Russia has doubled down on a campaign to capture the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka during the 88th week of its war in what appears to be a repeat of its year-long campaign to capture nearby Bakhmut, which fell in May.
As in Bakhmut, the Russian tactics have consisted of waves of infantry attacks that Ukrainian commanders said would soon become denser, and as in Bakhmut, Russian forces were suffering large losses of men and equipment.
The Russian military is mounting efforts to retake the initiative in other places on the eastern front as well.
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said Russia has “significantly strengthened” its forces in Bakhmut and switched from defence to offence.
Ukrainian forces have had the Russians in retreat there in recent months as they tried to encircle the captured town. They retook commanding heights north of Bakhmut in July, from which they’ve been shelling Russian positions.
During the past week, they advanced past a railway line that runs 10km (6.2 miles) southwest of Bakhmut, meaning Russian forces can’t use it to resupply their front lines.
Russian forces tried to advance from several directions towards Kupiansk in the Luhansk region, Syrskyi said.
Ukrainian southern forces spokesman Oleksandr Shtupun estimated on Thursday that 5,000 Russians had been killed or wounded two weeks into the effort to capture Avdiivka and Moscow had lost about 400 armoured vehicles there and in Mariinka, farther south along the eastern front.
That high rate of attrition continued in the past week, according to Ukraine. Its armed forces reported 660 Russians killed on Saturday across the front in 70 combat clashes, 10 of them in Avdiivka. Two days later, they said they killed 680 Russian soldiers. Shtupun said 500 of those casualties were in the Avdiivka area over 30 assaults.
Russia is apparently able to replenish its numbers. The commander of the Russian “Arbat” Separate Guards Special Purpose Battalion, which is serving in Avdiivka, told a Russian reporter that fighters from the Wagner mercenary group are now among its ranks, an observation backed by a Ukrainian source.
Wagner fighters were largely responsible for the capture of Bakhmut but were taken off the front lines because of military disagreements between the late Wagner boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the Russian Ministry of Defence. Their recruitment is likely to strengthen the quality of Russian forces.
Russian National Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev said nearly 385,000 people entered service with the Russian armed forces this year.
There may be worse to come.
Shtupun said Russia was training Storm-Z assault troops to deploy in Avdiivka.
Storm-Z soldiers are recruited in prisons and are thought to receive only rudimentary training and equipment but are believed to be ruthless in close-quarters combat. Ukrainians refer to such waves of infantry with poor mechanised and air support as “meat assaults”.
Retired Ukrainian Colonel Petro Chernyk said Russia could potentially call on up to 3 million former conscripts trained in basic combat and, despite the fact that Ukraine has “destroyed” about 25,000 Russian soldiers a month, these were always immediately replaced.
“The enemy should not be underestimated strategically. They have an extremely large number of small arms in their warehouses, and the last battles for Avdiivka and Bakhmut showed that they will use large infantry [columns]. Therefore, any information that Russia is currently running out of mobilisation resources is absolute nonsense,” Ukraine’s armed forces website Armyinform quoted Chernyk as saying.
The weapons supply battle
Both sides appeared to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for ordnance. The Bloomberg news agency quoted unnamed sources as saying that the European Union had supplied only a third of the one million shells it has promised Ukraine by April.
While Ukraine’s allies made new pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment in the past week, it appeared that not all were immediately deliverable.
The New York Times reported that the US military was looking into marrying Soviet-era air defence launchers with modern Western missiles that are accurate and effective. These so-called FrankenSAM hybrid systems are an effort to make use of readily available components to enrich Ukraine’s air defences.
In the same spirit, Russia was reportedly upgrading its gliding bombs – the FAB-250, FAB-500 and FAB-1500 – to use laser guidance, which improved their accuracy from 50 metres (55 yards) to 5 metres (5.5 yards).
The smallest of these bombs reportedly carries 99kg (218lb) of explosives and has a damage radius of 120 metres (130 yards) while the largest packs 675kg (1,500lb) of explosives and has a blast radius of half a kilometre (a third of a mile).
Gliding bombs are generally cheaper and easier to produce than other highly accurate systems, such as missiles or drones.
The battle for the Black Sea
Ukraine prides itself on having contained Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, allowing grain ships to continue using a safe corridor along its coastline to the territorial waters of NATO members Romania and Bulgaria.
The Reuters news agency reported on Thursday that Ukraine had suspended that corridor because of a threat from Russian warplanes. Ukraine’s reconstruction minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, denied there had been a suspension.
The US ambassador to Kyiv, Bridget Brink, appeared to reinforce Ukraine’s denial, saying 53 ships had passed safely through the corridor in September, delivering 2 million tonnes of grain.
Russia pulled out of a deal to allow Ukraine’s grain ships to cross the Black Sea in July after Ukraine attacked the Kerch Bridge to Crimea for a second time. Russia threatened to prevent ships from loading at Ukrainian ports, but Ukraine has since managed to keep the Russian fleet at bay.