Ukraine Update: Why a lack of armored vehicles is stalling Russia’s infantry assault

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A Ukrainian artillery spotting drone with a thermal camera hovers in the darkness, silently observing.  Small glowing dots scurry across the dark landscape—Russian infantry.

An almost single file of Russian infantrymen, perhaps 20-30 in all, are strung out over a short distance.

Furious shelling occurs, as large explosions (heavy and light howitzers) and smaller explosions (mortar rounds) occur around and amongst the scurrying targets.

Gradually, the Russian platoon reaches its staging area— the treeline.  Perhaps the Russians felt safer, huddling close to each other underneath the foliage.  Perhaps they thought the trees and vegetation hid them from observation.

You can see in the shelling, the survivors resting, perhaps catching their breath from running the deadly explosive gauntlet to get to this point. They would need their strength to make the final assault on Ukrainian positions beyond the freeline.

Then, a DPICM 155mm cluster munition artillery shell strikes. The characteristic shotgun-like circular explosive pattern rings around the Russian position.  Each DPICM shell contains 72 sub-munitions, spraying shrapnel that is highly deadly to exposed infantry across a broad area.

The Russians stop moving.  Then, another Ukrainian howitzer shell lands directly on the Russian position to end the video. 

This short video illustrates why Russian attacks around Avdiivka have all but stalled in the past six weeks.

This incident was geolocated to a small treeline a touch under 2km east of Stepove, a small village north of the heavily fortified Ukrainian held town of Avdiivka.

In the nearly two months since launching its major offensive to capture of fortress town on October 10th, Russia has made small but incremental gains particularly north of the town, around 1.5 kilometers in about two weeks.

However, despite repeatedly fighting their way into and contesting the village of Stepove, Russia has been unable to make any significant advances of more than a few hundred meters.

This isn’t to say that Russian gains have been zero in Avdiivka. Both north and south of the town, waves of Russian infantry assaults have gradually increased the contested area of around Stepove, and north of Vodiane.

But this Russian “progress” has been measured in meters, and the pace of the Russian advance has clearly and significantly slowed since the early days of the assault. This isn’t necessarily to say that Russia won’t eventually win a pyrrhic victory at a horrific cost and capture Avdiivka. But their progress has significantly slowed since the early days of the advance.

So what’s changed?

For one, Ukraine committed significant reinforcements to Avdiivka. At the start of the battle, only the battle-weary 110th Mechanized Brigade was defending Avdiivka. For well over a year, the 110th Brigade had been defending Avdiivka against periodic and persistent Russian attacks, turning back two major Russian assaults in January and March-May 2023.  

After the 110th was driven back north of Avdiivka, Ukraine hurriedly deployed one of its finest brigades, the 47th Mechanized Brigade to defend the northern flank of Avdiivka. With its Leopard 2A6 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, the 47th Brigade is one of Ukraine’s heaviest armored units. Ukraine also deployed the 53rd Mechanized Brigade to the south of Avdiivka to shore up its defenses there.

However, the first elements of the 47th Mechanized were reportedly on the scene before October 20th. The Russian drive north of Avdiivka would not truly lose momentum for another 1-2 weeks. While the reinforcements tell part of the story, there may be additional elements to the loss of Russian momentum.

So what else changed?

Consider the pattern of verified Russian armored fighting vehicles losses around Avdiivka, as compiled by Andrew Perpetua. Here are the visually confirmed losses for October. Note that the Battle of Avdiivka begins in earnest on October 10th.

Visually verified Russian losses, October 2023

Note how losses vary, presumably depending on the intensity of Russian assaults, but Russia is losing 15-25 armored vehicles on most days, while spikes of losses occur every 5-10 days Where Russia loses 40-70+ vehicles in a single day.

Now look at Andrew Perpetua’s tabulation of losses for November. Note the shift in scale for the Y-axis.

Visually verified Russian losses, November 2023

Whereas in October, Russia was regularly losing 15-25 armored vehicles, including eight days between October 10th — 31st where Russia lost over 30 armored vehicles, Russia only lost more than 30 on two days in all of November,

The total number of visually confirmed armored vehicles Russia lost around Avdiivka now exceeds 200, with Ukraine claiming to have destroyed over twice that many. As a result of these losses, Russia was forced to switch tactics, switching to mostly conducting Bakhmut-style infantry assaults.

Russian infantry are not only conducting final assaults on Ukrainian positions on foot, they are being forced to do so after walking through miles of Ukrainian artillery kill zones to reach their staging points to even begin their assaults.

To understand the difference, it’s probably helpful to see what a mechanized infantry assault looks like in practice. This is a mechanized assault being conducted by the Ukrainian 5th Assault Brigade in the hills near Klischiivka, south of Bakhmut in the Summer of 2023.

The assault is conducted by an M113 Armored Personnel Carrier and a CV90 Infantry Fighting Vehicle (both of which carry squads of infantry) that are supported by a T-80 tank.

The M113 and CV90 advance into the line of trees to the lefthand side of the video, disappearing into the foliage to reportedly drop off the soldiers at their staging area.

Then you see the CV90 and the M113 pull back (again under artillery fire) while the T-80 continues firing at Russian positions and the infantry reportedly begins their assault. The narrator claims the assault was successful, but this is impossible to verify on the video.

Now contrast this with the Russians advancing to their staging area on foot in the video described in the opening paragraphs of this article.

This, in a nutshell, is why armored fighting vehicles are important in an infantry war.

While the fire support from the T-80 tank is undoubtedly highly valuable, armored vehicles that deliver the troops from reserve areas to forward staging areas to begin their assault are just as important, if not more so.

In ordinary defensive circumstances, one to two battalion of Russian troops, or 1-2,000 soldiers, are expected to occupy a 10 x 10 kilometer space of frontReserve forces are generally kept 10-20 kilometers behind the lines, dispersed over a wide area, and assembled only when preparing for a major assault (or called to assist in defense). When Russia makes a concentrated assault, it moves up those reserve soldiers from the rear to temporarily bolster front-line strength. 

Those highly concentrated assault forces are extremely vulnerable to artillery or air strikes. A thousand soldiers spread out over 10 kilometers of front offer small targets of two or three soldiers at a time. An assault force features densely packed troops of 10-30 soldiers or more close to the front lines, making inviting targets for mass casualty events.

The staging area for the assault can vary in distance, but will often be around 1-2 kilometers from enemy positions. The Russians attempting to assemble around 1.5 kilometers outside Stepove in the video above would be highly typical of this type of attack.

In the earliest days of the assault on Avdiivka, Russia moved its infantry in massive columns of armored vehicles to try to protect them. Although Russia lost hundreds of vehicles to artillery fire and drones, the armored vehicles protected their infantry from artillery shrapnel as they were dropped off at their staging areas, vulnerable only to direct artillery, drone, or missile strikes.  

Unfortunately for Russia, their armored vehicle losses were unsustainable, so Russia has now switched to fully dismounted infantry assaults, who must now traverse 10 kilometers or more on foot, just to get in position to launch the attack.

Not only do these units suffer significant combat losses just to get to the assembly point, but Russian soldiers accumulate dramatically more fatigue and mental exhaustion before they even begin their assaults.

This, more than anything, likely explains why the Russian advance slowed from around 120 meters per day in the first two weeks of the assault north of Avdiivka, to a less than 20 meters per day crawl for the past month.

This doesn’t mean that the Russian attack on Avdiivka will inevitably fail. If Russia continues to throw hundreds or thousands of Russian infantry at Ukrainian positions, they can continue to advance 10-20 meter a day over the next 10-15 months to close the 5km gap they need to cut the main supply line into Avdiivka.

However, Russia has only sustained this crawling advance by losing an estimated 1,000 soldiers a day, an unsustainable longer-term rate even for Russia.

Without a serious infusion of reinforcing armored vehicles for another major push, it appears the casualty costs and slow speed of the Russian advance are so problematic that it appears unlikely that Russia will capture Avdiivka on any reasonable timeline or cost.

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