The Avdiivka Gambit

And the impact it will have on the battlefield

Shankar Narayan
8 min readFeb 19, 2024

In a span of four months, from October 10th to February 17th, Russia incurred significant losses, including 47,000 lives, 364 tanks, 248 artillery units, 748 armored combat vehicles, and five fighter jets. In exchange for the price they paid, they managed to seize control of a mere 29 square kilometers of territory.

The land they pried out of Ukrainian hands might have had less strategic value and more in terms of informational significance, but Avdiivka was not a ruined parcel that they simply ran over. It was a Ukrainian defensive fortress that held together under relentless waves of attacks, withstanding many different Russian strategies until it finally fell.

Both sides have learned painful lessons from the conflict. Despite the Russian army’s victory, they must acknowledge certain shortcomings. Even with full mobilization — estimated at 470,000 troops last year — and a surplus of artillery shells, including an estimated one million shells from North Korea just a week before the attack on Avdiivka, and despite air control over the sector — averaging two sorties dropping glide bombs every hour into a small pocket, and the deployment of hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles — the Russians failed to execute rapid maneuvers. Achieving rapid breakthroughs necessary for conquering large territories remains a formidable challenge for the Russian army.

The events of 2023 in Bakhmut cannot be categorized as a defeat; rather, it was a tactical decision by Ukraine to conserve resources for their impending counter-offensive. However, the situation in 2024 at Avdiivka undeniably registers as a defeat, even though Ukraine opted to withdraw its forces. This loss will sting for a bit.

The outcome of a war is not determined by a single decisive victory, but rather by the accumulation of numerous small wins and losses over time. When these accumulations collectively tip the balance of power decisively in one direction, that side emerges as the triumphant force.

Russia’s ascendancy can be attributed to Ukraine’s weakened state on the supply front. While Putin may claim victory in this round, it’s crucial to acknowledge that his success was facilitated by the perceived lack of awareness within Biden’s national security team and the President’s decision to remain in the shadows.

Has the balance of power irrevocably moved in favor of Russia?

It may be tempting to overinterpret the situation and predict Russia’s continued advance, but doing so would grossly underestimate the multitude of factors at play.

Combat capacity involves numerous interconnected elements, including troop strength, available weaponry, production capacity, morale, financial resources, and more. Currently, the comparison of combat capacities between the two sides can be visualized as a complex graph encompassing these factors.

The Balance of Power

There is a limit to which Ukraine can hold on, when the the R curve remains above the U curve. Once a threshold is breached, they will inevitably begin to lose territory. This critical juncture is where Ukraine currently finds itself. The decline in Ukraine’s combat capacity below that of Russia can be attributed to three primary factors.

  1. Russia mobilized its forces, bolstered its production capacity, and acquired additional weapons from allies.
  2. Ukraine failed to initiate mobilization.
  3. Europe lacks adequate production capacity, and despite having ammunition, the Biden administration did not supply it.

Until the balance of power is restored on the battlefield, with the R and U curves reaching parity, Ukraine will continue to suffer losses. The timing of President Biden’s recognition of this reality remains uncertain.

Ukraine’s mobilization bill is still pending in parliament, but they have recognized their mistake and are expected to pass the bill for mobilization soon. However, even if they commence mobilization today, it will take at least two months before its impact is felt on the battlefield.

The United States could alter the balance of power equation within two weeks by dispatching long-range missiles and artillery shells. Either President Biden did not anticipate the loss at Avdiivka or he deliberately allowed it to happen despite knowing it was forthcoming. Either way, it screams of an unreliable ally. Europe does not have enough artillery shells.

This means there is only one way to get out of this predicament and keep the R and U curve from moving away from each other: Shop around the globe.

Two days ago, the President of the Czech Republic, Petr Pavel, announced the discovery of 800,000 available artillery shells for procurement worldwide. He is prepared to purchase them for Ukraine if other nations could finance the acquisition. However, for unknown reasons, French President Macron has vetoed the decision to procure shells from outside the EU. Given the current situation on the battlefield, either he must be persuaded or a coalition of nations should collaborate to procure the shells for Ukraine. I believe this will eventually occur.

During the Munich security conference yesterday, the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that Denmark will dispatch all its artillery to Ukraine. This signals a definite rally of support from parts of Europe. The pressing question on everyone’s minds is how long it will take for these reinforcements to arrive and how many losses Ukraine will have to endure in the interim.

The situation is challenging, but I wouldn’t classify it as dire. The loss of Avdiivka has revealed certain vulnerabilities on the Russian side. Coupled with the climate and terrain advantage favoring defense, Ukraine’s streak of misfortune may be reaching its conclusion.

Let’s dissect the Russian victory in Avdiivka with precision to discern how Ukraine can capitalize on it.

Russia cannot win a battle in the open fields

  • Four months
  • 30th, 35th, 55th, 74th, 1st, 9th, 114th Separate motorized rifle brigades, 1454th motorized rifle brigade, 10th, 6th, 80th and 239th Tank regiments were operating from three direction around Avdiivka.
  • All of 29 square kilometers.
  • 40 to 70 glide bombs were flung into this small area every day.

Despite Russia deploying all available resources against Avdiivka, they failed to breach the Ukrainian defensive lines flanking the town. Due to the limited artillery at their disposal, Ukraine relied heavily on drones to deter enemy entry. The encouraging aspect is that Ukraine’s reliance on drones suggests they may have devised countermeasures against Russia’s electronic warfare systems, which typically disrupt drone operations. This development marks a significant advancement, considering the longstanding challenges posed by Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities.

The downside is that the First Person View drones used by Ukraine to halt enemy advancements are highly susceptible to weather conditions. On a rainy day, when visibility is reduced and imagery becomes grainy, the effectiveness of these drones diminishes significantly. Unfortunately, it was precisely on such a day that Ukraine’s drone operators were blinded, enabling the Russians to breach Avdiivka.

The Ukrainians’ small drones always were the key to the city’s defense. Surveillance drones would spot the Russians coming. First-person-view attack drones would harry them until Ukrainian infantry or M-2 and tank crews could finish them off.

When the clouds gathered on Sunday (Feb 4th), grounding many drones and blinding others, the Russians heaved forward. Scurrying along the edge of a quarry abutting the city’s northern edge, Russian troops bypassed the Ukrainian battle formations and entrenched themselves in the buildings — Forbes

After the Russians got a foot inside the town, it became very difficult for Ukraine to stay put.

Russia took a calculated risk with its air power, which ultimately bolstered its ground forces.

If Russian air power had been removed from the equation, the battle for Avdiivka would have likely extended for a longer duration. Russians were dropping 40 to 70 glide bombs daily into a small pocket of land where Ukrainian defenders were entrenched. Consider the impact: two bombs every hour.

This was facilitated by Ukraine providing the Russians with a concentrated area to focus their efforts. They would take off, drop a bomb on Avdiivka, then return to base, repeating the process incessantly. However, as the conflict transitions to open terrain in the coming weeks, the effectiveness of the Russian air force is will diminish.

The fact that Ukraine permitted this intense bombing without effective countermeasures suggests they likely have limited supplies of air-defense missiles. The Ukrainian sector commander stated that Ukraine had only managed to down five jets in the sector over four months, a small number considering the daily sorties conducted by Russia.

In terms of air power, the Russians achieved what I had hoped Ukraine would accomplish, aligning with my assessment from June 2023 that air power would significantly influence offensive operations in the Ukrainian battlefield:

The Ukrainians knew they did not have the flexibility of air-power to seamlessly switch between offensive and defensive operations. It was for this reason that they pleaded with the west to provide fighter jets to them.

In the current situation, Ukrainian troops are operating without adequate air cover on the frontline. That is why I even advocated for Ukraine to delay the counteroffensive a little and to schedule it so that the attacks peak just as the F-16s arrive.

For both Russia and Ukraine to advance, they must establish air control over the sector. The side with air superiority holds a significant advantage in advancing their objectives. This was evident in Avdiivka, where Russia’s air superiority directly supported its ground troops.

The arrival of F16s is imminent, but Europe must also make preparations to replenish Patriot missiles

If the Biden administration is unable to provide additional ammunition, Europe must take action to ensure procurement of Patriot missiles and other critical weapons systems directly from manufacturers. Whether the administration approves aid or offers Europe a workaround, urgent measures are necessary to address the current shortfall.

It’s unjust to solely blame the MAGA House Republicans for every issue, as they are not currently in power. When history recounts these events, it won’t attribute the blocking of Ukraine aid to the MAGA House. Instead, it will highlight President Biden’s initial commitment to stand with Ukraine for as long as necessary, followed by a shift to as long as he can.

The crucial lesson for Ukraine from Avdiivka

  1. Lure the Russians into battle on open terrain. This diminishes the effectiveness of their air power and enhances Ukraine’s ability to employ mobile defense tactics. Ukraine should intercept the Russians a few miles before reaching the town’s outskirts.
  2. Delay the next counter-offensive until the F16s arrive. There’s no need to rush the timing.
  3. Between now and the arrival of the F16s, Ukraine must continue to target and eliminate Russian fighter jets. Following a successful eight-jet kill streak in December, Ukraine has already downed five fighter jets this month.
  4. Russia possesses only two large transport ships in the Black Sea. Disabling them would render Russia entirely reliant on the Kerch bridge for transportation.
  5. Russia still has a lot of ground to cover before touching Kupiansk. Every inch between where they are now and the town has to be defensively fortified.

Ukraine’s loss of Avdiivka can be attributed to a combination of factors including President Biden’s actions, MAGA Republicans, and the delayed production of artillery shells in Europe. While everyone bears some responsibility, it’s crucial to acknowledge and learn from this mistake. Although we paid a price, we can move forward because the balance of power has not irreversibly shifted in favor of Russia. I believe Ukraine will lose additional territory before spring.

However, we do have the capability to recover from the hole we dug ourselves into.



Shankar Narayan

He didn't care what he had or what he had left, he cared only about what he must do.