The Battle of Avdiivka is demonstrating the decisive advantage that Ukraine now wields in critical battles with Russia… but also the limits of that advantage.
In short, Ukraine has been able to establish drone superiority in key strategic sectors, particularly at Krynky in southern Ukraine, and at Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. But Ukraine can’t extend those capabilities across the entire massive front line, thus ceding the drone advantage to Russia in other areas.
Today, we’ll focus on Avdiivka.
An overview of the strategic implications of the battle can be read here.
Russia kicked off the Ninth Battle of Avdiivka on Oct. 10, 2023, with a string of disastrous mass armored attacks that ultimately cost them somewhere between 210 to 220 armored vehicles, most of them in the first weeks of the assault. Again and again, Ukrainian minefields funneled hapless Russian mechanized assaults into Ukrainian drone and artillery kill zones.
Starting in early November, Russia switched gears. relying on exposed infantry running a 10 kilometer gauntlet of Ukrainian artillery and drone attacks to reach their assembly points before assaulting Ukrainian positions, rather than being carried there by armored vehicles. This dramatically reduced the pace of Russian armored vehicle losses, but also largely stalled the Russian advance for the entire month of November leading to catastrophic Russian infantry losses—declassified US intelligence estimates around 13,000 killed or seriously wounded in Avdiivka alone since early October—or around 3-4 typical Russian front-line brigades.
The deployment of Ukraine’s powerful 47th Mechanized Brigade, equipped with Leopard 2A6 tanks and American M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, has been instrumental in halting the Russian advance north of Avdiivka. The Bradley’s rapid-firing 25mm autocannon is capable of rapidly shredding any Russian armored vehicle short of a main battle tank (which very rarely appear directly on the front lines). For example, in a recent video, a single Ukrainian Bradley lying in ambush took out three Russian MT-LB armored personnel carriers in under 30 seconds. There is also (graphic) video of the aftermath of the attack.
Still, Russia has advanced despite their horrific losses. They have moved around 2 kilometers north of Avdiivka, close to the village of Stepove, pushing the front line just 2-3 kilometers from Ukraine’s critical supply lines into Avdiivka.
With casualties mounting, Russia switched gears again in early December, slowing the number of infantry assaults, and switching instead to new FPV drones equipped with infrared cameras. These night-vision-equipped drones likely roughly doubled their cost of production, but enabled Russian drone attacks to continue 24/7, focusing heavily on Ukrainian supply lines.
So, Ukraine switched gears.
Ukraine has a small but significant supply of tube and rocket artillery capable of firing precision munitions, artillery radar, radar and jamming signal-tracking HARM missiles, and sophisticated electronic warfare assets, allowing Ukraine to identify Russian drone jammers, and to destroy them quickly with precision munitions or missiles.
Russia has relatively fewer precision munitions, and slower coordination between identification to attack due to archaic communications.
It seems plausible that by gathering together a large volume of precision munitions to strike EW assets, calling in HARM missile air strikes, and bringing in a large proportion of their electronic warfare assets, Ukraine could rest control of the drone war in a tightly contested region,
This shift in strategy reportedly worked, with Ukrainian forces reporting a grounding of Russian drone assets particularly north of Avdiivka, and Ukrainian drones enjoying unhindered strikes on Russian targets.
From December 10 to December 16th, there were 25 verified Ukrainian drone attacks around Avdiivka on open-source intelligence analyst Andrew Perpetua’s maps, and not a single verified Russian drone attack.
Note that verified drone attacks represent only a small fraction of actual daily drone strikes for both sides. The Ukrainian 53rd Mechanized Brigade southwest of Avdiivka reported that they were being pummeled by repeated Russian FPV drones on Dec. 14. Yet Andrew Perpetua’s verified loss listing on that same date shows an incredible disparity in Ukrainian vs Russian losses, virtually entirely to drones. And eyewitness accounts, including in battle, are notoriously unreliable.
So the evidence suggests that Ukrainian indeed does have a drone and electronic warfare advantage, but to what extent it is true, and how consistently it is true over time, is an open question. Yet Russia’s inability to notch significant gains despite throwing massive resources into the battle and suffering frightful losses is perhaps the best evidence that Ukraine’s drone and electronic warfare edge is real.
So it makes sense that yes, having drone superiority over the battlefield is a significant advantage.
The only problem? Ukraine shifted a lot of assets to cover the defense of Avdiivka, and that left a lot of the frontline exposed to Russian attacks.
On Dec. 4, Russia took down another bridge over the Oskol River (west of Svatove) that Ukraine had used to move supplies to the eastern front since the winter of 2022. Although Ukraine successfully defended these bridges from air attack an entire year, Russia managed to hit this bridge over 20 kilometers deep inside Ukrainian territory using a laser-guided munition.
Meanwhile, there appears to be a sharp uptick in the number of Russian drone attacks on the southern front since Dec. 10, with 37 confirmed Russian drone attacks around Robotyne, against just five confirmed Ukrainian drone attacks between Dec. 10-15 (as mapped by Andrew Perpetua):
Winning the drone superiority battle is critical for battlefield success in what will be a very difficult 2024 in Ukraine. But without significant infusions of US-manufactured precision munitions driving this advantage, and the ability to maintain sustained control over a wider area, it remains unclear if Ukraine can use these abilities to regain the imitative from Russia.