Russia’s offensive on the symbolic Ukrainian town of Avdiivka is running out of steam, new analysis suggests, after Moscow’s assaults marked the first major Kremlin clap back at Ukraine’s grinding counteroffensive.
Russian forces pushed on with offensive operations “aimed at encircling Avdiivka” on Sunday, the U.S. think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said in its latest update. However, Moscow is “yet to make further gains amid a likely decreasing tempo of Russian operations in the area,” it added.
Russian forces likely faced “initial high losses” and a slower-than-hoped pace of advance around Avdiivka, the ISW said. Reports from open-source intelligence accounts had suggested that Russia sustained heavy equipment losses in its assault on Avdiivka.
Moscow’s forces began a major push around the eastern town on October 10, thought to involve at least three battalions. As the assault got underway, Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky‘s office, said that Avdiivka was “under mass attacks of Russian artillery and aviation.”
Late on Saturday night local time, Zelensky placed Avdiivka at the top of the list of fighting hot spots, saying: “I thank everyone who is holding their positions and destroying Russian troops.”
Avdiivka has long felt the effects of the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow. Around 1,600 residents are still living in the town, Vitaliy Barabash, who heads up its military administration, has previously estimated. It had a pre-war population of around 30,000.
Russian and Russian-backed forces have been trying to wrestle control of Avdiivka away from Kyiv for nine years, said Major Viktor Trehubov, who serves in Ukraine’s military. “Their current offensive is severe, but still not successful, mostly because of unprecedented effectiveness of Ukrainian combat and reconnaissance UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles),” he told Newsweek on Monday.
In the week between October 9 and October 16, Ukrainian drones destroyed 88 armored vehicles, 75 tanks, 101 howitzers and cannons and two Russian air defense systems, Ukrainian vice prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said on Monday.
Uncrewed technology “proved to be very efficient in the defense of Avdiivka,” he wrote in a post to X.
Avdiivka is a “notoriously well-fortified and defended Ukrainian stronghold,” the ISW said back on October 11, meaning Russia would have a tough time capturing it.
Yet it is not surprising that Russia would try to take control of Avdiivka, which falls into what is known as a “salient,” that cuts into Russia’s lines, said Frederik Mertens, a strategic analyst with the Hague Center for Security Studies.
Russia tried to seize control of the territory earlier in the war, and it “makes solid military sense,” he told Newsweek.
If Russia took control of Avdiivka, it would be a notable win for Moscow’s troops that have been facing off against Ukrainian counteroffensive attacks since early June.
“If Ukraine were to lose Avdiivka, it would be an important Russian defensive victory,” largely because it would make Donetsk better defended against future Ukrainian offensives, Mertens said.
But Russia has likely also zeroed in on Avdiivka to distract Ukrainian forces from other points along the front line, Michael Clarke, professor at the War Studies department at King’s College, London, told Newsweek last week.
Russia looks to be attacking “all across the front while they play for time until the weather turns,” he said.
“If you are looking for a spot where you might launch a counteroffensive to draw in troops from the still-ongoing Ukrainian summer offensive, this would theoretically be a perfect spot,” Mertens said.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin “may be trying to temper expectations of significant Russian advances around Avdiivka,” the ISW said on Sunday.
“Russian forces are unlikely to make significant breakthroughs or cut off Ukrainian forces in the settlement in the near term,” the think tank evaluated.
Ukraine has been battling to push back the Russian front lines in eastern and southern Ukraine for months, with some successes coming at a high cost and at a slow pace. As Ukraine enters the tougher, muddier fall and winter months, Kyiv has vowed to continue the push despite the worsening conditions.
Russia did not mention Avdiivka in its daily update on Sunday, but Ukraine’s General Staff said on Monday that it had faced more than 15 Russian attacks on Avdiivka in the past day.
Ukraine had seen the Russian attack on Avdiivka coming, a spokesperson for Kyiv’s military intelligence agency said last week, and there are indications that it had prepared for the assault, such as by laying mines, the ISW said in an earlier assessment.
Newsweek has reached out to the Russian defense ministry for comment via email.
Update 10/16/2023 10 a.m. ET: This article was updated with additional comment from Major Viktor Trehubov.
Update 10/16/2023 at 11:47 a.m. ET: This article was updated with comments from Frederik Mertens.