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Ukraine faces onslaught at Avdiivka as Russia launches new offensive

A Ukrainian tank opens fire on targets to support infantry units on the front lines amid the Russia-Ukraine war in Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on April 17, 2023. (Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
by Martin Fornusek October 12, 2023 6:48 PM 5 min read
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After months of a relatively static siege, Russian forces launched a heavy assault in the direction of the front-line town of Avdiivka, backed up by armor, artillery, and air strikes.

The Ukrainian military has reported unusually heavy fighting over the past three days as Russia encroaches on the mostly destroyed town and along its flanks.

Avdiivka has stood on the front lines since the very start of Russia's war in 2014.

Success in this sector would not only be a symbolic victory and a morale boost for Moscow but could also push back Ukrainian forces from the doorstep of occupied Donetsk.

The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces reported on Oct. 10 that up to three Russian battalions – over 2,000 soldiers – supported by tanks and armored vehicles had intensified their operations against Avdiivka.

Around the same time, Russia launched massive strikes against the town, after which even those few residents remaining in the largely ruined settlement began to leave in higher numbers.

"There has never been such an amount of equipment that the Russians used in action. There has never been such a number of personnel at the same time," Vitalii Barabash, the head of the Avdiivka City Military Administration, said on the air.

The General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled 10 enemy attacks against Avdiivka and eight more east of Stepove and southeast of Sieverne on Oct. 11.

On the following day, the military said that Russia launched 10 more unsuccessful attacks in the Avdiivka direction and 10 assaults east of Stepove, southeast of Sieverne, and south of Pervomaiske.

The General Staff also reported close to a thousand Russian casualties per day both on Oct. 11 and Oct. 12, which is roughly double the usual average in the previous days.

The direction of the attacks at the settlements on Avdiivka's flanks would indicate that Russia seeks to encircle the town.

Ukrainian officials said that even on the third day of the offensive, the intense fighting had not ceased.

On Oct. 12, Oleksandr Shtupun, a spokesperson for Ukraine's southern group of forces, reported that Ukrainian defenders are dealing heavy losses to Russian troops.

He noted a moderate recorded decrease in the number of deployed Russian armor but added that Russia is nevertheless continuing in the offensive operations using infantry.

President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote on his Telegram channel that Ukrainian forces are holding the ground: "It is Ukrainian courage and unity that will determine how this war will end. We must all remember this."

The U.S.-based think tank Institute for the Study of War commented that the Avdiivka offensive illustrated how Russia is learning its lessons and adapting on the battlefield.

Russian forces are effectively using electronic warfare, counterbattery measures, artillery preparation, aerial reconnaissance, and inter-unit communications, the analysts said.

"These tactical-level adaptations and successes, however, are unlikely to translate into wider operational and strategic gains for Russian forces," the ISW concluded.

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According to analyst Ian Matveev, the method of advance indicates that Russia is indeed trying to capture the town itself, or at the very least, setting the stage for it.

He estimated that the settlement could not be quickly captured only by flank and frontal assaults, and a full encirclement would be necessary.

For this, Russia does not currently have enough ready units or freedom of action, and Ukrainian troops do not have critical issues with either artillery or reconnaissance, Matveev wrote on his Telegram channel.

Nevertheless, Russian forces are continuing their efforts to win a major symbolic victory after months of defending against Ukraine's counteroffensive in the south and around Bakhmut.

"Russia is attempting to win some kind of a symbolic victory in Avdiivka," Shtupun said.

"At the start of the full-scale invasion, Avdiivka appeared insignificant to Russia, but today, capturing Avdiivka is the most that the enemy can achieve at the current stage (of the war)."

The importance of the town may be more than symbolic, however. Russia has been recently escalating its attacks along the eastern front, not only around Avdiivka but also in the Lyman-Kupiansk direction in the northeast.

According to the ISW, the focused efforts at the Lyman-Kupiansk axis may be an attempt to pin down Ukrainian troops, who could otherwise be deployed elsewhere. It is possible that the recent onslaught against Avdiivka may have a similar goal.

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The front-line town also has a value on its own. Military expert Oleh Zhdanov told the TSN News outlet earlier this year that if Russia manages to seize Avdiivka, it would push Ukrainian troops away from Donetsk's doorsteps.

Capturing the town could also mean further Russian advances toward the administrative borders of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, he added.

However, the expert warned against overestimating the strategic value of the town itself, adding that it is important mainly in the context of broader Russian operations.

Matveev also said that even if Avdiivka falls, Ukrainian troops could simply withdraw and take positions further west, leading to another "Bakhmut scenario" – a costly tactical success without much future prospects.

While the ongoing assault on Avdiivka is the largest one within the past year, the town has been on the front lines since 2014, which is also a reason why Ukraine had time to build up strong defenses in the sector.

At the same time, it has remained as a salient lodged between Russian positions, which gave Moscow's troops several vectors of possible attacks.

Russian forces began escalating their assaults against the town in July 2022, and in March this year, the Ukrainian military warned that Russia had launched an attempt to encircle Avdiivka and make it into a "second Bakhmut."

While the level of hostilities never reached the current phase, Avdiivka has long been a flashpoint of battles on the eastern front, leaving the town mostly depopulated and destroyed.

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