Russian troops have scored new but probably limited ground gains against Ukrainian fortifications guarding the battleground city Avdiivka, and although the Kremlin may be shifting gears and assault directions, heavy pressure on the Kyiv-held salient will likely continue for weeks or months, recent official and independent news reports said.

Ukrainian citizens from Russia-occupied Ukrainian territories and fighting voluntarily or at gunpoint on the Russian side, have been at the forefront of recent assaults against Avdiivka’s southern suburbs, some reports said.

An industrial town near the Donbas city Donetsk, and the site of front-line Ukrainian positions since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Avdiivka saw major Russian offensives backed with armor, massed artillery and even air strikes in late 2023 and early 2024. Kremlin troops suffered at times crushing losses against strong Ukrainian fortifications backed by kamikaze drone swarms and artillery.

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Video published on Jan. 20 by 110th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, a Ukrainian formation in the Avdiivka sector, showed undated but according to the unit, recent Russian armored attacks taking heavy armored vehicle and soldier casualties in failed advances over open ground to the north of Avdiivka.

In late January, according to multiple reports, Kremlin forces appeared to switch the main direction of attacks away from the open fields and rolling hills to the north and west of Avdiivka, to attacks from the south and east of the city. 

ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 21, 2024
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ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 21, 2024

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According to Thursday Russian mil-blogger reports, squads of Russian foot soldiers were still moving forward and had entered Avdiivka’s southern suburbs along the Sobornaya, Sportivnaya and Chernyshevskij streets. According to those sources, the Kremlin infantrymen were expanding control of ground in a forested park to the south-west of the city called Tsarska Okhota.

Some pro-Kremlin information platforms claimed local Russian commanders successfully infiltrated as many as 150 special operations fighters into south Avdiivka and the Tsarska Okhota park by using the local sewage and drainage network.

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Still images and video published by the Moscow-supporting Voenniy Osvedomitel’ Telegram blog on Jan. 25 showed Russian-speaking soldiers using cutting torches inside a tunnel.

A masked man said his unit was reconnaissance troops and that recent sneak attacks against Kyiv positions, launched from the local sewage system, went well.

A Jan. 25 report by the Channel 5 Television Channel, one of Ukraine’s oldest independent news agencies, confirmed Russian troops had entered the local underground drainage network near the town Spartak, to the south of Avdiivka.

The Russians dug and cleared debris in an abandoned sewage tunnel “for several days” and used the underground passage to sneak foot patrols “about a kilometer” forward, to launch ground attacks on Ukrainian positions guarding Avdiivka, the report said.

The Russian tunnelers according to the TV report surfaced well short of Ukrainian fortifications, which were intact. Russian patrols were still at large in the forest, but Ukrainian counter-patrols were hunting them down, a Ukrainian official said.

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“(W)e understand that through drainage tunnels you will not organize any serious advance, any serious offensive, that's for sure. Most likely, the maximum that it could be is some kind of recon group. And no more,” said Vitaly Barabash, civilian head of the Avdiivka city defense administration, in comments to Channel 5.

Both Russian and Ukrainian military information platforms, on Friday, reported Ukrainian forces were counterattacking to the south of Avdiivka with the objective of clearing out Russian infantry operating in the Tsarska Okhota forest park.

Simen Pegov, a popular pro-Russia “military correspondent,” in a Thursday post told his million plus subscribers the Ukrainian counterattacks were at least partially successful, saying in part “In the city itself, Ukrainian units counterattacked in the most problematic area - the southeastern outskirts (of Avdiivka). They managed to regain a number of positions.

“Now problems may arise for the RF (Russian Federation) Armed Forces: they have broken through a too narrow and at the same time long corridor in the enemy’s defense.”

The Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in a Jan. 25 situation update on the Avdiivka situation said Ukrainian counterattacks had likely “made marginal gains south of the settlement.”

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The ISW report said that Kremlin troops operating to the south of Avdiivka appeared largely drawn from formations raised by the Kremlin in the DPR, a Russia-sponsored “independent government” administering Ukrainian territory centered on the city Donetsk and occupied by Russia in 2014.

Units named by ISW as participating in recent attacks against Avdiivka’s south included the DPR’s 132nd Motorized Rifle Brigade, 1st Motorized Rifle Brigade, the “Veterany” Reconnaissance and Assault Brigade, and 9th Motorized Rifle Brigade. One Russian army formation, 55th Motorized Rifle Brigade was also reported as involved in the assaults.

Both the ISW and Ukrainian news reports said Kremlin planners still considered Avdiivka as a priority sector attack in 2024. Maksym Morozov, an Interior Ministry analyst cited by the Svoi Novyni information platform, said that Moscow intends to concentrate as many as 40,000 low-grade soldiers from the Storm Z and Storm V to conduct assaults with the objective of cutting off the city completely.

Possible directions of massed Russian assaults against the Ukraine-held town Avdiivka. Svoi Novyni graphic published on Jan. 25.

Soldiers from both units captured by the AFU in the past told captors they received less than a month of training before being thrown into combat with minimal support, in massed attacks called “meat assaults.”

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During Russian assaults against the fortified Ukrainian cities of Severodonetsk and Bakhmut in 2022 and 2023 respectively, Kremlin generals launched wave after wave of infantry attacks against Ukrainian positions over several months, eventually capturing both cities at the price of tens of thousands of casualties.

Thursday video from inside Avdiivka recorded by volunteers evacuating civilians, and published by the Ukrainian military, showed heavily damaged buildings and firefights in progress within a few hundred meters of local residents and their homes.

Jan. 22 video published by Ukraine’s 110th Mechanized Infantry Brigade showed hobby drones converted to kamikaze aircraft toting explosives hunting down Russian infantry, at locations likely in and around the city, in recent urban combat.

The ISW report said: “The overall tempo of Russian offensive operations suggests that Russian forces have prioritized fighting through Avdiivka block-by-block from the town’s southern residential area instead of trying to further encircle the settlement from further southwest or to the north, where Russian forces have made only limited gains.

“Russian forces may seek to replicate attritional light infantry frontal assaults to make tactical gains by brute force, as Russian forces did during the Battle of Bakhmut after breaching Bakhmut’s city limits.”

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