KYIV — Russian forces have launched a series of massive attacks involving thousands of troops as well as tanks and armored vehicles on Ukrainian positions in the east of the country in an effort to encircle Ukrainian forces.
The Ukrainian side has lost control over some positions on the northern outskirts of Avdiivka, but the military says it is still holding on to key parts of the industrial city, only 20 kilometers west of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk. Avdiivka has been under continuous Russian attack for two days, and fires are burning throughout the shattered remnants of the city. Before the war, the city had a population of 32,000; some 1,700 civilians remain.
“The situation is difficult. Intense fighting continues for the second day. The encirclement threat has existed for almost a year, but our forces keep holding defense lines,” Vitalli Barabash, Adviivka military administration head, told POLITICO in a quick message from the frontline.
The Ukrainian military spelled out the scale of the attack in a briefing on Wednesday morning.
“Russian invaders used up to three battalions, supported by tanks and armored vehicles, intensified offensive actions in the vicinity of Avdiivka. Ukrainian defenders repelled all enemy attacks and prevented loss of lines and positions,” said Andriy Kovalyov, spokesperson of the Ukrainian general staff.
A Russian battalion has about 800 men.
General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, the local commander, said in a Telegram post that his forces destroyed almost 100 pieces of military equipment, including a Su-25 fighter jet.
“Over the past day, the enemy launched 26 air strikes, fought 56 combat engagements, and made 849 artillery attacks,” he said.
The fighting is leading to a surge in combat deaths. The Ukrainian defense ministry reported that since Tuesday, 840 Russians have been killed, a big jump over recent days; Ukraine does not release its own casualty numbers.
Ukrainian soldiers on that part of the front are reporting intense fighting in Avdiivka and its outskirts. “I do not understand the situation in other areas of the front, except for Donetsk. But I will say that our enemy has actively gone on the offensive. With equipment and assaults. Especially in the Avdiivka direction. We again need the maximum support of all the people,” Sergeant Egor Firsov said in a Facebook post.
On Tuesday morning, Russian pro-war Telegram channels were celebrating what they called the strongest attack against Ukrainian positions in days on that part of the front. However, as of Wednesday, Russian military bloggers admitted that Ukrainians were still holding the line and were fighting off Russian efforts to encircle them.
The offensive is aimed at trapping Ukrainian forces and ensuring that Donetsk, the largest Russian-occupied city in Ukraine, is not threatened, wrote Ukrainian military journalist Yuriy Butusov
“Avdiivka is of strategic importance for the Russian Federation, as this city is actually the gateway to Donetsk — the main communication hub in the occupied territories. And in order to gain a foothold in captured Donbas, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin needs to move the front line away from Donetsk,” he wrote.
The attack also puts pressure on the Ukrainian military to shift resources away from the southern front, where it has been making slow progress against formidable Russian defenses, in order to shore up its position in the east of the country.
“Russians have been searching weak spots in our defense lines for months. Now they are concentrating on Avdiivka to force us to draw our forces from the Melitopol offensive, where Ukrainians are progressing day by day. But the Ukrainian army has been holding the lines,” said Kovalyov.
The intense fighting burns through vast amounts of weapons and ammunition, something Kyiv will be trying to bolster at a series of NATO meetings taking place in Brussels starting on Wednesday.