After losing hundreds of armored vehicles in direct assaults on Ukrainian positions in and around Avdiivka, in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, the Russian armed forces are switching to dismounted infantry assaults.
It’s not a terrible idea, tactically speaking. Ukrainian brigades switched from mounted to dismounted assaults this summer during their counteroffensive in southern Ukraine and, as a result, advanced 10 or a dozen miles along at least two important axes.
But infantry assaults can be risky when the enemy is dug in, the weather is wet and cold and—perhaps most gravely—the footbound soldiers don’t have good air and artillery support.
Yes, the Russian air force is dropping more cluster bombs on Avdiivka and also lobbing more heavy glide-bombs. But it’s not clear the air force coordinates these strikes with infantry. In switching to dismounted assaults without supporting these assaults, Russian brigades and regiments simply may have doomed thousands of infantry to die on foot instead of in their vehicles.
Russian forces first attacked Avdiivka in mid-October, just as the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Zaporizhia and Donetsk Oblasts was slowing down. The Kremlin’s objective is obvious: to capture a Ukrainian stronghold that lies just miles from Donetsk city, the locus of the Russian occupation of the surrounding eastern oblast.
Day after day, week after week, brigades from the 2nd Combined Arms Army and other Russian field armies launched company- and battalion-size assaults on Avdiivka. Repulsed by mines, artillery and drones, the brigades quickly redirected their attacks to Avdiivka’s flanks.
In response, the Ukrainian general staff deployed the 47th Mechanized Brigade to Avdiivka’s northern flank, the 53rd Mechanized Brigade to the southern flank and directed at least two artillery brigades to support the 47th and 53rd as well as the weary 110th Mechanized Brigade, which has garrisoned Avdiivka itself for more than a year without relief.
The terrain around Avdiivka mostly is flat fields stitched by treelines and a railroad and, in the north, overlooked by a tall, barren heap of industrial waste that abuts a sprawling coke plant. There’s not a lot of cover. Merely reaching a start point for an assault on Ukrainian positions requires the Russians to run a miles-long gauntlet of Ukrainian drones and artillery.
The Russians’ vehicle losses were staggering in those first few weeks when the assaults largely were vehicleborne. “Over the past three weeks, Russia has likely lost around 200 armored vehicles during its assaults on the Donbas town of Avdiivka,” the U.K. Defense Ministry reported on Nov. 4.” Ukrainian vehicle losses meanwhile were in the low double digits.
Russia’s staggering losses were “likely due to a combination of relative effectiveness of Ukraine’s modern hand-held anti-armor weapons, mines, uncrewed aerial vehicle-dropped munitions and precision artillery systems,” the ministry added. Both sides in the Avdiivka battle have fired cluster shells at the other, but these munitions work best against an exposed force—and in and around Avdiivka, it’s the Russians who are exposed.
Even Russia with its vast reserves of aged Cold War vehicles can’t afford to keep losing these vehicles at a rate of hundreds per week across Ukraine. Perhaps noting the Ukrainians’ success with dismounted infantry assaults in Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk this summer, the Russians began holding back their surviving vehicles and, instead, sending the infantry out on foot.
“In contrast to the initial month of assaults, Russian forces are employing fewer vehicles in smaller numbers,” Ukrainian analysis group Frontelligence Insight noted. “There’s a notable increase in the use of small tactical groups, consistently moving in the same areas despite prior losses.”
So far, it’s not working very well. “Ours advanced towards the coke plant [in northern Avdiivka], covering another hundred meters in the face of enemy fire,” one Russian observer reported. “Also, shock assault groups advanced from the right [southern] side of the village [of] Stepovoe on the northern side.”
“We managed to knock out the enemy with two landings. And here the progress amounted to several hundreds of meters, but achieved with considerable effort.”
“Considerable effort” in this case means potentially thousands of casualties on the bloody fields around Avdiivka. “It is plausible that Russia has suffered several thousand personnel casualties around the town since the start of October 2023,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated.
To put that into perspective, 70,000 Ukrainian troops died in the first 18 months of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, while 120,000 Russians died in the same period. This according to an August report by The New York Times. All that is to say, around 3,900 Ukrainians and 6,700 Russians die per month, on average.
But those casualty figures are for the whole, 600-mile front. In October, three or four thousand Russians died in a single ongoing attack on a single city.
Russia’s shocking losses might not matter, in the end. “Russia’s leadership continues to demonstrate a willingness to accept heavy personnel losses for marginal territorial gains,” the U.K. Defense Ministry explained.
It was this willingness to send thousands of men to their deaths, and the unwillingness of Russian society to object to this bloodshed, that proved decisive in the Russian assault on Bakhmut last spring. That battle also cost the Russians thousands of casualties. But they persisted and ultimately captured the city’s ruins.
But the combat power the Kremlin expended in Bakhmut was combat power it couldn’t deploy elsewhere. It’s not for no reason that the outnumbered Ukrainians managed to break through Russian defenses in the south this summer and liberate several important settlements. Russian fortifications were daunting everywhere, but Russian manpower was unevenly distributed.
Likewise, it’s not for no reason the Ukrainain marine corps was able to cross the Dnipro River in southern Kherson Oblast at the same time the Russians were losing entire battalions in doomed assaults on Avdiivka. The Russians could’ve reinforced the Dnipro front line. But they were busy dying outside Avdiivka.