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Fate of Avdiivka uncertain as Ukrainian forces defending it struggle with fortifications, resources

by Asami Terajima February 10, 2024 3:17 PM 14 min read
Soldiers of the artillery battery of the 59th Motorized Brigade of the Ukrainian army fire artillery towards Russian positions to support front-line troops in the direction of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, on Dec. 16, 2023. Ukrainian artillery units deployed in the Avdiivka direction, where heavy clashes have been continuing due to the intensification of Russian attacks, continue their intense firing activities. (Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu via Getty Images)
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Editor's note: The full names of the soldiers introduced in the story are not disclosed due to security concerns amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

DONETSK OBLAST – As artillery began pounding the cold-hardened ground ahead of them, two Ukrainian soldiers listened warily to shell impacts creep closer.

They were squeezed together in a roughly dug hole no deeper than half a meter, in a meager defensive position on the front line north of Avdiivka – an embattled city just outside Russian-occupied Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. It was November, and cold weather had already gripped the east of the country.

The two soldiers, Oleksandr, 42, and Anatoly, 31, sat quietly together, holding their breath. Oleksandr knew that the hole provided inadequate cover for the two men.

And as he had feared, a Russian mortar landed right next to the pair on their fifth and last night at the position. Anatoly was struck in the back by shrapnel.

Ukrainian police officers patrol a residential area after shelling in the front-line city of Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine, on Oct. 17, 2023. (Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu via Getty Images)

"Everything happened quickly, and he was screaming," Oleksandr said, recalling how the darkness prevented him from seeing anything.

"I wrapped him (with bandages), did everything (I could)," he added, describing how he felt all over Anatoly’s body to feel the wetness of blood to work out where his comrade had been wounded.

The pair had to wait 10 hours for medical evacuation due to the relentless Russian shelling. Of two other pairs of soldiers positioned nearby, three were killed and one wounded in the same artillery attack.

The account of Oleksandr, a soldier with an anti-tank platoon of the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade, matches other testimony that there are almost no fortified positions on the very front line near Avdiivka – further threatening the lives of those tasked with defending the city.

Many infantrymen and other soldiers deployed on the first line of defense have complained that their positions – often just holes like the one described by Oleksandr – appear to have been poorly prepared ahead of the major Russian offensive on Avdiivka. With Russian forces constantly on heavy assault, there is almost no time to build anything more.

Oleksandr, a soldier deployed in an anti-tank platoon with the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade fighting near Avdiivka, poses for a photo at his base near the front line in Donetsk Oblast on Dec. 22, 2023. (Asami Terajima/The Kyiv Independent)

The second line of defense, a few kilometers behind the front, is still being built, according to nearly a dozen interviewed soldiers.

While Russia continued to strengthen its defense lines even as it launched an offensive on multiple axes over the winter, Ukraine appears to have done little to prepare for a long attritional battle during its summer counteroffensive.

Given the current intensity of the Russian attacks on front-line positions at Avdiivka, soldiers say they have to make do with what they have.

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This puts soldiers’ lives at heightened risk, leaving them without proper protection from Russia’s continuous attacks.

In comments to the Kyiv Independent, the Defense Ministry said that Ukraine has been constructing the fortifications near Avdiivka since 2014 and has been focusing on areas at highest risk since 2022.

However, in November 2023, President Volodymyr Zelensky called for work on fortifying Ukrainian defenses on the major fronts to be accelerated. Ukraine then created a working group to organize the building of second and third defensive lines using private contractors – with the military organizing the first defense line.

Wounded Ukrainian soldiers wait to be transferred for medical treatment on the front line near Avdiivka, Ukraine, on Dec. 31, 2023. (Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu/Getty Images)

All the same, even a well-built trench needs to be constantly maintained, as Russia is using "bulldozer tactics," according to former Ukrainian colonel and military analyst Serhiy Hrabskyi.

Hrabskyi stressed that positions on the first defense line – regardless of how much time was spent on their fortification – could be quickly deformed due to the sheer force of Russia’s firepower.

These are deliberate Russian tactics: pounding Ukrainian positions with artillery and mortar fire so that only small holes are left, and the defense is compromised, the expert said. It would be suicidal for engineering troops to come forward to construct fortifications during active fighting, he added.

But no matter the conditions of the positions, the Ukrainian soldiers say that they are determined to hold the ground for as long as their commanders order them to defend Avdiivka.

"I’m ready, but I don't know if I’ll be there until the end," Oleksandr said as he spoke to the Kyiv Independent, sitting on a bed in a cottage behind the lines where he was based. Tears welling in his eyes, he said he was thinking of his daughter.

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Ukraine’s military admitted on Feb. 8 that Russian forces had entered Avdiivka.

"Combat clashes are taking place not only in the residential sector in the north of the city, but also within the city’s urban development," said Dmytro Lykhovii, a spokesman for Tavria group overseeing the southeastern front.

Russian forces are applying their main efforts in the north of Avdiivka, trying to cut off the main logistic route into the city and achieve its "operational encirclement," Lykhovii said.

Now the situation in Avdiivka, a Ukrainian fortress that was briefly occupied in 2014, is more critical than ever, with Russian forces only a few kilometers away from fully encircling the city.

Ukrainian soldiers – even those defending the city since the beginning of the full-scale war – acknowledged that the fall of Avdiivka seems inevitable, given Russia’s offensive capability that is extremely costly but still effective in the long run.

Rob Lee, a military expert and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, agrees that "if the flanks collapse too far and the resupply roads come under too much fire, there may be a point where it becomes too difficult or costly to continue holding the city."

"If Russia commits enough resources to Avdiivka and Ukraine runs low on artillery ammunition, Russia may be able to take the city – though likely only at high cost," Lee said.

Russia's major offensive

Russia unleashed one of its heaviest offensives on the eastern Avdiivka sector in mid-October, as Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive began to grind to a halt in Zaporizhzhia, in the south.

Thrusting forward columns of armored vehicles, Russia attempted to squeeze back the defenses of Avdiivka using vast troop numbers – pressuring the lines around the Ukrainian stronghold from the north, east, and south.

Observing Russia’s offensive, the U.K. Defense Ministry said that despite suffering heavy personnel and equipment losses, Russia had launched what was likely to be its "most significant offensive operation" since at least January 2023, involving multiple armored battalions.

The first month-and-a-half of Russia’s massive frontal assault on Avdiivka had likely led it to face "some of the highest Russian casualty rates of the war so far," the ministry said in a November intelligence bulletin.

Now, four months into the operation, the Russians made some gains north of Avdiivka, drawing closer to the giant Avdiivka Coke Plant and the main road leading into the city – a crucial logistic route for Ukraine.

To the south, Russian forces have already controlled the industrial zone – previously a Ukrainian strongpoint – since December 2023, expert Hrabskyi said.

Buildings of the Avdiivka Coke plant rise behind fields outside the city of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, on March 20, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

"Even at the cost of these colossal losses, (Russian forces) were able to achieve a result," Hrabskyi said. “They were ordered to enter the industrial zone – they did it. They lost a completely extraordinary number of people – that’s another issue. But they got in (Avdiivka) and can keep going."

"It’s very difficult to say at what point the defense of Avdiivka will become impractical for Ukrainian forces," he added.  

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If the defenses preventing Russia from closing the current five-kilometer gap between the north and south flanks are compromised, Ukraine might no longer see much point in defending the city, according to Hrabskyi. A decision to pull out may come if Russia manages to reduce the gap by a kilometer or two, which would allow Russian mortars – not just artillery – to hit the main supply route into the city, he said.

It would be disadvantageous for Ukraine to fight in Avdiivka itself, as the quantity of troops plays a major role in urban warfare, as was seen in the Russian assault on Bakhmut, the expert said.

The particularly fierce fighting rages on in the northern part of Avdiivka.

Russia appears to be planning to cut off the Ukrainian forces by entering between a Soviet-era coke plant – which has an extensive network of tunnels beneath it – in the westernmost part of the city and a quarry roughly five kilometers eastward, the spokesman of Ukraine’s Tavria military group, Lykhovii, said on Feb. 8.

Hrabskyi and many of the soldiers agreed that losing the plant would make the defense of Avdiivka "practically meaningless."

A bird's-eye view of the city as an airstrike on the Metinvest coke plant is seen in the background of Avdiivka, Ukraine, on Oct. 30, 2023. (Vlada Liberova / Libkos via Getty Images)

For sapper Oleksandr, the initial days of Russia’s major offensive on Avdiivka are a blur.

Deployed near the plant, Oleksandr went as close as 50 to 100 meters from the nearest Russian positions to lay anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in what he called "the dead zone." Targeting the routes often used by Russian assault groups, he worked sector by sector during the quieter moments, day and night.

But that’s not enough to stop the Russians.

"It is necessary to build a line of defense with trenches, a system of fire points, minefields, etc.," Oleksandr explained. “For us, it's like this: We have trenches, and that's it, it's enough.”

"We just need to build a defense line in which they (the Russian troops) would suffer colossal losses. It is being built, but f*ck, if it had been built (earlier)…"

Bakhmut flashbacks

For the soldiers currently fighting in the Avdiivka sector, Russia’s tactics – relying on massive numbers of troops to wear down defenses – are only too familiar.

Many of them were deployed in Bakhmut over the brutal winter months of the previous year, and remember how Russian troops first squeezed defenses on the flanks before taking their offensive into the city.

Russia appears confident that its high-expense tactics will also work in the Avdiivka area, and is throwing everything – men and equipment in massive numbers – into battle, soldiers and experts say.

Many Ukrainian soldiers said they expected Avdiivka to suffer a similar fate to Bakhmut – where Russia eventually nearly encircled the defenders, and cut the supply routes into the city, forcing a Ukrainian withdrawal.

"There are just so many of them (Russian troops), and they are just advancing on quantity," said Vitalii, a night drone pilot with the Skala 425th Assault Battalion. He says he tries not to think about what might happen to the city.

Meanwhile, Major Mykola from the 59th Separate Mechanized Brigade deployed south of Avdiivka said he thought Russia wouldn’t achieve an encirclement of the city, but that Ukraine might withdraw anyway to save its troops.

Major Mykola with the 59th Separate Mechanized Brigade deployed near Avdiivka poses for a photo in front of his base in Donetsk Oblast on Dec. 20, 2023. (Asami Terajima/The Kyiv Independent)

Observing Russian troop movements from above, Vitalii said he felt that those deployed near Avdiivka were more experienced than the Wagner mercenaries he encountered in the Bakhmut area – with a level of training similar to that of the Ukrainians.

If Russian forces capture the villages of Stepove and Berdychi to the northwest of Avdiivka, the situation in the city would be critical, Vitalii believes. He added that the Russians were working effectively first in small, hard-to-detect groups – followed up by a coordinated assault by larger groups.

Extraordinarily, some civilians, mostly elderly people, are still present in the already war-ruined city.

Avdiivka's head of military administration, Vitalii Barabash, poses for a photo in Pokrovsk, Donetsk Oblast, on Dec 21, 2023. (Asami Terajima/The Kyiv Independent)

Though surrounded by some of the heaviest fighting of this war, less than 1,000 civilians of the original 32,000 pre-war population continue to live in dire conditions in Avdiivka, head of the city’s military administration Vitalii Barabash said.

In contrast to the soldiers, Barabash is sure Ukraine will hold the city, although he acknowledged that the whole of Avdiivka is under fire, and particularly the central part of the city with its many multi-story buildings.

"There is no building unscathed. That is, they are all damaged," Barabash said, adding that Russian troops intensified their attacks on Avdiivka itself on Oct. 10, 2023 – the very day they began their large-scale offensive.

Barabash, who regularly visits the city to try to persuade residents to flee their homes, said that regular apartment basements in Avdiivka aren’t the best protection – they may withstand artillery attacks, but not hits by Russian KAB guided aerial bombs.

As of late December, more than 160 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 360 wounded in Avdiivka, Barabash said.

Asked if any preparation was ongoing in case of the potential capture of Avdiivka by Russia, Barabash said, "we have plan A, plan B, and plan C – there are different options, (and) we’re always discussing them." He gave no further details.

On Feb. 6, Barabash called the situation surrounding Avdiivka "very difficult," even critical in some areas, but insisted that it is still under control.

A soldier with the 59th Separate Mechanized Brigade poses for a photo near the Avdiivka front line in Donetsk Oblast on Dec. 20, 2023. (Asami Terajima/The Kyiv Independent)

Resources shortage

Nearly two years into the full-scale war, long-lingering problems – including the lack of preparation of fortifications – are starting to become even more serious.

Along the front line, Ukrainian soldiers complain of severe shortages of ammunition, equipment, troops, and drones.

Compared to the 120 shells allocated to each tank in southern Kherson Oblast during Ukraine’s fall 2022 counteroffensive, for example, tanks are now rationed 15-20 shells each as of December, according to tank crews with the 59th brigade.

A group of soldiers from a Grad 122 mm multiple rocket launcher battery with the 59th also said the ammunition shortage only allows them to shoot one rocket at a time – while their launchers can shoot 40 in one salvo.

"We’re working like regular, barrel artillery right now," soldier Bohdan said. "Instead of 40 (rockets, we’re shooting) one."

Military experts said that the future of the battle for Avdiivka would depend on how many resources each side is able to garner for it. For Ukraine, Western military aid will thus be a crucial factor in the coming months.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry and the General Staff didn't respond to the Kyiv Independent's questions as of publication time.

Among the most serious issues reported all along the front line is that Ukraine is facing a major personnel shortage – particularly in the infantry.

To reinforce infantry units after heavy losses, Ukraine has transferred soldiers from units specialized in artillery or logistics to infantry positions, according to the soldiers interviewed by the Kyiv Independent. This means soldiers deployed on the first defensive line may not even know the basic survival skills of an infantryman, which results in even more casualties.  

Serhii, a 20-year-old artilleryman with the 59th, said that his originally 64-man artillery group had sent 15 men to the front line. He said most of them had been killed in their first days there. He attributes it to the fact they "knew almost nothing" about being in the infantry. Only four out of 15 survived.

A photo capturing a tank near the Avdiivka front line in Donetsk Oblast on Dec. 19, 2023. (Editor's Note: The number on the tank has been blurred for security purposes.) (Asami Terajima/The Kyiv Independent)

A similar way of repurposing soldiers was previously reported by multiple soldiers in the Bakhmut sector, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Avdiivka, during Ukraine’s costly defense of that city last year.

Hrabskyi says that circumstances force Ukrainians to use such "non-standard methods."

"Now (Ukrainian forces) are looking for any opportunity to inflict maximum damage on the enemy and delay its advance, gaining time," Hrabskyi said.

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Note from the author:

Hi, this is Asami Terajima, the author of this article.

Thank you for reading our story. 2024 is expected to be yet another bloody and tough year for Ukrainian soldiers on the front line. Everywhere I go, I see exhaustion and pain in the soldiers' eyes, and the least I can do is write about every stage and aspect of the war in Ukraine. To help the Kyiv Independent tell more stories that would otherwise not be told, please consider supporting us by becoming our patron.

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