Ukrainian forces have prevailed in the defensive battle for Avdiivka (January 28–February 4), preserving the gains on the ground achieved through “crawling advances” prior to this battle (see EDM, February 9). The current lull seems relative as firing goes on intermittently. Six Ukrainian soldiers were wounded on February 8 alone (UNIAN, February 8). Ukrainian troops lost 14 killed and 66 wounded in action (not including civilian casualties) during the pitched phase of fighting (Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, February 4). Russia-backed “Donetsk people’s republic” (DPR) authorities are believed to understate or altogether conceal their military casualties (some of whom are undoubtedly citizens of Russia).
Moscow, however, has achieved its political goal in underwriting its proxies’ assault. This (and the possibility of its renewal at Moscow’s discretion) has scared the German government into convening an urgent meeting of the “Normandy” forum (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine). The German ambassador in Ukraine, Ernst Reichel, publicly told Kyiv to consent to “elections” in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory even in the presence of Russia’s own troops there—a presence that the ambassador thereby confirmed. He also cited the example of the 1990 elections in the then–“German Democratic Republic” (GDR), which were held in the presence of Soviet forces as a precedent for Ukraine to follow, seemingly oblivious to the differences between these two situations (Ukrinform, February 7, 8).
Avdiivka has been attacked repeatedly since 2014 by Russian-DPR forces and may come under attack any time again. The town’s significance was pivotal all along, and moreover that significance has evolved and increased recently. Avdiivka is a forward-located Ukrainian stronghold, six kilometers north of the Donetsk city line. (Avdiivka’s hamlet Spartak is three kilometers removed from Donetsk city.) The Donetsk water filtration plant, on which the water supply to the Donetsk urban agglomeration largely depends, is also in Avdiivka’s proximity. The current positional warfare tends increasingly to revolve around infrastructure objects.
The town’s eastern suburb, the notorious Promzona (industrial zone) has become a focus of fighting due to its location. It commands the Donetsk–Horlivka main highway, a crucial line of interior communications between the two “DPR army corps” based in those two towns. Ukrainian troops in Promzona are positioned to interdict, or at least hamper, military traffic on that main highway. This situation could compel hostile forces to use a much longer, slower, detouring and dilapidated country road. Ukrainian troops took Promzona under control by the end of 2016, using their “crawling advance” tactics. Russian-DPR forces attempted unsuccessfully to recapture Promzona during the latest assault. Furthermore, Avdiivka and Promzona are located sufficiently close to the Yasynuvata highway and railroad junctions to have made the DPR authorities nervous (Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, February 3, 4).
Those developments are of recent date, but Avdiika’s coke-producing plant is a national asset of Ukraine. Ranked among Europe’s largest, the Avdiivka plant produces approximately one quarter of all coke used by Ukraine’s metallurgical industry, which remains a pillar of the country’s economy. The plant belongs to the Metinvest holding, controlled by Rinat Akhmetov, and it delivers coke to steel plants throughout Ukraine (not only those of Metinvest). The Avdiivka plant has repeatedly taken hits from shelling since 2014—and in the latest battle again—therefore operating far below its capacity. Further damage or a suspension of its operations would significantly hurt Ukraine’s overall economy. In that case, Ukraine would have to import coke from Russia (at high political and logistical risks) or from China (inferior quality, long distance with unsustainably high transportation costs) (Metall v Ukraine i Mire, Ukrmet.dp.ua, February 3).
Ukraine’s 72nd mechanized brigade bore the brunt of the recent battle for Avdiivka and remains entrenched in the area. According to military expert Yurii Butusov, the brigade’s first battalion is the pilot project of a training program assisted by the United States at the Yavoriv range, and it participated in Rapid Trident exercises designed to upgrade a limited number of Ukrainian troops to standards of compatibility with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Tsenzor.net, February 3, 4).
According to several Kyiv-based military analysts, the Avdiivka battle demonstrated a continuing improvement in Ukrainian troops’ combat readiness, staff planning, relations between field and headquarters, use of real-time intelligence, coordination between military and civilian authorities at all levels (including humanitarian and medical assistance), effective public communications, and civil-society contributions to national defense (Sprotiv.info, Tsenzor.net, Info.napalm, February 1–8).
Yet, the casualties in this battle (see above) are heavy, in comparison with the overall military casualty rate for the year 2016. Ukrainian forces lost 214 killed in action in 2016, including 17 killed in December 2016, followed by at least 16 killed in action in January 2017 before the Avdiivka battle, according to figures made public by the Ukrainian high command (RFE/RL, January 30).
The “crawling advance” tactics, adopted by Ukrainian troops recently (see EDM, February 9), has resulted in shrinking the distance between opposing forces in those sectors in which Ukrainian troops advance into “gray areas.” This situation may increase the potential for clashes typical of positional warfare. By the same token it may reduce the value of Russian long-range heavy firepower.
Those areas’ “grayness” is twofold, depending on the sector in question. In some places it means that the area is located between the Minsk One armistice line (legitimate), the Minsk Two armistice line (illegitimately moved forward by Russian and proxy forces), and the post–Minsk Two demarcation line (moved forward by those forces yet again). In other areas, “grayness” means the absence of civilian authority (whether loyal to Kyiv or to Donetsk-Luhansk), which turns these unpoliced areas into havens for smuggling and abodes of criminal gangs. Ukrainian troops suppress those activities when they take and hold such areas.
Disengagement of forces on either side of this or that of the demarcation lines, “pull-backs” of heavy weaponry, the perennial goal to “uphold the ceasefire,” blaming “both sides,” or pressuring Ukraine into unilateral concessions to “settle the conflict,” are Western diplomacy’s ways of eschewing the real challenge: that is, Russia’s massive military intervention inside Ukraine and all the ensuing consequences. Moreover, “upholding the ceasefire” is a farcical goal as long as Russia paralyzes the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) monitoring mission both physically (e.g., destroying or jamming the mission’s drones) and organizationally (e.g., vetoing any meaningful increase in the mission’s operating authority).
Russia has every interest in not upholding the ceasefire. It aims thereby to arm-twist Western powers so that they, in turn, arm-twist Ukraine into a “political solution” convenient to Moscow. The growing disorientation in Western Europe and Washington may encourage Moscow to double down in the upcoming negotiations.