Russia continues fighting hard to encircle Avdiivka. Ukraine’s new long-range ATACMS missiles supplied by the United States make an impact and a surprisingly large Ukrainian crossing of the Dnipro River all indicate that the war in Ukraine remains intense and is far from slowing down. The big question this week is if Russia has weathered Ukraine’s offensive or if Ukraine still has some fight left.
Last column, we discussed the increase in Russia’s offensive activity across the entire frontline, a trend that continues. Since the last column, Russia has maintained continuous small counter attacks along the whole front line. It is also still committed to a large offensive operation aimed at capturing the Avdiivka Salient. Pushing from both the north and south Russian forces started trying to encircle the town of Adviivka on 10 October, and intense fighting continues.
This operation is the largest Russian attack since the failed attack on Vuledhar in February and involves roughly brigade sized attacks, about 2-3000 soldiers supported by a couple of hundred tanks and armoured vehicles advancing from each flank.
However, the town is a Ukrainian strongpoint, that Russia failed to capture in its 2014 invasion and has since been heavily fortified. So far, the Russian offensive has been unsuccessful making incremental progress in exchange for very heavy casualties. Avdiivka is important because it is only about 12 km from the major city of Donetsk, the main administrative centre of the Russian backed Donetsk People’s Republic. Further, its capture would allow Russia to close the salient and reduce the length of frontline that it needs to defend. Unlike Bakhmut, there are sound strategic reasons for trying to capture this town, especially if Russia is looking towards securing a possible future border for a ‘Donetsk Oblast.’
Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to maintain pressure on both its key axes of advance. The Orikhiv Axis in the south-west, aiming towards the major transport centre at Tokmak, and fighting to surround Bakhmut in the north-east. However, despite Ukraine’s efforts neither axis saw any significant changes in the frontline. Last week was also notable for the first use of the new Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) by Ukraine. This weapon is a large, long-range, precision-guided missile that is fired from a HIMARS or MLRS vehicle. ATACMS missiles were recently supplied to Ukraine by the United States. The missiles supplied to Ukraine are older M39 models with a range of 160km so can strike targets deep behind the frontline. Ukraine has requested ATACMS for a long time but it was not until August this year that the United States supplied these long-range weapons because of concerns that they could be used to attack targets deep inside Russia, potentially escalating the war.
Ukraine does not possess a significant aviation capability because many of its planes were destroyed early in the war. ATACMS fills an important capability gap for Ukraine, in that it can attack pin-point targets with a warhead roughly the same size as an aircraft bomb. An M39 ATACMs carries 950 submunitions in its warhead, so each missile has a destructive capability similar to an airstrike with a cluster bomb.
On 17 October, ATACMS was used to strike Russian attack helicopters based at Berdyansk on the coast. This is a major base, about 120km south of the fighting on the Orikhiv Salient, is home to many of the advanced Russian attack helicopters supporting the battle. Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces claimed that the attack destroyed nine attack helicopters and an air defence missile launcher. There were also ATACMS attacks reported in Luhansk. If the reports are correct, losing nine attack helicopters is a significant blow to Russian combat power defending Tokmak. Ukrainian forces fighting on the Orikhiv axis report that Russian attack helicopters have been very effective against their armoured forces. Losing nine expensive and hard to replace attack helicopters is a big blow.
The biggest impact of this strike is not the loss of these helicopters. Instead, it is the indirect effect that it has on Russian logistics and battlefield aviation availability. The attack on Berdyansk demonstrated a new Ukrainian capability and Russia needs to respond. ATACMs range is sufficient to hit targets anywhere on the Crimean Land Bridge or in the north of Crimea. This means that Russia must decide either to base its attack helicopters outside ATACMS range, doubling flight time to their operational areas or to disperse and hide their attack helicopters. Longer flight times means less time over the battlefield but still being able to operate from a small number of bases at which fuel, weapons and tech support can be centralised. If Russia chooses to disperse its attack helicopters they will need to disperse to many small bases across Kherson and southern Zaporizhia. Imagine how much more difficult it is going to be to support the attack helicopter fleet when it is broken down into small groups of 2-3 helicopters hidden across a vast area. Especially, when Russia’s truck fleet is already stretched.
Potentially, the biggest news this week though is Ukraine’s crossing of the Dnipro River. Soldiers from the 35th and 36th Marine Infantry Brigades crossed the river just north of the Antonivskiy Bridge on 18 October. The latest reports indicate the force has a strength of roughly two companies or 200-250 light infantry soldiers, whose artillery and air defence support will be provided by forces on the west bank of the river. Ukraine has consistently raided along the river in recent months; however, this is a larger force, that is reported to be ‘digging in’ indicating that they intend to stay. Additionally, Russian sources report that the force has electronic warfare and equipment, another indication that they are intending to hold ground in the area.
Further up the Dnipro there are also reports of another crossing near the village of Krynky. However, these have not yet been substantiated. The river crossings are an interesting operation, clearly designed to threaten the and T2206 and E57 highways that are essential to Russia’s supply lines in their part of Kherson Oblast. It is also possible that this operation is the start of a larger crossing. In last week’s column we noted the movement of Russian troops west, towards the Dnipro River. This week there are Russian reports of troops moving from reserve positions near Mariupol to reinforce this flank. So, it is likely that the Russians are concerned about a large crossing and are taking steps to mitigate that concern. But is it likely Ukraine will cross the river in large numbers?
On 21 October, the Institute for the Study of War observed that “Russian forces are struggling to interdict Ukrainian efforts to supply and reinforce newly captured positions on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.” Essentially, the Ukrainian’s have now been on the east bank of the river for four days and nights which indicates that despite Russian air and ground attacks supplies are getting across the river. Perhaps, this is a foothold that Ukraine intends to expand, probably to divert Russian forces away from Orikhiv. Although, two factors may indicate that there are bigger plans afoot. Russia’s slow response to the crossing tells us that their forces are under pressure in this area. Secondly, the crossing is at a relatively crossable point on the river and has two damaged bridges the remains of which could be used to help build improvised crossing points. At this stage it is impossible to tell but next week’s activities will tell us more.
Overall, last week’s activity raises some interesting questions about where we are at in the war especially about Russia’s level of capability and intent. Russian rates of activity remain high and even in their most recent update on 21 October the Institute for the Study of War reported that “Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in various sectors of the front.” Although, most of this activity is small when it is combined with the large operation near Avdiivka it is indicative of either confidence or foolhardiness.
At this stage, I am erring towards confidence. Ukraine’s progress on its main axes of advance is slowing down or perhaps has culminated. Russia, appears to be holding the line in Zaporizhia so has launched the Avdiivka operation to settle unfinished business from previous invasions. My assessment is that the Russians are planning ahead, looking at the strategic situation and focussing on settling defensible post war boundaries. Hence, the operation to close the Avdiivka Salient and possibly the decision not to mobilise extra soldiers this year. Putin knows that he can hold what he has gained and rather than burning his political capital is going to focus on the endgame.
He knows that in America, funding for the war is being challenged in Congress and that long-term United States support is far from guaranteed, especially now that Israel requires support. Putin’s long game is his own survival and fighting to the death to take all of Ukraine is not expedient when he currently holds the Crimean Land Bridge, Donetsk and Luhansk. He has gained territory that secures Crimea, justifying the war. If he can keep holding on, and funding from the United States reduces or stops, Ukraine will be under considerable pressure to negotiate. Putin’s forces are now sitting on a well-tested defensive line that is likely to be the new border. My assessment is that Putin is more than willing to settle into a negotiated peace, on the current boundaries, and start a long slow war of attrition against Ukraine, just like he did in 2014. Bidding his time preparing and waiting for the next opportunity. Being able to play the ‘long game’ is a distinct advantage of autocracy.
In summary, the strategic situation is conspiring against Ukraine and its only options are decisive action. Ukraine needs to demonstrate that it can achieve victory on land to retain the confidence of its supporters and allies. My assessment is that Russia has stopped Ukraine’s current offensives at Orikhiv and Bakhmut. So, Ukraine is now casting around for other options and crossing the Dnipro is a risky option that has been kept ‘on the back burner’ as a contingency plan. While it is unlikely that Ukraine can get sufficient tanks, armoured vehicles and supply trucks across the river to attack Crimea, it may be possible that they can create enough of a threat that Russia diverts forces from its Zaporizhian defences that Ukraine is able to advance on the Orikhiv axis. If this happens Ukraine may produce the victory that it needs this year.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger