On Tuesday, Ukraine’s official tally of Russian troop losses topped 300,000. The toll on both sides in this failed, illegal, and unprovoked invasion is sickening, but Russia’s willingness to continue feeding men into a meat grinder, often for little or no visible achievement, is incredible—in the worst sense of that word.
At Bakhmut, at Lyman, and at numerous locations in Kherson before its withdrawal west and south of the Dnipro River, Russia has demonstrated a capacity for wasting lives that is almost as puzzling as it is disturbing. Something similar is happening in southern Ukraine right now, as Russia continually tries to retake lost positions even when Ukraine is well positioned to defend the area. The result has been stunning losses.
However, nowhere may illustrate Russia's indifference to death more than the events that have taken place this month near the town of Avdiivka. In three weeks, Russia has thrown away between 4,000 and 6,500 men, hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, and trucks in an attempt to encircle this location. The result has been a scrapyard of wrecked machinery that exceeds even Russia’s disastrous assault on Vuhledar or the triple-down fiasco of the failed bridge at Bilohorivka.
Unlike the battlefield at Bakhmut, which spreads out over 20 kilometers, with the city itself spanning more than 7 kilometers, the area at Avdiivka is relatively small. An advance of 6 kilometers in total would be enough to cut off the town and isolate any forces remaining inside.
Russia’s losses at Avdiivka have been tremendous. Its gains have been minimal. However, it has made gains. The waste hill—also known as the “Terrikon”—now seems to be under Russian control after being disputed earlier in the month. Russia has spread out along the rail line on the north and threatens to move into the complex of factories associated with making coke from the coal mined in this location.
This video from United24, a Ukraine-run platform for donations to support the country, does a good job of explaining both the importance of Avdiivka and the nature of Russian attacks in the area.
Attacks in the area are continuing. A big part of pushing Russian losses above the 300,000 level on Tuesday is tied to five attempted assaults that were repulsed in the early part of the day. In these, Russia continued to attempt to move forces across the rail line in the north and out of Vodyane on the south. Ukrainian forces report that all these Russian attempts were repulsed. However, fighting in the area remains intense.
On Monday, a Bradley fighting vehicle was lost, and on Tuesday, a Leopard 2A6 was damaged. Russian sources are celebrating these losses as if they vindicate the entire offensive, with one Russian state media source claiming that the “last” Leopard tanks had been sent to Avdiivka after Russia had devastated them elsewhere. At present, confirmed losses of Leopard tanks total 19, with about half of those being damaged tanks that may return to service. That’s out of 75 Leopard 2s and 165 Leopard 1s so far sent to Ukraine. So if Russians are expecting these tanks to disappear from the battlefield any time soon, they’re going to be disappointed. What has been lost at Avdiivka are a lot of Russian T-90s and at least two thermobaric rocket-carrying TOS-1s.
Right now, Ukraine’s 53rd Mechanized Brigade seems to have movements on the south side of the Avdiivka salient under control. Russian forces trying to close the gap from this side are forced to move directly into open fields, and Ukrainian forces stationed near Tonenke have been taking them down with artillery and drones almost as soon as they appear.
It’s the north side where Russia has made some gains, even if the cost is high. It’s also the north side where Russia could be close to accomplishing something that will make the defense of Avdiivka more difficult.
This is that “Terrikon” (which is a Ukrainian term for mine waste) mound of tailings and, right across the railroad tracks, the factories where the coal was turned into coke (not the drink) used in making steel. The colored areas of control have been removed from this image to make details more visible.
Russia earlier managed to place a flag on top of the waste dump only to have it taken out by a Ukrainian drone. The area around the hill is now evaluated as under Russian control, and the Terrikon offers the highest ground in the area. However, it’s not clear that the Terrikon offers the kind of high-ground advantage that might otherwise be expected, which is why we don’t see any obvious Ukrainian defensive structures on it. Thanks to some nice satellite imagery from Maxar, Google Earth now offers resolution in this area down to about 30 cm, meaning that even the image above isn’t close to showing all the wrinkles, folds, and blocks of loose stone that can be seen. But this provides a good sense of what this hill is actually like:
Ramps on either side show where large mining trucks hauled tons of material to the top and dumped it while bulldozers and scrapers flattened the top. The center of the Terrikon is a depressed section of the old mine pit, making the whole thing seem almost like a volcano in profile.
That flat lip on the southwest corner seems like a dead-perfect place to position artillery and cover not just the factory complex but the highway 2 kilometers away as well as Ukrainian forces in the center of Avdiivka about 3.5 kilometers to the south. But the problem with this location as an artillery platform is that everything had to be dragged up those big ramps and positioned on top of the hill, without anything that even resembles cover. With the role that drones have played in this war, anything sitting up there will meet the same fate as that first Russian flag—despite the flag being planted in the more protected interior:
As the many gullies and slumped areas show, this is also not the most stable pile of broken rocks and weathered clay in the world. Speaking from personal experience with decades of experience in the mining industry, I can say that this stuff is going to be goopier and slicker than a giant mound of snot when there is the least amount of rain in the area. Getting up to the high ground will not be easy. Staying up there will be harder.
Russia’s immediate target is the complex of factories. If Russia can infiltrate these buildings and drive Ukrainian forces back, they will have a base from which they can expand toward Ukrainian forces in the center of Avdiivka, as well as protected positions from which they can fire on Ukrainian supply lines.
The distance from the base of the Terrikon to the nearest large factory buildings is only about 600 meters. In that space, two large forested areas provide significant cover. This is exactly what makes this spot so very tempting for Russia. It’s also why this space now has more dead Russian equipment than the suburbs of Kyiv.
Artillery—and, in particular, the cluster munitions that the United States began providing only recently—have been key to holding this location. Ukrainian sources have complained that if they had enough artillery and more precision-guided weapons, they could hit the Russian forces kilometers away from the area where they are forming up assaults. Instead, Ukraine waits for each wave to emerge and then tries to pulverize it before it can cross the open space.
If you want to get a sense of what is happening to Russian forces at Avdiivka, this video is worth watching. It shows the 109 Russian destroyed vehicles geolocated from just the first two days (Oct. 9 and Oct. 10) of the Russian attack.
Throughout October, Russia lost a lot more equipment in those same areas. In addition to the rising tally of tanks, armored vehicles, and trucks, Russia has paid another big cost: aircraft. Russia’s use of air support in their Avdiivka attacks was an early sign that this operation was more significant than their usual probing assaults. Since Oct. 9, at least 10 aircraft have been reported destroyed near Avdiivka, including a Su-25 reportedly shot down on Monday. For the moment, Ukraine seems to be holding. Russia may or may not actually control the Terrikon waste mound, but even if they do, its utility is in doubt.
Heavy fighting continues. Russia’s strategy appears unchanged. There have been reports that Putin wants Avdiivka taken in time to celebrate its capture in advance of the Russian elections in March 2024. It would certainly be nice to disappoint him.
For months, it has been easy to ignore the Ukrainian presence on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River. Russia must have found Ukraine’s initial excursion force near the Antonivka Bridge irritating, and they certainly made repeated efforts to crush that small force, but Ukraine held on even though they lacked the heavy vehicles necessary to mount a significant attack on the town of Oleshky to the south.
Then Ukraine managed to make another crossing near the railroad bridge at Prydniprovska. And another up near Krynky. At this point, Ukraine controls a section of the riverfront almost 60 kilometers long. Recent reports have indicated that the number of Ukrainian forces at each of these crossing points number in the hundreds, and there have been reports of Ukraine establishing a position in Krynky.
There still aren’t any indications that Ukraine has either repaired any of the damaged bridge infrastructure or created a pontoon crossing. But it seems as if Ukraine is reaching the point where the idea that they can’t liberate an occupied town without more heavy gear may soon be tested.
I’m putting this here, but it is definitely not confirmed.
Meanwhile, 10 kilometers south of Avdiivka …