Ukraine strengthens Avdiivka. And there are good reasons to believe that it will fortify the eastern city – currently the site of Russia’s winter offensive – with one of the best brigades in the Ukrainian army.
The 3rd Assault Brigade. The only The Ukrainian Ground Combat Brigade, we know for a fact, was in reserve in eastern Ukraine as of last week.
Brig. General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, commander of the Tavriya troop group in Avdiivka, announced the reinforcement on Telegram on Saturday. “We are strengthening the blocking line, setting up additional firing positions and using new effective forces,” Tarnavskyi wrote. “The logistics delivery continues.”
It was not a foregone conclusion that the Ukrainians would strengthen Avdiivka. By apparently choosing to stay and fight, the Ukrainian armed forces are accepting enormous risks.
After four months of heavy fighting, Russian troops from the 2nd and 41st Combined Arms Armies finally entered Avdiivka – a key Ukrainian stronghold just eight kilometers northwest of Russian-occupied Donetsk – earlier this month. through which the Ukrainian garrison, centered around the 110th Mechanized Brigade, gets supplies to the city.
At that point, Tarnavskyi had two options. Withdraw the survivors of the 110th Brigade from the exposed eastern part of the city and consolidate the Ukrainian line in the center of Avdiivka or just outside the city, to the west.
Or: Reinforce the 110th Brigade and try to push the much larger Russian force away from the garrison’s supply lines.
It is possible that it was not Tarnavskyi’s decision.
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky removed his popular top general, the charismatic Valery Zaluzhny, and replaced him with the unpopular former head of the ground forces, General Oleksandr Syrskyi.
Zaluzhny has a reputation – justified or not – of embracing a mobile defense to minimize the number of Ukrainian casualties. Syrskyi, on the other hand, has a reputation – again, justified or not – of tolerating large numbers of casualties in persistent, static battles.
It is possible that Zelensky, by promoting Syrskyi, signaled his intention to fight for Avdiivka. Even at high costs.
Whatever the case, it appears that new Ukrainian forces have arrived in the now lifeless ruins of the once booming industrial city with a pre-war population of 30,000. Their first and most obvious task is to relieve pressure on the main paved east-west road to the center of Avdiivka, Hrushevsky Street.
There are other, less passable roads to Avdiivka, but Hrushevsky is crucial. “The intention of the Russian aggressors is clear: first of all, they want to gain control over the logistical means to supply our units on the northern flank,” Tarnavskyi wrote. “However, we provide an adequate response to the enemy’s actions.”
That “adequate response” could include the deployment of elements of the 3rd Assault Brigade. The unit has been in reserve in Kramatorsk, 80 kilometers north of Avdiivka, since December.
The 2,000-man brigade fought one of the last winning battles of the 2023 Ukrainian offensive, liberating the town of Andriivka, 40 kilometers north of Avdiivka. The victory gave the year-old brigade a chance to rest, retrain, recruit new soldiers and, if the rumors are true, re-equip with American-made M-2 combat vehicles.
“How are you doing in February of the third attack?” brigade trooper Egor Sugar wrote. “Only in training, and only hardcore. Regular training, distance training and active preparation for new attacks against the occupiers continue.”
The slow collapse of Avdiivka’s defenses in recent weeks may have forced the 3rd Brigade to suspend training and return to the front. That collapse was not inevitable.
When 40,000 Russian troops attacked in early October, the Tavriya troop group did everything right. It dug into Avdiivka and simultaneously reinforced the northern and southern flanks of the city with elements of the 47th and 53rd Brigades respectively. The aim was to turn the lowlands around the city into a shooting gallery.
No, the failed defense in Avdiivka was a choice of the Russia-linked Republicans in the US Congress. When these lawmakers refused to approve further aid to Ukraine starting in October—coincidentally around the same time the Russians attacked Avdiivka—the howitzers the 110th Brigade was counting on to turn Avdiivka’s flanks into an artillery killing zone began to fall silent.
After all, America was the main supplier of munitions to Ukraine’s war effort. Ukrainian artillery quickly moved away matching The firepower of the Russian artillery is simply fireable one fifth as many grenades as the Russians. At the same time, Ukrainian air defenses also began to run out of ammunition.
The Russians saw an opportunity. “Enemy aviation has increased the number of flights per day in support of offensive actions in eastern Ukraine, especially in the vicinity of Avdiivka,” the Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies reported. “This situation is a consequence of the shortage of guided anti-aircraft missiles in the Ukrainian armed forces.”
Russian bombs rained down on the 110th Brigade’s best fortifications, creating gaps in interlocking sectors of fire. Taking advantage of bad weather that grounded Ukrainian drones last week, Russian infantry entered northern Avdiivka and crawled south until they were practically able to see Hrushevsky Street.
For an army committed to mobile defense – trading space for time while inflicting maximum casualties on the attacker – the infantry infiltrations might have led to a retreat.
If the Ukrainians view Avdiivka as a trap of attrition for the Russians, they should abandon Avdiivka while still killing more Russians than the Russians kill Ukrainians.
For four months, Avdiivka’s garrison may have killed ten Russians for every soldier it lost. But the encirclement by Russian field armies threatens to erase that exhausting advantage.
After all, it’s happened before. In May last year, in a tough battle not unlike the one in Avdiivka, a Ukrainian garrison held out for months in the ruins of the eastern city of Bakhmut.
The Ukrainians killed as many as ten Russians for every person they lost – until the Russians traded blood for land and cut off the city’s supply lines. “When Russian forces managed to capture the Ukrainian flanks and disrupt the supply routes, the number of casualties was almost the same,” explains Ukrainian analysis group Frontelligence Insight.
Guess who was in charge of the Bakhmut fight? That’s right – Syrskyi.
What will happen next in Avdiivka is anyone’s guess. If the 3rd Assault Brigade is indeed deployed in the city, expect counterattacks aimed at the Russian positions near Hrushevsky Street.
But not expects that the Ukrainians will suddenly find a lot of spare ammunition. In anticipation of a long period of rising American isolationism and authoritarianism, European countries are investing more in their own militaries – and that means spending more on the production of artillery shells and rockets.
However, it could take many months before all these munitions find their way to Ukraine. So unless Republicans in the United States relent, and the US can somehow expedite new aid to Avdiivka, the 110th Brigade and all units that reinforce it will continue to deplete their rapidly depleting arsenals.
If there is no more ammunition, it does not matter whether there is one Ukrainian brigade in Avdiivka or two. And the Ukrainian commanders’ decision to fortify the city will be questionable at best.
At worst, this could result in a bloodbath for Ukrainian forces as they try to flee west from a city they can no longer defend.