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The Battle of Avdiivka and the Dangers of Getting High on Your Own Telegram Supply
Russia's army is fundamentally broken
Defense can be decisive. At first, the widespread view of the Russian effort at Avdiivka, now in its sixth day, was that they had achieved complete surprise, and thus overturned many assumptions about the poor state of Russian arms. This analysis invariably pointed to the Russian ‘milbloggers’ of Telegram who were crowing about achieving a complete surprise of Ukrainian forces with a true combined arms effort.
Five days later, however, the same Russian sources are moaning about the waste of an army. Turns out the Ukrainians were not entirely surprised, or at least not overwhelmed. A single AFU unit, the 110th Separate Motorized Brigade (named for Marko Bezruchko), has inflicted thousands of casualties and destroyed scores of armored vehicles and tanks defending the northern axis of attack. What had seemed like success on Day One is now understood as a Ukrainian victory.
Early Telegram posts emphasized the volume of artillery fire. This prepararatory bombardment likely used the recent supply of low-quality shell and rocket ammunition from North Korea in hopes of overwhelming the defenders. Those reports also detailed the number of Ukrainian command posts hit and commanders supposedly killed, the number of drone control stations similarly hit, and so on.
However, without a battle damage assessment (BDA), this kind of reporting represents nothing more than the aspirations of the fire plan, not a measure of its actual effectiveness. Given 24 hours warning time, even half-trained military units with decent morale can reposition themselves so that enemy fires planned in advance fall on vacated sites. If a milblogger nevertheless presents the executed fire plan as a fait accompli, everyone in the chain of reporting will get the wrong impression that the bombardment was effective.
Whereas early reports crowed about Russian success at counterbattery fire, for example, now the Telegram channels are complaining that their counterbattery effort “is not effective enough,” which “was enough to slow down the compression of the Russian ‘pincers’ to an acceptably slow rate for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.” In the ‘Game of Civilization’ channel writer’s imagination, this is why Ukrainians were able to overcome their surprise and bring up reserves quickly enough to stop the initial assaults.
It does not occur to him that perhaps the Ukrainians had enough warning time to get reserves moving beforehand, or at least on alert. Maybe John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, was not lying on Friday when he told reporters that the Russian offensive “did not come as a surprise.”
An electronic warfare station was listed among the opening targets of the Russian bombardment, and the Institute for the Study of War initially noted that Russian formations were using their own EW assets in coordination with the attack. Yet the number of Ukrainian drone videos showing fields of burning armor and scattered corpses speaks to the ineffectiveness of any jamming directed against their control, GPS, and video signals. Clearly Russians tried, but also failed, to dominate the critical 4th dimension of conflict.
As I explained a month ago in this paid post, centralized fire planning — which is to say Russian-style fire planning — has drawbacks, especially when the enemy has even a little bit of tactical warning time.
German Gen. Georg Bruchmüller invented much of the artillery doctrine still used by armies around the world today. Pronounced “the greatest artillery expert of the war” by B.H. Liddell Hart, himself the most influential interwar thinker in English, Bruchmüller nevertheless met his match in Gen. Henri Joseph Eugène Gouraud during the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918. Bruchmüller was undone by the crisp precision of his fire plan.
Gouraud developed a complex deception plan. Strategic warning by French intelligence allowed him to pull the bulk of his infantry back from his front lines and begin hitting forward German positions 40 minutes before Bruchmüller’s guns opened fire on positions that were mostly empty. “Never has a cannon shot given me so much pleasure,” he told his chief of staff when the bet paid off. Gouraud had moved most of his artillery back as well, leaving a handful of gun batteries to stay very busy jumping back and forth between the now-unoccupied firing positions and keep up appearances. Although German aerial reconnaissance was not fooled, noting that the 4th Army’s artillery was farther back than usual, they “did not see this movement as a symptom of a larger change in defensive tactics,” Gudmundsson writes. Bruchmüller also reserved his light artillery for the counterbattery role and assigned it to known targets in advance. Once the counterbattery phase of his fire plan was completed, there were no guns to spare for emergent counterbattery missions.
Gouraud had reserved his heavy guns for the counterbattery role this time, and now he unleashed a mix of shrapnel, high explosives, and gas shells on the German gunners supporting the attack. The unexpected storm of French steel had an immediate morale impact on the Germans going ‘over the top.’ “Uninhibited by fear of losses from friendly fire,” the French artillery hit the German “jumping-off positions” — the advanced saps in no man’s land that allowed them to reach the French trenches quickly. “In previous offensives, these forward trenches a few score meters from the enemy front line had provided a relatively safe haven for the German infantry.”
“The effectiveness of the French counterpreparation was matched by the ineffectiveness of the German bombardment,” Gudmundsson writes. “The bombs of the trench mortars assigned to the closest French targets fell on empty trenches. The gas and high-explosive shells fired by the field guns and heavier peices assigned to counterbattery duties exploded on battery positions that had long been vacated.” French heavy guns were soon putting many German gunners out of the fight.
Although the Germans met little resistance in the first line of trenches, they were held up by strong points as the rolling barrage advanced ahead of them on its clockwork schedule, diminishing in intensity from the effective French counterfire. “As each hour passed, the German units — both infantry and artillery — that had been held in reserve to exploit the initial breakthrough moved closer to the French position. As they did, they took increasingly greater losses from the fire of the French artillery” that had escaped Bruchmüller’s counterbattery plan.
Bear in mind that Gouraud’s army still took thousands of casualties. The Russian fire plan was surely deadly to anyone caught in it, too. Ukrainians are under bombardment with thermobaric weapons in scenes straight out of hell. As with Gouraud’s defense, which broke the German army’s ability to conduct an offensive, the defense of Avdiivka is nevertheless becoming decisive. This Russian offensive defeat is greater than or equal to the debacles at Vuhledar in January/February. Even if we accept the BDAs of Russian milbloggers at face value, dismiss Kirby’s statement, and agree that Ukrainians were completely surprised, the Russian defeat is still total.
Nor should we accept what they say at face value. Whereas the Telegram battlefield used to be a place where Russian arms got friendly criticism, the deaths and prosecutions of prominent ones has encouraged the others to ‘play ball’ with propaganda. Now subsumed into the Russian military culture of lies known as vranyo, they have exactly repeated the format of official Russian reporting from the scene of battle.
The first wave was utterly destroyed, but reported as a complete success because it reached its objective. This ‘success’ amounts to one dead Russian on the slope of a single industrial spoil hill outside of town that was the objective. Readers are free to find the image themselves. Had he reached the top, that Russian soldier would have found no cover or concealment. Nevertheless, this ‘complete success’ required that a second wave go in, which succeeded so grandly that a third was required, and so on.
On the morning of Day Six, the guns are reportedly silent. “It didn’t go easy,” writes ‘Sladkov’, full of sour grapes. Avdiivka, who needs it?
To surround Avdiivka, it is necessary to take many old strongholds of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The positions of the Ukrainian army have been poured with concrete since 2015, when, by the way, no one fired hard at them - build fortifications and formations. Now it is bearing fruit - you can’t really break it with artillery. Plus minefields. And in general, our Ministry of Defense did not promise anything. But the fact is a fact - the shooting is over.
Asked about Avdiivka this morning, Putin responded that Russian forces were engaged in “active defence with improvement of the positions in certain areas.” Talk about lowered expectations. Located almost within howitzer range of Donetsk City, the city of Avdiivka was supposed to be a second Bakhmut, a pyrrhic political victory over a stubborn point of Ukrainian defense. The offensive was also supposed to stop Ukraine from continuing its slow, yet relentless, positional counterattack in Zaporizhzhia.
Reflecting low stocks of precision munitions, Russian missile strikes on Avdiivka stopped Friday night. That same evening, more than a dozen Russian ground attacks took place around the salient at the points indicated on the map. All were repulsed by Ukrainians equipped with night vision devices. Saturday saw another concentrated armored assault destroyed. Antitank teams have consistently hit lead Russian vehicles at choke points, holding up columns to call down artillery fire on them. As if trying to overwhelm the Avdiivka garrison with the Zapp Brannigan strategy of making Ukraine run out of ammunition, waves of Russian infantry have swept forward, only to get scythed down by cluster munitions.
Avdiivka still enjoys good logistics on roadways that are still far out of reach for Russian ‘fire control’, whatever the Telegram brigade says. Russian hospitals are overwhelmed with wounded and there is “a deficit of body bags” in Donetsk, according to one Russian volunteer calling for aid from home. Putin could return to the attack there tomorrow, or next week, achieving the same results. Will he, though?
A milblogger account, ‘We Hear From Ioannina,’ was pessimistic on Friday. He worried that “this deceptively successful ‘squeeze’” of the Avdiivka salient “will spur the desire of the comrade generals to quickly take Avdeevka. And the troops will ‘beat on concrete’ until they run out,” sacrificing themselves to no real gain. He worried that overly-optimistic coverage of Russian commanders’ lies about their progress by his fellow milbloggers would encourage higher command to waste Russian lives. “It's not hard to understand why the ‘red arrow trade’ pisses me off,” he wrote, referring to his colleagues.
Because the media acceleration of the theme “Now we’re about to take everything hurray-hurray”, it leads to the fact that under the pressure of the media, which generates pressure from top to bottom already in the “army”, people are driven to take “this is all” in a situation when it is necessary to gain a foothold, repel counterattacks and build a mechanism for exploiting the modest successes achieved - a mechanism for increasing the very “price of staying in Avdeevka.”
It is probably correct to say that Ukraine and Washington were surprised by the intensity of the Russian attacks. Certainly, some defensive positions were overrun, which is normal in such circumstances. Some defensive strongpoints were less successful than others. Whatever the real level of surprise, Ukraine responded with local reserves and stopped the offensive cold. The anonymous ‘We Hear From Ioannina’ explained that the attacking army had the wrong tools for the mission.
The main caliber of our brigade and corps artillery is now 152 mm. And its main projectile is an ordinary high-explosive fragmentation projectile. Which normal concrete fortifications can withstand even a direct hit, but a direct hit still needs to be achieved - the trunks of our artillery are pretty worn out. Again, I wrote there about the weight dispersion of 152 mm charges produced this year.
So counting the hours of artillery preparation or, in general, “artillery activity” and from this measuring the possibility of success is not a good idea. Throwing it around, plowing all the surrounding fields - it won’t help much, it’s been tested.
The attacking force was the best army that Russia could build this year, with the most training and the best equipment and the most thorough planning, achieving the most successful secrecy in preparation. The results still resemble similar attacks in Luhansk the last few months, assaults that all ended with fields and forests filled with burning armor and dead Russians. This is simply the best that Russians know how to do in the field right now and it is nowhere near good enough.
Ukraine will now resume their offensive actions south of Bakhmut and around Robotyne soon enough, at whatever pace works for them, managing attrition instead of trying to rush at the enemy. New weapons are still arriving after too-long delays in western action and industrial response. Ukrainians have never actually had the full toolset for combined arms maneuver. When they do, we shall see how they do. My guess is that they will do better than this.
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