Fall of Avdiivka gives Russia the military initiative and Putin a political gift ahead of presidential elections

Fall of Avdiivka gives Russia the military initiative and Putin a political gift ahead of presidential elections
Two days after the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops, Russian forces completed their takeover of Avdiivka. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 21, 2024

The fall of Avdiivka has given the Russian military the initiative in the war in Ukraine, but it has also handed Russian President Vladimir Putin an important political gift ahead of the presidential elections in March.

The newly appointed military commander-in-chief Oleksandr Syrskyi announced the decision to withdraw Ukrainian units from Avdiivka, an embattled city just north of Russian-occupied Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, on the night of February 17, "in order to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of servicemen.” Drone footage of the city shows a scene of total destruction.

Two days after the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops, Russian forces have completed their takeover of Avdiivka. According to Russia’s Defence Ministry, its soldiers took “full control” of Avdiivka’s coke plant on February 19, eliminating the town’s last pocket of resistance.

Syrskyi has previously been criticised for being careless with soldiers' lives, especially in the brutal battle for Bakhmut last year that was also eventually retaken by Russian forces. The death toll in Bakhmut was very high and Ukraine sacrificed many of its veteran troops, under Syrskyi’s command.

The withdrawal from Avdiivka was the correct decision to safeguard the lives of Ukrainian defenders, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said during his speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 17. “We are preserving our people, our warriors, because this is what defence is all about,” he said.

“This does not mean that people moved kilometres away and Russia seized something. It didn’t seize anything, we have to understand that. During the two years of the war, Russia tried to do something in the east. What is ‘something’? They just destroyed some small villages and towns. But the most important thing they destroyed was our lives,” the president added.

Due to the end of support in January when the US ran out of money for Ukraine, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) situation had been rapidly deteriorating as it began to run out of ammunition.

Russian forces were making a big push on Avdiivka in the Donbas region as Putin seeks a military victory ahead of the presidential election. Russian forces have been trying to capture Avdiivka since 2014. The current assault started in October last year and most of the city has been destroyed by urban warfare, artillery barrages and airstrikes.

On February 15 Russian forces cut off the main supply route into the city, likely prompting the decision to withdraw. The deputy commander of Ukraine's Third Assault Brigade Maksym Zhorin said the same day that some units had been "completely surrounded" in Avdiivka but had managed to break out before Russian forces totally captured the town two days later.

The Russian military has now taken “full control” of the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant, a key stronghold and the main source of income for the city before the war, according to Russia’s Defence Ministry. A Russian flag has reportedly been raised over the administrative building.

Chaotic withdrawal

Unconfirmed reports say the withdrawal of the AFU was chaotic and some units were surrounded and captured, while others suffered from heavy losses during their pull-back.

About 17,000 Russian soldiers were killed and 30,000 others injured during the capture of the city, Tavria Defence Forces spokesman Dmytro Lykhoviy said in an interview with the BBC on February 17. Ukraine has not released its own casualty figures, which remain a state secret.

The Russian military pledged to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers from the Zenit strongpoint in Avdiivka and provide them with assistance but instead shot five of the soldiers, Ukraine’s 110th Brigade said on February 19, the Kyiv Independent reports.

The Ukrainian investigative media outlet Slidtsvo.info reported on February 18 that relatives had identified the dead bodies of three soldiers of the brigade, which had been left behind as the rest of the AFU forces retreated.

To shore up morale after the fall of Avdiivka, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the front line on February 19 to thank soldiers for their service and hand out medals. Zelenskiy visited the battalion command post of the 14th Separate Mechanised Brigade, which is engaged in the northeastern Kupiansk sector.

"I am glad to be here today to see you, to congratulate you, to express gratitude on behalf of all Ukrainians, all of Ukraine, for doing such a great job every day, for defending the state, our families, independence and our sovereignty," the president said, according to the presidential press service. "I am confident in you. I wish you good health. Take care of yourself and your colleagues. This is very important. I wish you all victory."

Russia takes the initiative

US aid to Ukraine already began to slow last August but became acute after the New Year’s break, when Ukraine rate of artillery fire fell to one to ten vs the Russian rate, depriving the AFU of artillery support or cover.

"There is a deficit of artillery," Zelenskiy said in his evening address. "There is a need for frontline air defence and for a longer range of our weapons."

As supplies began to run low, Russia pressed its advantage by scaling up the assault on Avdiivka and was “taking advantage” of the Western allies' delays in providing Ukraine with more materiel, Zelenskiy said in his daily address on February 19.

"The situation is extremely difficult in several parts of the front line, where Russian troops have amassed maximum reserves," Zelenskiy after returning from the frontline in Kupiansk. "They are taking advantage of the delays in aid to Ukraine.”

Russian forces established a limited and localised air superiority around Avdiivka for the first time and were able to provide ground troops with close air support during the final days of the assault, the US-based think-tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported on February 17.

Russian sources widely credited the Russian use of glide bombs with allowing Russian forces to overcome Ukrainian defences in Avdiivka. As part of the unfolding drone war, Russia has been gradually increasing its use of glide bombs, but the mass use of glide bombs to support advancing infantry troops reported in Avdiivka is a first. Ukraine’s falling supply of air defence munitions has made these tactics increasingly effective.

If Russian air superiority continues to improve it will allow Russian forces to pursue other targets more aggressively and routine large-scale bombing of Ukrainian cities beyond the frontline to devastating effect.

US help stalled

A new bill promising Ukraine $60bn in aid has passed a Senate vote, but remains tied up in the House, where Republicans are blocking it, insisting that money and tough new laws to address the problem with the US border with Mexico be included in the legislation. House Speaker Mike Johnson is refusing to allow the bill to go to the floor for a vote until a new deal has been agreed.

US President Joe Biden blamed the loss of Avdiivka on the Republican’s reluctance to pass the legislation.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on allies "to do more and quicker" in delivering arms to Ukraine during the Munich Security Conference and earlier the same week, France and Germany signed bilateral arms supply treaties, following a similar deal signed with the UK in January. However, all sides agree that the US continues to play a key role in supplying Ukraine.