Why Avdiivka's Fall Matters So Much To Ukraine -- And To Us

Why Avdiivka's Fall Matters So Much To Ukraine -- And To Us

The city of Avdiivka, Ukraine on February 15, 2024

At the very moment Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was speaking to European and American allies at the Munich Security Conference on February 16, the last Ukrainian soldiers withdrew in defeat from Avdiivka, an industrial city in coal country in Eastern Ukraine that has been under Russian siege for months. It was a profound loss for Ukraine engineered by Vladimir Putin with his costly win in Avdiivka after a month’s long campaign of attrition and utter destruction of the town.

The win in Avdiivka was incredibly brutal for the Russian army, which racked up tens of thousands of casualties over the months they laid siege to the town. Avdiivka has been contested since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists began their years-long campaign to occupy parts of eastern Ukraine that have large populations of Russian speaking citizens. After staging its invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, Russia held so-called referendums in the parts of the East and South they had occupied, wherein local citizens “voted” to be annexed by Russia.

On September 30, 2022, Putin addressed both houses of Russia’s Parliament, announcing the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kershon, and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts (regions). With the exception of Belarus, no countries recognized the annexation, and fighting has continued in all four regions ever since.

Russia began a full-on effort to take control of Avdiivka in October, moving large numbers of its soldiers into the area and effectively surrounding the town on three sides, leaving open only a narrow corridor to the east which Ukraine was able to use for resupply and reinforcement until early this year. In January, Russia began a new tactic, launching a massive campaign of aerial bombing that continued through last weekend.

Aerial bombardment has not been a tactic widely used in the war so far by Russia because they were reluctant to send their combat aircraft into airspace defended by Ukrainian anti-aircraft batteries. Russia lost enough of its combat aircraft early in the war that it depended largely on artillery and ground-to-ground rockets in the campaign it waged to take the areas of Ukraine in the east and south it now holds.

According to British intelligence sources reached by the New York Times, Russia dropped as many as 800 guided bombs on Avdiivka since January 1. Ukrainian sources told the Times that the bombs ranged in size between 500 and 3,300 pounds. Aerial bombardment was not even used in the Russian assault on Bakhmut, the other contested town Russia was able to take after a long siege last year.

This new twist in Russian tactics is not good on any level. Bombs dropped from aircraft can be much larger and more powerful than the warheads on ground-to-ground or cruise missiles, and they are more powerful than artillery rounds by an exponential factor. A thousand pound or 1500-pound bomb can destroy an entire house and leave a crater twenty or thirty feet deep. Ukrainian forces that had been using underground bunkers to defend themselves from Russian artillery and ground-to-ground missiles were defenseless against Russian aerial bombardment. One estimate I saw put the total amount of bombs dropped since New Years at over a million pounds.

I can’t figure out why Ukrainian air defenses appear to have been ineffective against Russia’s deployment of its airpower unless Russia was using some sort of “stand-off” bombs that could be dropped from high altitude far back from their targets and guided into Avdiivka, putting the aircraft that dropped them out of the range of Ukrainian air defenses. Another possibility is that Russia was able to hit and destroy Ukrainian air defense batteries before the aerial assault began, and Ukraine lacked new batteries to replace them because Western support has slowed and even stopped in the case of the U.S.

There is also the possibility that Ukraine is using so much of its air defense capability to defend its large population centers that the front-line defenses are being starved. This possibility looms larger the longer it takes for the United States to pass the multi-billion Ukraine aid package that sits moldering in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, mainly at the urging of Donald Trump, friend of Putin and enemy of democracy here and abroad.

There are tactical consequences that will derive from the fall of Avdiivka. Ukraine has been forced to withdraw from the town to the west and establish new defensive lines to deal with any follow-on offensive that Russia is able to launch. Ukraine spent years on the defenses they built around and in Avdiivka, but they will have only days or weeks to build new defensive lines to the west of the town.

Strategically, taking Avdiivka opens the door for Russia to move on other targets along the 600-mile front lines of the war. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which has been excellent in its analysis of both Russian and Ukrainian strengths and weaknesses since February of 2022, reports that “several Ukrainian and Western sources assessed that delays in Western security assistance, namely artillery ammunition and critical air defense systems, inhibited Ukrainian troops from defending against Russian advances in Avdiivka.” ISW goes on to report that Russia is already “conducting at least three offensive efforts—along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border, particularly in the directions of Kupyansk and Lyman; in and around Avdiivka; and near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast.”

The problem Ukraine had before they lost Avdiivka was a lack of manpower on the front lines and severely diminished ammunition supplies due to inaction on Ukraine aid by the U.S. The tiny country of Denmark recently announced that they are turning over to Ukraine their entire stock of artillery ammunition to defend against Russia. How House Republicans can get up in the morning and look at themselves in the mirror is beyond me, unless the image they see in their mind’s eye is the Crème Brulee-colored face of Donald Trump.

Even more important than the tactical or strategic implications of Avdiivka is the symbol of a Russian victory at this specific moment. President Zelenskyy was in Munich literally begging NATO countries for more weapons and ammunition while his troops were in retreat in Avdiivka, underscoring the dire situation of a country fighting for its existence.

Putin’s army is fighting a war of attrition against a country beleaguered by its lack of political support by its biggest ally, the United States, at a time when Ukraine is trying to rebuild its military manpower and stave off new Russian offensives along a 600-mile border that they just don’t have the soldiers to adequately defend. All Putin has to do is turn on CNN International to watch his allies in the Republican Party fight the third front in his war in Ukraine – the front on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and in Trump’s “America First” campaign for president.

Trump gets huge cheers and applause at his rallies every time he tells his crowds that we have to “take care of our border before we take care of other countries.” He and Putin know they’ve got Ukraine in a hammerlock with his damned if you do, damned if you don’t political strategy linking support for Ukraine with immigration. They demanded a right-wing dream package on immigration in return for support for Ukraine, and when they got it, they followed the Trump-Putin lead and said no deal.

Trump and Putin don’t even have to talk on the phone to be in perfect sync on the issue of Ukraine. The danger we are facing is that those two authoritarians don’t have to talk on the phone to be in sync on our domestic politics, either. Putin is whispering disinformation to “sources” that he would rather see Biden elected at the same time he’s probably readying the biggest aid package of them all – political support for Donald Trump the way he did in 2016 and 2020.

God help Ukraine, and God help us.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

Please consider subscribing to Lucian Truscott Newsletter, from which this is reprinted with permission.

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