Victory Elusive for Russians in Grinding Battle in Ukraine’s East - Wall Street Journal - 30.04.23
Russia’s bloody, months long efforts to advance in Ukraine’s east has yielded little. The enemy has made no progress says Ian Lovett
A VILLAGE OUTSIDE AVDIIVKA, Ukraine—The Russian assaults begin at 5 a.m. and last all day, according to Ukrainian troops in and around the eastern city of Avdiivka. Inside the city, airstrikes level buildings and drones drop grenades. On the outskirts, Russian artillery pummels Ukrainian trenches, then infantry try to advance.
“They send a group of five. They get killed. Then they send two more groups of five, who climb over the corpses of the others,” said Yuriy, a 22-year-old Ukrainian soldier in the area. “They’ve gained some territory, but it’s not strategically significant.”
Months after Russia dialed up its offensive in the eastern Donetsk region, the Kremlin is still searching for something to call a victory.
The Russians’ primary target, Bakhmut, has been decimated by eight months of artillery assaults and street battles, but Ukraine still holds a small piece of the city.
Battle in the East
Russia has struggled to advance against Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine
Avdiivka is surrounded on three sides, but Ukraine still controls the whole city.
A February assault on Vuhledar, 80 miles to the southwest, ended with the loss of 1,000 Russian troops in two days, according to U.K. defense officials.
Moscow hasn’t captured a major Ukrainian city since summer. Its largest prize this year is Soledar, a town with a prewar population of 10,000 just outside Bakhmut, which Wagner fighters seized in January.
Even if Moscow takes Bakhmut, it is far short of its goal of taking control of all of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces and might have exhausted itself in trying to do so. Russia hasn’t achieved the kind of breakthrough that Kyiv is hoping its own forces can achieve in an offensive that is expected to get under way in the coming weeks.
Avdiivka, 40 miles south of Bakhmut, is the latest example of Moscow’s struggle to gain ground in the east.
Though Avdiivka is surrounded on three sides, Ukraine still controls the entire city, as well as the western road used to resupply it. The Russian assaults have caused heavy casualties on both sides but haven’t moved the line much.
“The enemy has made almost no progress,” said Col. Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces in the area. He said the Russian losses are proof that Ukraine’s strategy—to exhaust the enemy before launching its own attack—is working.
However, the fighting has also been brutal for the Ukrainians, who are significantly outnumbered in the area, according to Col. Dmytrashkivskyi.
Avdiivka, located on the outskirts of the regional capital of Donetsk, has been a target since 2014, when Moscow first launched a covert invasion of the Donetsk region and neighboring Luhansk region.
Russian forces began a fresh assault on the city in February. Since then, they have nearly flattened it with artillery and missile strikes from jet fighters, trying to knock out any cover for Ukrainian troops.
Since the start of April, more than 5,600 Russian strikes have hit the Donetsk region, according to Col. Dmytrashkivskyi. Fewer than 2,000 of Avdiivka’s 30,000 prewar residents remain, according to local officials.
“Basically all the buildings are damaged or destroyed,” said Roman Matkov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s 110th brigade, which is fighting in the Avdiivka area.
Russian artillery stocks have dwindled, according to Western intelligence. Last summer, Russians countered superior Ukrainian accuracy by, in some areas, firing 10 times as many shells. Now, the ratio is closer to three-to-one, said a lieutenant colonel with an artillery unit in the 110th brigade. Ukraine is also short on shells and is holding back some for the coming offensive.
“If last summer they could shell a whole field, now they’re trying to get more intelligence and focus on one place,” the officer said. In a field near his position, the remnants of half a dozen rockets that carry cluster munitions stuck out of the ground. On any given day, he said, “They’re focusing on one area and throwing everything they have at it.”
In Vuhledar, the flat terrain left the Russians with little cover, allowing Ukrainian forces to wipe out more than 100 tanks and other fighting vehicles.
Avdiivka, by contrast, is surrounded by woods, and Russian units are taking cover in the forests and using the same grinding strategy as in Bakhmut. Artillery hits Ukrainian positions, then groups of five to 10 soldiers try to advance on foot from different directions, looking for weak spots in the Ukrainian defenses—and losing many of the men. (Neither side releases official casualty figures, but attacking a position is almost always more costly than defending it.)
Yuriy, the 22-year-old soldier fighting north of the city, said his unit had dug in at the top of a hill, with no road up. The only way for Russians to advance was on foot.
“They fire artillery at our positions very hard while their infantry tries to climb the hill,” he said, adding that an armored vehicle would have no chance to make it up. “We’re killing lots of them.”
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said that some Russian military officials appear to be trying to convince the Kremlin to shift to a more defensive posture and focus on holding the territory they have ahead of the expected Ukrainian offensive.
Igor Girkin, a former Russian military officer who played a role in Moscow’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, said Russian forces were making progress in Bakhmut, but the assaults around Avdiivka had resulted mostly in heavy losses.
“Several assault companies have been knocked out (without the slightest gain),” he wrote on Telegram this month. “It will not be possible to encircle Avdiivka…before the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”
Russian officials say they are making progress. Denis Pushilin, the Russian-installed leader of the occupied parts of Donetsk region, said last week that Russian forces now control almost all of Maryinka, a town near Avdiivka.
Some Western analysts—as well as Ukrainian soldiers—have questioned whether the defense of cities like Bakhmut and Adviivka has been worth the cost to an army with fewer resources than its enemy.
At a Ukrainian field hospital several miles outside Avdiivka, doctors say they treat as many as 70 injured soldiers a day. Outside, half a dozen tourniquets hung to dry on a clothesline. Inside, doctors pumped blood out of the lungs of a patient who took shrapnel to his side.
Medics said they mostly receive patients at night—the Russian shelling during the day makes evacuating casualties from Avdiivka extremely dangerous.
“When a new troop rotation comes in, we get a lot of patients,” said Svetlana Ovcharenko, a paramedic. While the new brigade is learning the terrain, she said “Russians use this moment to attack.”
Konstantyn Proskurnya, a 39-year-old corporal in the territorial defense, had been around Avdiivka for three days when a mortar landed next to his foxhole south of the city, and it collapsed. He was brought to the field hospital with a concussion.
He said the assault on his position was as heavy as any he had endured since the start of the war.
“I was in Soledar when the Russians tried to capture it,” he said. “Today was like Soledar.”
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Nikita Nikolaienko contributed to this article.
Write to Ian Lovett at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fewer than 2,000 of Avdiivka’s residents remain, according to local officials. Photo: anatolii stepanov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images