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Why Russia’s push to capture Avdiivka "fortress" is unlikely to succeed

In the early morning of October 10, Russian forces unleashed an extended artillery barrage on Avdiivka, a Ukrainian fortress town less than 10 miles north of Russian-occupied Donetsk.

By late Tuesday afternoon, Russian armored vehicles and infantry were reported to be advancing into the villages south of the settlement.

Yet by all indications, the Russian offensive is unlikely to succeed in capturing Avdiivka from Ukrainian troops, who have been reinforcing the fortress-like area ever since driving out the Russian-backed separatists who briefly occupied it during the spring and summer of 2014.

While Russia’s invasion of February 24, 2022, saw significant swathes of territory change hands in the Ukrainian north, south, and east, the frontlines around Avdiivka have remained largely static—even as intense fighting has reduced the local population from over 30,000 before the full-scale war to under 2,000 today, according to Ukraine.

The as-yet unsuccessful push to encircle the tiny village has proven to be one of Russia’s costliest offensives to date, with Putin’s forces suffering colossal casualties, including dozens of destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, according to Ukraine’s reports and open-source intelligence analysis.

Rather than representing an attempt at territorial conquest, however, Russia’s push in the Avdiivka direction may have a different goal in mind.

In its October 11 report, the Institute for the Study of War think tank characterized the Russian assault as a “fixing action” intended to prevent Ukrainian units from “redeploying to other areas of the front.”

At a moment when Kyiv’s counteroffensive efforts in the direction of the southern city of Melitopol appear to have stalled, and with the autumn muddy season set to arrive with the next major rainfall, any action that prevents potential Ukrainian reinforcements from redeploying to the south may well work in Russia’s overall favor, despite the heavy losses its forces are reportedly incurring in the operation.

For Kyiv, hope remains that Ukrainian troops may yet succeed in fighting their way through to Tokmak before the ground becomes impassable; or that winter cold opens up new lanes of assault across the Dnieper River north of what used to be the Kakhovka dam; or that Ukrainian artillery and drone strikes will prevent Russian engineers from laying yet another layer of minefields in front of its defensive positions in the south.

But the fighting around Avdiivka may well be buying Russia the time it needs to reinforce the large swathes of territory it still occupies. Russia does not need to capture Avdiivka in order for its localized offensive to prove a success.

The former number two military in the world may not be able to capture a decimated coal-mining town, but in its effort to extend the war for as long as possible, Moscow only needs to ensure that its hold on Tokmak remains firm.

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