Russia’s “Aggressive Attrition” Cracks Fortress Avdeevka

February 20, 2024 (Brian Berletic - NEO) - The term “aggressive attrition,” coined by geopolitical analyst Alexander Mercouris, can be described as a strategy of deliberately and aggressively creating strategic and political dilemmas compelling an adversary to commit large amounts of manpower, equipment, and ammunition to well-prepared areas of operation.

Russia has employed this strategy successfully across the line of contact in Ukraine over the course of its Special Military Operation (SMO) following its beginning in February 2022.

The strategy is part of a long-term process of degrading Ukrainian military capabilities, fulfilling the “demilitarization” component of the SMO’s stated objectives.

Russia is successfully achieving this by leveraging its large advantage in military industrial production, creating larger amounts of long-range fire capabilities than Ukraine can field, and using it to target and degrade Ukrainian defenses.

Ukrainian forces are compelled to either suffer significant losses by maintaining these defenses, or withdraw. For mainly political reasons, Ukraine has consistently decided to hold defenses long after Russian forces have created effective areas of operation in which aggressive attrition unfolds.

Aggressive Attrition Cracks Fortress Avdeevka 

The most recent example of this is the Donetsk city of Avdeevka where Ukrainian forces constructed formidable defenses built up since 2014. Russian infantry, armor, and artillery have faced-off against Ukrainian forces there since the SMO began, but as Russian military capabilities grew in quantity and quality, these Ukrainian defenses were no longer viable.

Despite the extensive network of trenches, bunkers, tunnels, and the use of multi-storey concrete residential buildings as well as a large industrial zone to the north of the city, Ukrainian forces began suffering unsustainable losses.

When Ukrainian forces were finally ordered to fully withdraw, the BBC reported Russian forces outgunned their Ukrainian counterparts 10:1.

Russia did this by leveraging its greater number of infantry and armor, as well as its larger volumes of artillery fire. This includes 122 and 152 mm artillery pieces, as well as a variety of multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) ranging from unguided area effect systems like the BM-21 Grad to satellite-guided rocket systems like the Tornado-S, Russia’s equivalent to the US-made HIMARS and M270 MLRSs.

While Ukraine has attempted to offset its growing disadvantage in artillery fire through the use of first-person-view (FPV) kamikaze drones, according to Ukrainian forces themselves, Russia enjoyed at least a 2:1 advantage in this capability in and around Avdeevka. In addition to FPV drones, Russia employs longer range kamikaze drones including the Lancet with a range up to 40 km, making it an effective counter-battery (anti-artillery) capability.

Russia is using other long-range fire capabilities Ukraine does not possess an equivalent to, like the Iskander short-range ballistic missile complex with a range of 500 km, further than the US Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) which has a range of approximately 300 km.

Russia is also leveraging its advantage in military aviation and the use of a growing assortment of glide bombs ranging from 250 to 1,500 kg, released at ranges outside what remains of Ukraine’s mobile air defense systems along the line of contact.

The larger of the glide bombs have a destructive capacity far exceeding that of artillery shells and even rockets and missiles, capable of penetrating bunkers and leveling even the largest concrete buildings being used as cover.

To defend against glide bombs, Ukraine has attempted to move its less-mobile, longer-range air defense systems (Patriot, NASAMS, IRIS-T) dangerously close to the line of contact. This allows for random and infrequent “ambushes” along the line of contact, but is insufficient to provide actual air defense for the line of contact.

This is because Ukraine faces a critical shortage of long-range air defense systems. Over the past 2 years, Russia’s significant and growing military industrial output has enabled a steady cadence of long-range cruise missile and kamikaze drone strikes on targets all across Ukraine, exhausting Ukraine’s supply of air defense interceptors. This long-range strike campaign has also targeted and destroyed Ukraine’s air defense systems themselves.

Because the collective West’s military industrial base is incapable of sufficiently replacing both interceptors and the systems launching them, Ukraine’s ability to defend its airspace in general has been significantly reduced. This also means there are far too few long-range air defense systems to provide along the entire line of contact to defend against glide bombs.

A Four-Dimensional Strategy 

Western analysts have limited their study of the ongoing conflict to the three dimensions of the here-and-now. They classify battlefield achievements only by territorial gains. Because relatively little territory is changing hands, Western analysts have concluded the conflict is a “stalemate.” They also conclude Russia lacks sufficient offensive potential to break the stalemate, based solely on the lack of large-scale Russian offensive operations.

Yet, Russia’s success in Avdeevka contradicts this claim and demonstrates the impact aggressive attrition is having along the rest of the line of contact.

There are many different achievements possible on and off a battlefield, many of which can ultimately shape the outcome of any ongoing conflict far beyond territorial gains or losses.

Russia’s military industrial base, already far ahead of the collective West, continues to grow in both the quantity of weapons and ammunition produced, and the types of capabilities being fielded, as The Guardian recently admitted. On the battlefield, over the past two years, Russia has patiently and systematically depleted Ukrainian military capabilities to critical levels.

It is clear, especially after the decisive defeat of Ukraine’s 2023 offensive, that Russia launching its own offensive into likewise well-prepared minefields protected by long-range artillery, and an array of armor and anti-tank weapons would be strategically unwise. Reducing these capabilities now, shapes the battlefield for offensive operations later.

Russia’s strategy consists of multiple distinctively different stages spanning a period of time. It also consists of smaller operations using aggressive attrition along the line of contact at specific locations like Avdeevka, contributing toward an accumulative cycle of aggressive attrition against Ukrainian forces in general. Local collapses in Ukraine’s fighting capacity are contributing to a much greater, overall reduction in Ukrainian military capabilities.

Inevitably, this process will result in “disproportionately large Ukrainian casualties, territorial losses, and refugee flows. It might even lead Ukraine into a disadvantageous peace,” as warned in the RAND Corporation’s 2019 paper, “Extending Russia: Competing from Advantageous Ground,” regarding the dangers of Washington providing lethal aid to Ukraine and provoking a large-scale conflict with Russia.

And if this is the dilemma the US and its allies find themselves in waging a proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, a similar dilemma on a vastly greater scale awaits US foreign policymakers in regard to the war they seek to provoke with China. Unfortunately, US foreign policy circles are so absorbed by their pursuit of US primacy, they have failed to understand how unachievable it is in the first place.

Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.