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The fall of Ukrainian town Avdiivka in ‘hellish’ meat-grinder battle was a loss for everyone including Putin who lost tens of thousands of troops – now Kyiv needs the long-range weapons to respond, say military experts


Russian flags have been planted in the ruins of the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka, marking the biggest victory for the Kremlin since its forces took Bakhmut last May in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

But redrawing the battle lines has come at a huge cost for Vladimir Putin’s forces, with tens of thousands of casualties recorded as Russia threw body after body into the arena to try to grind Ukraine down.

The months-long assault was launched in the days following October 7, as Moscow hoped the world would be distracted from its ill-fated offensive by Israel’s conflict with Hamas, experts claim.

While Putin may wish to cast Avdiivka as a major victory, former US Army Colonel Jonathan Sweet is among those who argues that the price paid in Russian blood negates the symbolic success.

And though Ukraine continues to lay waste to Russia’s huge conscript army, Kyiv’s failure to secure significant territorial gains has seen funding fatigue set in among its Western allies as the war nears its two-year mark.

With support for Ukraine coming under increasing strain, Putin continuing to brutally silence domestic criticism and NATO facing mounting scrutiny, a Ukrainian victory and a Russian defeat continue to appear distant prospects.

Both sides continue to lose, Col Sweet and foreign policy expert Mark Toth argue here, and the only way out is for the US and UK to ramp up support for Ukraine and deal Putin a deadly blow.

The scars of war: A Ukrainian serviceman with his wounded head wrapped in bloodied bandages arrives for treatment after returning from the Avdiivka battlefield on Tuesday

The scars of war: A Ukrainian serviceman with his wounded head wrapped in bloodied bandages arrives for treatment after returning from the Avdiivka battlefield on Tuesday

Russian forces have taken complete control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka. This photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Monday, February 19, 2024, shows an aerial view of the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant

Russian forces have taken complete control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka. This photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Monday, February 19, 2024, shows an aerial view of the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant

The withdrawal follows months of fierce Russian attacks and marks the biggest change on the front lines since Moscow troops captured Bakhmut in May last year

The withdrawal follows months of fierce Russian attacks and marks the biggest change on the front lines since Moscow troops captured Bakhmut in May last year

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his generals’ decision to withdraw from Avdiivka is not a Russian victory. Rather, it was a Pyrrhic defeat for all involved – Ukraine, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States and NATO.

Ukraine lost a tactically valuable position. Russian president Vladimir Putin lost a devastating number of troops, munitions and weapons ahead of Russia’s forthcoming presidential elections in March. And the United States and its NATO allies lost an opportunity to put Putin down for the count in Ukraine.

It is often said war is Hell – and it was in Avdiivka.

Putin’s willingness to continue plowing as many Russian teenagers, old men, ethnic minorities, prisoners, foreign fighters and mercenaries as needed into the Kremlin’s relentless ‘meat assaults’ against Ukraine was matched by Kyiv‘s willingness to kill them in what has become a modern-day version of World War I‘s trench warfare.

The Russian ‘meat grinder’ counterattack into Avdiivka began two days after the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel on October 7. Coincidence? Hardly. 

The Kremlin needed the Middle East distraction to launch the attack on October 9, virtually without any western media coverage – all eyes were on Israel.

In moving on Avdiivka, a United Kingdom Ministry of Defence intelligence update estimated in late October 2023, that Russia likely ‘committed elements of up to eight brigades’ to the sector where it initiated a ‘major offensive effort.’

Now, four and a half months later, the cost for Putin measured in lives for this strategically diminished piece of terrain is well over 100,000 Russian soldiers eliminated. 

According to the Ukraine Ministry of Defense, total Russian casualties on October 9 were 282,630; on February 17 they were reported to be 401,350.

Two soldiers of the Russian military engineering units walk after eliminating the mine danger in the city of Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine

Two soldiers of the Russian military engineering units walk after eliminating the mine danger in the city of Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine

Intense fighting is continuing in Ukraine. In this undated image, Kyiv's forces destroy an armoured vehicle in an unspecified area of the frontline

Intense fighting is continuing in Ukraine. In this undated image, Kyiv’s forces destroy an armoured vehicle in an unspecified area of the frontline

Beyond Avdiivka, by just about every metric, Ukrainian ground forces are winning the overall fight, except for the one that matters most – retaining terrain. 

They have become adept in killing Russians, but the Kremlin has become equally fiendish in finding more bodies to replace them, then leaving them on the battlefield to die or be captured.

Ukraine going forward can no longer afford a repeat of Bakhmut or Avdiivka. The close fight – the one in the trenches, the streets and abandoned buildings in and around Avdiivka – is not where Ukraine needs to be killing Russians. 

Nonetheless, it is where they have been relegated to do so by US and NATO restraints on the weapons provided to them.

Washington’s continued fear of escalation put into their heads by Putin is culminating into reversals of misfortune on the frontline battlefields of Ukraine – and now competing requirements including the southern border, the Israel-Hamas war, shipping lanes in the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden, U.S. bases under attack by Iranian proxies – together with a U.S. Presidential Election, are making war aid decisions harder.

The US Army High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) is the best example of constraining Ukraine. Arguably, the turning point in the war occurred when the US delivered 20 of these systems to Ukraine in June 2022, allowing Zelensky and his generals to take the fight to Russia forces.

Kyiv did just that – recovering most of the terrain lost to Russia during the opening months of the invasion.But, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the ‘U.S. secretly modified the advanced HIMARS rocket launchers it gave Ukraine so they can’t be used to fire long-range missiles into Russia, U.S. officials said, a precaution the Biden administration says is necessary to reduce the risk of a wider war with Moscow.’

The missiles provided – the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, have a range of 50 miles. The modifications affected the ability of HIMARS to fire the US’s Army Tactical Missile System rockets (ATACMS), which has a range of approximately 190 miles. 

Once Russia figured this out – and it was not difficult since the modifications were made public, they simply stepped back their assets beyond the 50-mile range, or across the Russian border. They were given sanctuary and took advantage of it.

Absent the requirement for sustained ammunition for their artillery, Ukraine is exceptional in the close fight. But for Ukraine to win the war they must be able to interdict Russian forces deep behind enemy lines by conducting deep strikes into the Russian interior and Crimea. It is the only effective way of disrupting Russia’s ability to wage war and the only way to stop Putin from intentionally targeting and killing Ukrainian civilians with missiles and drones.

A Russian military vehicle drives past residential buildings damaged in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in the town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk Region, in this image taken from video released by Russian on February 20, 2024

A Russian military vehicle drives past residential buildings damaged in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in the town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk Region, in this image taken from video released by Russian on February 20, 2024

It is also the only way to render the Crimean Peninsula untenable. US military doctrine is clear in this regard.

Joint Publication 3-03 defines interdiction as ‘an action to divert, disrupt, delay, or destroy the enemy’s military surface capability before it can be used effectively against friendly forces or to achieve enemy objectives.’

Army Field Manual 3-0 defines deep operations as ‘Tactical actions against enemy forces, typically out of direct contact with friendly forces, intended to shape future close operations and protect rear operations.

The tactics to do so are elemental in US doctrine; the willingness to unleash them have been restrained by the White House. The resulting cost has been measured in Ukrainian lives. 

This has been a reality for the better part of the past year, culminating now in the loss of Avdiivka.

Many of the gains made during the Ukrainian counteroffensive are being slowly lost now – essentially bringing us back to the start point of the second phase of the war twelve months ago: Bakhmut. 

Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, then Commander of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, oversaw that tactical Ukrainian withdrawal – and now as the overall commander of the AFU, he has overseen removing Kyiv’s forces from Avdiivka.

A local civilian chops wood for making fire in the downtown of Ocheretyne, a village under heavy shelling in the vicinity of Avdiivka district, recently claimed by Russian troops in Donbas, Ukraine, on February 19, 2024

A local civilian chops wood for making fire in the downtown of Ocheretyne, a village under heavy shelling in the vicinity of Avdiivka district, recently claimed by Russian troops in Donbas, Ukraine, on February 19, 2024

The West’s ‘just enough,’ trickle down logistics and sustainment, and not what is needed to win, has proven not enough, and today in Washington, we are trying to play catch-up. Instead of developing solutions, Washington has turned inward on itself, pointing fingers and casting blame.

Somewhere in Moscow, likely a command bunker deep within the bowels of the Kremlin, Putin is smiling while he sips on his glass of champagne gifted to him by Capitol Hill. 

What he and his military could not accomplish on the battlefield, he has through disinformation and the threat of nuclear escalation.

Moreover, Putin is only getting started. Retired Navy Seal Chuck Pfarrer reports on his Indications and Warnings X feed that Russian forces have massed as many as 15,000 troops in the vicinity of Zenith and Avdiivka, and along the Kupiansk-Kreminna front. 

They launched attacks on Krynky, Verbove, Robotyne, Synkivka and Ivanivka, and fired North Korean – 23 ballistic missiles at the capital city of Kyiv.

The Russians are not going away. The Pyrrhic ‘win’ at Avdiivka solidifies Putin’s mindset to conquer Ukraine at whatever the cost. 

Ukraine needs offensive weapons to stem the flow of soldiers and equipment to the front lines, air defense weapons to protect their population centers, and conventional 155mm artillery and cluster munitions for the close fight. 

The recent employment of Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB) and the new Precision Strike Missile (PSM) are a step in the right direction.

Defensive weapons – namely air defense systems, are a necessity, but they are not a plan to win the war; rather, a reaction to Russia’s plan to annihilate Ukraine. 

Smoke rises above areas off the town of Avdiivka in the Russian-controlled part of the Donetsk region on February 19, 2024

Smoke rises above areas off the town of Avdiivka in the Russian-controlled part of the Donetsk region on February 19, 2024

The killing stops when Russia’s ability to wage war is defeated – and that requires winning the close fight, but also interdicting reinforcements and logistics sustainment with deep strikes.

Washington, London and NATO need a comprehensive plan to decisively win in Ukraine. 

Until such time, everyone will continue to lose – and yet, in a dystopian twist, Putin nonetheless will edge closer to winning a war his troops are losing by most measures.

It does not have to be this way. Ukraine can win – Downing Street and the White House can do what General Ben Hodges urges: body slam Putin.



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