Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 606, 22 February 2024

Ukraine: The Battle for Avdiivka
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 15 February, the Financial Times reported on continuing difficulty for Ukrainian troops following Russia's encirclement in Avdiivka. Ukraine's new commander-in-chief, General Oleksandr Syrsky, announced reinforcement to balance the shortage in personnel and ammunition. The shortage emerged due to a lag in the military support from the US. On Ukraine's strategy in Avdiivka, Syrsky stated that it was switching from offensive to defensive. He said: "Goal of our operation is to exhaust the enemy, inflict maximum losses on him." 

On 17 February, Syrsky issued the order for withdrawal from key locations of the town. Russian Ministry of Defence claimed on the south battleground that it was advancing 8.6 kilometres. The ministry claimed that its troops had "completely captured," leaving 1500 Ukrainian troops dead. 

On 19 February, the Centre for Eastern Studies reported that Russian forces had occupied Avdiivka completely, reaching Lastochkyne village in the west. 

Issues at large
First, Ukraine's delicate north. At the beginning of 2024, the Russian offensive into Avdiivka succeeded with a breach into the town, resulting in massive losses for Ukraine. This led to the stronger Russian assault breaking down Ukrainian defences. From the ground level, it is a strategic point for Ukraine, which acts as defence storage. 30 miles northwest of Avdiivka is Pokrovsk, which is the logistical hub for Ukraine's military. Additionally, Avdiivka is a fortified town for the troops due to the placement of coal and chemical plants, which provided a defensive position for Ukraine. It is also the gateway to Donetsk, occupied by Russia and its proxy forces. 

Second, supply shortage and prolonging Western support. The aid from the US and Europe, which was fast-paced during mid-2022 and early 2023, began to decline by the end of 2023. This was due to the faster exhaustion of the military arsenal of NATO and European allies and, the higher demand to secure national and regional security. In the US, the Republican objections have stalled the aid to Ukraine. A decline in support means a reduced capacity for Ukraine to launch strikes further and switch to defence mode in the front line. 

Third, Ukraine's tactical withdrawal. Following the failure of the spring counteroffensive in 2023, Ukraine's demand surrounded over aid of advanced air defence systems. By 2024, there was a massive exchange of aerial attacks between Ukraine and Russia. Following the slowdown in military aid from the West, Ukraine shifted its demand to more ammunition. While Russia launched an offensive to attain a symbolic victory in Avdiivka, Ukraine struggled to prevent the encirclement with the shortage of critical supplies and personnel. Unlike the Battle for Bakhmut, where Ukraine withstood Russia for nine months to exhaust the Russian military, in Avdiivka, Ukraine chose to withdraw quickly. Given the existing shortage and drag in receiving aid from the West, this could be considered tactical.

In perspective 
First, the Kupiansk and Lyman axis is under threat in the north. Ukraine's failure to sustain Avdiivka would mean a subsequent threat to defend other towns on the frontline. The key cities such as Pokrovsk and those in the Kupiansk and Lyman axis will come under direct threat of intense attacks from Russian troops. 

Second, it is a strategic and symbolic win for Russia. The withdrawal of the Ukrainian forces from Avdiivka would be the biggest victory for Russia. Although the win may seem symbolic, the town being the gateway to Donetsk, which forms a key part of Donbas, occupied by Russia, would enable Russian troops to advance further into the west of Ukraine.

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