March 31, 2023 - 1:00pm

As Russia has intensified efforts to envelop the fortified town of Avdiivka, Ukraine’s military has this week insisted that its opponents are failing to make progress. Avdiivka’s strategic importance was highlighted earlier this month when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy name-checked it alongside other eastern battlegrounds like Bakhmut and Vuhledar as a place where “the future of all Ukrainians is being fought for”.

Russia has cracked through hardened defences, but the Ukrainians are putting up fierce resistance and holding fortified cities along the front, hindering efforts to advance to the next major defensive line centred on Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. One journalist from the Kyiv Independent reported last week on the worsening situation in Avdiivka, describing how “Russian forces have made significant gains,” with the city “nearly surrounded”. He added that “the Ukrainians are holding but are taking […] huge losses.” Yet a few days ago the UK Defence Ministry assessed that the Russian side is also suffering high casualties. Even pro-Kremlin reporter Vladlen Tatarsky noted that Russian equipment is being destroyed by mines.

Aside from the increased intensity of fighting around Avdiivka, Russia has been making advances. In recent weeks, Moscow’s forces have captured Novobakhmutivka, Krasnohorivka, and, according to some reports, Kamianka, while they have entered Stepove and are now contesting Vesele.

The town is surrounded from three sides with the intent to cut remaining supply lines, but Russia has yet to make any significant breakthrough in the locality itself. Along with heavy shelling, Russian aviation has become markedly more aggressive, hitting the town with glide bombs to dislodge Ukrainian forces from entrenched positions. This may be partly enabled by Russia’s degradation strategy of targeting air defence systems in the region, as well as Ukraine’s rationing and prioritised allocation of limited AD stock elsewhere.

Although Avdiivka is a small city with a pre-war population of just over 31,000, it is important to both sides for a number of reasons. For Ukraine, it is a position that has been built up during the pre-invasion civil conflict and is part of the complex interconnected defence system running from Zaporizhzhia up to Toretsk, Bakhmut, and Siversk. Politically, the Russian side has identified the shelling of the city of Donetsk as a point of grievance and claims much of the fire comes from the Avdiivka area. It would also be a notable step towards one of Vladimir Putin’s primary objectives in taking the Donbas.

Speaking on its operational importance, Ukraine analyst Alec Bertina told UnHerd that Russian control of the town “would give them multiple options to reinforce operations elsewhere in the theatre or press ahead to create problems in which Ukraine would have to commit more reserves to deal with it.” Bertina made clear that Avdiivka’s fall is not inevitable, as “a potential Ukrainian counter-offensive and unblocking activity in the area could roll back the developing flanks, forcing Russia to divert manpower and heavy weaponry.”

Ukraine has fully committed to holding off Russia’s onslaughts while it readies an armoured core to launch its much-hyped spring offensive to turn the momentum. Ultimately, Zelenskyy believes preserving the current defensive line is crucial in maintaining Western confidence in Ukraine’s capacity to hold off Russian attack, ensure continued arms provisions, and deny the Kremlin military and political victories. Avdiivka is, as Ukraine’s President acknowledges, a central part of that.

Lucas Webber is the co-founder and editor of Militant Wire