivka sector, which is one of the most heavily fortified Ukrainian defense lines on the eastern front. It is no coincidence that the Russian army has made almost no progress at all in this area since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
All critical 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.
The Russian plan to encircle and occupy Avdiivka in a stunning blitzkrieg of mechanized brigades supported by aviation and artillery did not work. The Russians failed to cut off a key Ukrainian supply route (highway H0542) west of Avdiivka and capture the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant, a gateway to the city from the northeast.
Without control over the coke plant, the Russians are unlikely to be able to undermine the stability of the Avdiivka’s defenses. After weeks of grueling fighting, this fortified area remains under complete Ukrainian control.
Although Russian forces have managed to dislodge Ukrainian defenders from a forty-meter-high slag heap (Avdiivka Terrikon) east of the Avdiivka Chemical and Coke Plant, the Ukrainian artillery fire and kamikaze drone strikes are preventing the Russians from concentrating forces on this crucial commanding height and advancing further.
Russia’s military command continues redeploying forces from other parts of the front to keep the Avdiivka offensive going. However, Russian resources are not infinite. The shortage of armored vehicles and tanks due to heavy equipment losses in the Avdiivka sector has started to show.
In the initial stages of the Avdiivka offensive in October, Russia tried to overwhelm the Ukrainian defenders with continuous artillery shelling and airstrikes, attacking with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles en masse. Faced with a wall of Ukrainian minefields, artillery fire, and kamikaze drones, the Russian military command changed tactics. The Russian army started to rely more on infantry-led attacks, the so-called “meat assaults,” which helped Russia capture Bakhmut in late 2022, another Ukrainian stronghold on the eastern front.
Unlike in the first weeks of the Avdiivka offensive, Russia has abandoned ill-conceived cavalry charges with massive use of tanks and armored personnel carriers to break through the Ukrainian defense, which indirectly confirms the huge Russian losses.
According to OSINT analyst Naalsio, who documents Ukrainian and Russian military equipment losses based on photo and video footage, Russia lost 265 pieces of military equipment in the Avdiivka sector between 9 October and 24 November.
Ukraine lost 20 units of equipment while defending Avdiivka.
Despite heavy losses, Russia still has reserves to continue the Avdiivka offensive. A Russian instructor with a call sign Philologist reportedly serving in the Donetsk Oblast (eastern Ukraine) named the effective use of cluster munitions and FPV kamikaze drones by the Ukrainian Armed Forces among the main problems Russian troops have to face during the Avdiivka offensive operation.
The Philologist noted that the Ukrainians are skillfully using a combination of FPV kamikaze drones and cluster munitions to stop the advance of Russian troops near Avdiivka. The cluster munitions drive Russian assault infantry into deep cover, limiting the ability to repel Ukrainian counterattacks.
Ukrainian artillery uses cluster munitions to hit Russian equipment and infantry in an open field near Krasnohorivka north of Donetsk's Avdiivka, where the Russian forces continue their attempts to encircle and capture the city.
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) November 23, 2023
Once reconnaissance drones detect Russian infantrymen sheltering from cluster munitions among the rubble in urban areas, Ukrainian artillery begins striking Russian hideouts, pushing enemy troops out of them and into the open. When Russian troops emerge from their hiding places, the Ukrainians fire cluster munitions at them.
Thus, cluster munitions allow the Ukrainians to knock out Russian infantry with relatively little ammunition consumption. Cluster munitions cover large areas with a huge mass of destructive elements flying at convenient angles, inflicting heavy casualties on Russian forces.
Despite huge losses, however, the relentless waves of “meat assaults” allowed Russia to push Ukrainian troops out of a crucial industrial area and occupy a commanding height southeast of Avdiivka last week.
Over the past few weeks, Russian forces have gained a foothold in the eastern outskirts of Stepove, northeast of Avdiivka. The Russians are using considerable manpower advantage to expand their zone of control in this area.
The capture of Stepove would allow the Russian army to come closer to the critically important highway H0542 and disrupt the logistics of the Avdiivka garrison by pounding this supply route with mortar fire.
Heavy fighting in Stepove continues despite stormy weather. The 110th Brigade of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, responsible for the defense in this area, repels all Russian attacks.
Challenging weather conditions have affected the operations of Russian aviation and artillery. Low cloud cover and freezing temperatures made it difficult to use reconnaissance drones properly. Thus, artillery on both sides became “blind” and less effective. The Russians took advantage of the weather conditions to regroup while the Ukrainians reinforced their fortifications.
Recently, warmer weather during the day has followed sub-zero temperatures at night. Such temperature fluctuations affected both sides. The frozen ground near Avdiivka has already softened into mud, complicating both Russian and Ukrainian forces’ ability to operate vehicles, the Institute for the Study of War reported on 30 November.
Hands of Ukrainian defenders after a day of duty at positions.
Despite heavy battles, constant Russian shelling, and severe weather conditions🇺🇦soldiers keep fighting against🇷🇺aggression.
Сredit: White Demons Unit of the Carpathian Sich Battalion \ Instagram pic.twitter.com/SmplgpQyJe
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) November 28, 2023
On the southern flank of Avdiivka, the Russian army is trying to conduct infantry-led assaults from four directions (southeast, east, south, and southwest) and occupy the village of Sievierne to approach highway H0542 from another side. However, the Russians cannot bypass or break through the Ukrainian defenses. The 59th Brigade of Ukraine’s Armed Forces keeps holding the line in this area.
After the first two massive waves of attacks on the northern and southern flanks of the Ukrainian defense in the Avdiivka sector yielded no success, the Russian command shifted its attention to the southeastern outskirts of Avdiivka.
Last week, Russian forces managed to advance in the ravaged industrial zone near the Yasynuvata-2 train station southeast of Avdiivka. After fierce fighting, Ukrainian troops were forced to retreat, allowing Russians to gain a foothold in the area.
The industrial zone southeast of Avdiivka is the first line of defense of the Ukrainian garrison. The city and the industrial site are separated by a suburban area, which is now in the gray zone. To begin street fighting in Avdiivka itself, the Russians have to overcome an open field and wade through vast minefields under relentless Ukrainian artillery fire.
The Avdiivka offensive has already become the most costly for the Russian army since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although the Russian onslaught is stymied by stiff Ukrainian resistance, the battle for Avdiivka has diverted Ukrainian forces from other vital sectors of the front, allowing Russia to come back into the fight for strategic initiative.
Both sides have enough reserves to continue the battle of Avdiivka for a long time. Despite heavy casualties, there are no signs that the Russian military command is ready to abandon its attempts to encircle the Ukrainian stronghold and redirect its efforts to other, more strategically significant parts of the front.