A team of Russian infantry, who recently marched on foot into Avdiivka in a daylight assault, demonstrated the dangers of the brutal four-month battle for the devastated city just northwest of Russian-occupied Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
A Ukrainian drone spotted the six Russian soldiers walking towards the city from the north. Another drone – or several – bombarded the Russians with grenades, wounding or killing most, if not all.
But not before the Russians walked within 650 meters of Hrushevsky Street, the main supply route to the center of Avdiivka, where the Ukrainian army’s weary 110th Mechanized Brigade has held out since Russia expanded its war against Ukraine two years ago.
The 110th Brigade and neighboring units are running out of infantry, out of ammunition and out of time as a pair of Russian field armies throw more and more troops into the meat grinder of Avdiivka.
Since the first attack on Avdiivka in early October, the Russian 2nd and 41st Combined Arms Armies have suffered devastating losses from Ukrainian mines, artillery, drones and entrenched infantry – and mechanized counterattacks.
In the first two months alone, the Russians lost 13,000 troops killed or maimed, while hundreds of vehicles were destroyed or abandoned. Russian losses may have doubled since then.
But the Kremlin has made the capture or demolition of Avdiivka its main objective as its third annual winter offensive in Ukraine reaches its peak. The Russians have advanced a few hundred meters along several other sectors of the front. But north and south of Avdiivka they have made progress miles.
It appears that Russia’s leaders have resigned themselves to trading much of their offensive fighting power by capturing the ruins of a small town, which before the wider war had a population of 30,000, but today only a few desperate civilians and at most a few houses a thousand Ukrainian troops.
“The adversary is concentrating its efforts on capturing Avdiivka,” the Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies noted. “Due to a lack of resources, the Russian military command has been forced to slow the pace of advance on all other fronts.”
Russia’s 400,000-strong force in Ukraine – the forward-deployed arm of a two-million-strong army – is running out of modern armored vehicles and has had to accept large numbers of undertrained conscripts, including paroled ex-prisoners. to maintain its strength in the front line.
But Ukraine’s million-strong armed forces are also struggling to purchase modern vehicles and adequately train new recruits. Most irritating for the Ukrainians is that they have one-fifth as much artillery ammunition as the Russians – the inevitable consequence of the continued blockade of US military aid by Russia-linked Republicans in the US Congress.
It is that hunger for ammunition that allowed these six Russian soldiers to walk into Avdiivka.
Yes, Ukrainian forces have access to tens of thousands of small drones per month. But a first-person-view drone can carry only a pound of explosives and has a range of no more than two miles. In contrast, a 155-millimeter artillery shell contains 25 pounds of explosive and has a range of at least 15 miles.
It apparently took hours for those drones to track down and wound or kill the six infiltrators. A sufficiently supplied artillery battery might have taken a few minutes.
Less and less afraid of Ukraine’s starved artillery, the Russians appear to be growing bolder – steadily advancing towards Avdiivka from the north and south. “Russian forces are concentrated on blocking Hrushevsky Street,” the Center for Defense Strategies explains.
Once the Russians block the street, the Ukrainian 110th Mechanized Brigade – if it is still in Avdiivka at the time – may have difficulty getting supplies into the city. As long as the Ukrainian Army’s 53rd Mechanized Brigade lingers in the village of Sjeverne, five kilometers west of Avdiivka, trucks can move along the tree line between the village and the city.
But the trucks could be under fire for the entire journey. The terrain east of Sjeverne is flat and in winter the leafless remaining trees do not provide much cover. Russian troops are less than a mile away.
In light of the risk, Ukrainian commanders could call any day now and withdraw the 110th Brigade from Avdiivka, along with any remaining civilians willing to leave.
It is both a political and a military decision. And politics in Kiev is in flux. Yesterday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ousted his popular top general, the charismatic Valery Zaluzhny, and replaced him with the unpopular former head of the ground forces, General Oleksandr Syrsky.
Zaluzhny has a reputation – justified or not – of embracing a mobile defense to minimize the number of Ukrainian casualties. Syrsky, on the other hand, has a reputation – again, justified or not – of accepting large numbers of casualties in persistent, static battles.