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Avdiivka Falls – The Battle for the Durna river line

On 17 February, Russian forces finally captured Avdiivka – once a city of 30,000 people – just ten kilometres from Donetsk.  110th Mechanised Brigade had defended the ruins for the last two years without relief.  The end came when Russian forces infiltrated the south of the city using a concealed passage offered by a man-sized water pipe feeding Donetsk filter station.1 More units advanced from the north in the area of the Terrikon (slag heap) and dachas adjoining the Koksokhim (Avdiiv chemical coke plant). With 80-110 glide bombs landing on the defenders every day, and with the threat of the city being cut in two, the Ukrainian command took the prudent decision to withdraw.

The next phase for Russian forces should have been an exploitation of the breach in the defence. In fact, the assault on Avdiivka which had started the previous October quite exhausted the attackers. 16,000 soldiers were killed according to a disillusioned Luhansk separatist.  A staggering 531 pieces of equipment were destroyed, damaged or abandoned, including 169 tanks.

It was not until the end of March that Russian forces were able to resume the advance in an organised way (although small-scale and suicidal attacks never stopped across the front lines).  This article reviews the action since and specifically examines the battle for the Durna river line.

Ukrainian and Russian dispositions

Ukrainian and Russian2 dispositions are shown on the map below.  For both sides, unit and formation names do not correspond to actual size.  A ‘brigade’ may be a weak battalion.  ‘Battalions’ are commonly just companies.  Russian prisoners routinely report how a company may start with 100 men but be reduced to as few as ten fit soldiers. Caution is also needed because units are rotated (withdrawn) when exhausted. This is especially true of Russian forces. The map therefore represents all reported units/formations and where, but they may not have been present all the time, or in strength.

Russian troops on this front are referred to as ‘Centre Group’. They are drawn from Central Military District (CVO) and 1st DNR Army Corps. Commander ‘Centre Group’ is the 48-year old infantryman Colonel-General Andrei Mordvichev.  He has participated in the war from the beginning rising from army commander to army group commander.  CVO has been the best performing military district – ironically – as traditionally it is the reserve district in the Russian Federation and least favoured with resources. Ukrainian command in this sector falls under the Khortytsia Operational-Strategic Group (OSUV). The commander is a General Sodel [Sodol].

It is not possible to estimate troop numbers with any certainty.3 Both sides are depleted.  The Russians continue to commit units to destruction further complicating estimation of strengths.  Nor is it possible to estimate equipment numbers.  With the exception of the battalion-level attack at the beginning, Russian attacks are typically platoon strength involving 1-2 tanks and as many as four AFVs. The ad hoc mix of vehicle types tells the story of Russian problems with replenishing combat losses. Ukrainian counter-attacks typically involve a single tank or AFV.  Artillery and rocket fire on the Russian side involves single guns or launchers that fire one salvo then scoot.  Ukrainian indirect fire has been minimal due to ‘shell starvation’.  FPV and Mavic-style drones rule the battlefield and both sides go to great lengths to conceal themselves, in the case of vehicles, guns and rocket launchers; or to remain underground if infantry. Camouflage is insufficient. The only true protection is total concealment. Saturated ECM has also become a prerequisite for survival.

Avdiivka front – Russian operational objectives

Cold War students of the Soviet Army probably remember the concept of immediate and subsequent objectives.  This echeloning endures in the modern Russian Army.  The immediate objective on the Avdiivka front was the Durna river line, just 10 kilometres from Avdiivka.  The possible subsequent objective is Pokrovsk, a major transport hub a further 30 kilometres distant. Or Russian forces might seek to advance north to Kostyantynivka, also roughly 30 kilometres distant but over more difficult ground.

The Durna River is not spanned by bridges but by causeways and dams that create the small reservoirs characteristic of the Donbass.  This means Ukrainian forces could not blow bridges and conduct a classic defence of a river. Rather they had to block the various crossing points.  The defensive problem was compounded because the river line in the Umanske area narrows to a shallow stream creating a mobility corridor, which the Russians sought to exploit in the first assault.  North of Berdychi the river runs underground and below the line of the railway.  This offers a potential outflanking option, taken by the Russians in a later phase of the battle.

29-30 March – Battalion armoured attack at Umanske

On 29 March, 6th Tank Regiment (90th Tank Division) mounted a battalion-sized attack supported by the militia 428th Motor Rifle Regiment.  As many as 36 tanks and 12 APCs were committed, the largest grouping seen since October 2023.4  The assaulting force launched from Tonenke. The aim seems to have been to force the Durna at Umankse where the river narrows to a shallow or dry stream.

The attack was conducted in daylight (due to lack of night vision capability) across open ground. The assaulting force followed a road. The Russians remain unable to coordinate an all-arms assault (with engineers, artillery, aviation or air) due to the lack of a working VHF tactical net.  The likelihood was the vehicles were communicating on walkie-talkies.  ‘Follow the leader’ is the default tactic. Destruction of the lead tank quickly leads to the attack breaking up. This is what happened.

25th Separate Airborne Brigade was the main defending formation, supported by 68th Jaeger (Mountain) Brigade. One or more Ukrainian T-80s engaged the head of the column.  Then a combination of artillery fire, FPV drones, ATGMs and mines broke up the attack.  The Russians lost 12-15 tanks, including two T-90Ms, and eight APCs.

This was not the end of it.  Failed Russian assaults are repeated until the unit is effectively destroyed. On 30 March, the Russians attacked with four tanks and two APCs, of which three tanks and two APCs were destroyed. On 31 March, six Russian tanks and three APCs tried to advance, which were also defeated. On 6 April, Ukrainian defenders reported as many as 11 attacks. Ten tanks, five BMPs and one MT-LB were damaged or destroyed.

Further south, the militia 9th Motor Rifle Brigade enjoyed more success and captured the uninhabited village of Pervomaiske by 9 April. The settlement had been fought over for the last two years.

Mid to late April: Assaults on Semenivka and Berdychi

In the centre, the river line was defended by 3rd Separate Mechanised Brigade and 47th Mechanised Brigade.  Both veteran formations, they had been rushed to Avdiivka to cover the withdrawal.  Subsequently they established hasty defences: the former at Semenivka and the latter at Berdychi.  As many as 25-30 glide bomb attacks were recorded every day against Ukrainian positions, also under daily fire from artillery and rocket systems. Ground attacks were also daily occurrences.

Berdychi witnessed the loss of the first M1A1 Abrams, immobilised by a Piranha FPV drone. Five have since been reportedly disabled, mainly by drones.  Using Stepove as launch point, Russian troops attempted rush tactics by section and platoon-level groupings.  These were unsuccessful, defeated by a combination of artillery and FPV drones.  As many as three T-80s and around 20 armoured vehicles of various types were lost in these attacks. Over 80 Russian dead were counted in one treeline.

At Semenivka, using the same tactics, 30th Motor Rifle Brigade and the militia 114th Motor Rifle Brigade attacked from Orlivka.  By sheer persistence, Russian forces reached the centre of Semenivka by the last week of April and hoisted a red Soviet Union flag to prove it.

Mid to late April: Ukrainian defence line outflanked in the north

On 17 April, Ukrainian forces suffered a major setback.  As a consequence of a poorly executed rotation, Russian troops were able to advance 3.5 kilometres to Ocheretyne following the line of the railway.  The Russians appeared to be as surprised as the Ukrainians. The implications were serious. The Durna river line had been outflanked in the north, imperilling units further south.

In the immediate aftermath, 115th Mechanised Brigade was blamed.5  However, the events remain surrounded with controversy.  Poor coordination between three units in the area, reporting to different higher commands, may have been a factor (the territorial 59th Battalion in Ocheretyne; 45th Assault Battalion in Novobakhmutivka; and 115th Mechanised Brigade north of the railway).  The rail line may have acted as an inter-unit boundary that no unit properly covered. For its part, 115th Mechanised Brigade asserted it held the line from Ocheretyne to Keramik – despite intense Russian bombardments – then handed over to 100th Mechanised Brigade.

The Russians quickly reinforced the success.  Elements from as many as six brigades entered the salient like a rush of air filling a vacuum (see map below).6 Novobakhmutivka and Soloviove to the south were captured on 25 April by Arbat special forces7 supported by 15th Motor Rifle Brigade.  Novokalynove, Keramik and Arkanhelske to the north were assaulted by militia and Russian army troops.  Ukrainian forces redeployed 30th and 100th Mechanised Brigades to Ocheretyne to block further Russian advances. The territorial 100 TrO deployed to Soloviove, too late to stop the Russians claiming the settlement. The intensity of the fighting was unrelenting: by way of example, on 29 April the Ukrainian MOD reported 55 Russian attacks in the areas of Novokalynove, Keramik, Arkhanhelske, Umanske, Sokil, Ocheretyne, Kalynove, Soloviove, Novopokrovske, Novoselivka Pervaya, and west of Semenivka – or across the entire frontage.

Faced with the threat of being outflanked and surrounded, Ukrainian forces had little choice but to withdraw from Berdychi and Semenivka to new defensive lines (prompting Defence Minister Shoigu to remark of the former settlement – once home to 260-odd families and now totally erased from the map – that it had been ‘liberated’ from ‘neo-Nazi evil spirits’).  Thus, in just over a week, Ukrainian defensive position anchoring the northern sector of the Durna River had collapsed.  Within two weeks, seven settlements had been surrendered. In a remarkable story of endurance, a 98-year old babusya (‘grandmother’) and WW2 survivor living in Ocheretyne walked to Ukrainian lines using two sticks for support. It took her all day without food or water to cover around ten kilometres, ‘falling asleep’ at various points, before she was found and rescued.8 Her home had been hit by a shell and she had nowhere to stay.

Situation at the beginning of the Orthodox Easter

Having secured Height 245 at Ocheretyne, Russian forces, with 27 Motor Rifle Brigade reportedly in the vanguard, pushed on a further two kilometres towards Novoaleksandrovka. To the east, Novokalynove and Arkanhelske were reported captured, the former by the militia ‘Lavinia’ Battalion, 132nd Motor Rifle Brigade.  In these areas, the Ukrainian 23rd Mechanised Brigade was forced to withdraw following heavy bombardments. More reinforcements began to arrive on the Ukrainian side: elements from 56th Motor Rifle Brigade, 24th Mechanised Brigade, 13th Jaeger (Mountain) Brigade, 467th Separate Infantry Battalion, and 109th Territorial Defence Brigade. In the south, 53rd Mechanised Brigade reinforced the paratroopers defending Umankse. In this area alone, satellite imagery shows 77 destroyed or abandoned Russian armoured vehicles. Local counter-attacks were mounted.  FPV drones and cluster shells proved effective against gatherings of Russian troops, including trucks transporting more infantry to the front lines. In turn, the Russians resorted to attacking on buggies and motorcycles (with unhappy results). In a novel development, machineguns mounted on quadcopters were used to strafe the Russian infantry. In another instance, HIMARS was used to strike a command post, killing the brigade commander.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian forces had been exposed.  The lack of a divisional level of command is a particular weakness. Brigades fight their own battles.  A weak or uncooperative formation (3rd Separate Mechanised Brigade is portrayed as ‘independent’) can undermine the defence line.  This has been an unfortunate feature of the Ukrainian Army since 2014. Brittle morale may also be playing a role.

Concluding thoughts

The war grinds on. The basic Russian tactic has not varied in months.  What are essentially forlorn hope parties (squad-sized suicide units) rush the Ukrainian defence line with the aim of grabbing a treeline, building, or other defensible feature. Documents found on some dead by 47th Mechanised Brigade show the soldiers had only been mobilised eight days previously. Survivors entrench and wait for reinforcement.  Gradually this ‘grey zone’ is expanded and consolidated as more infantry are infiltrated to the newly-secured positions. Daily pounding by glide bombs, rockets and artillery wear down and demoralise defenders. So the front line advances, by field lengths and by streets, over weeks.  The cost in lives and materiel is heavy but the Russians are heedless of both.

Ukrainian tactics are also unchanged. Formations grimly defend blasted settlements, using basements as shelters, and do their best to repulse Russian attacks with drones, artillery, and mines.  One weak unit can compromise a defensive line. The temptation to retreat is always present. Once Russian troops secure a toehold in a settlement, Ukrainian withdrawal is not long in coming. A war cannot be won defensively ceding ground. Retreat can become rout. Ukrainians must find the will, belief and troops to attack.

Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer.  He was a regular contributor and book reviewer forBritish Army Review.  He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Footnotes

  1. The pipe was 1.3-1.4 meters high and dry since 2021.
  2. A total of 16 units and formations have been reported on this front including 9th Motor Rifle Brigade (1st Donetsk People’s Republic [DNR] Army Corps [AC]), 30th Motor Rifle Brigade (2nd CAA, CVO), 15th Motor Rifle Brigade (2nd CAA, Central Military District [CVO]), 1st Motor Rifle Brigade (1st DNR AC),  428th Motor Rifle Regiment(1st DNR AC),  6th Tank Regiment ( 90th Tank Division, 41st CAA, CVO), 110th Motorized Rifle Brigade (1st DNR AC), 114th Motorized Rifle Brigade (1st DNR AC), 35th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade (41st CAA) Central Military District [CVO]), 132nd Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade (1st DNR AC); 74th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade (41st CAA); 27th Motorized Rifle Division (2nd CAA), 105th Motor Rifle Regiment (1st DNR AC), 433 Motor Rifle Regiment, Don Cossacks; elements of the ‘Arbat’ Spetsnaz Battalion, ‘Vega’ Spetsnaz detachment (24th Guards Spetsnaz Brigade), and other elements of 24th Spetsnaz Brigade
  3. A Russian estimate of Ukrainian strength is 5,000-8,000.  If this is accurate, Russian strength would likely be 2-3 times higher.
  4. When Ukrainian forces reportedly destroyed or damaged around 50 Russian tanks and over 100 armoured vehicles of various types on 19-20 October.
  5. 115th Mechanised Brigade entered the line at the end of March, relieving 23rd Mechanised Brigade.  It therefore had only been in position roughly two weeks before the Russian attack.
  6. Elements from as many as nine brigades were eventually reported, including two DNR formations: 105th MR Bde and 132nd MR Bde.
  7. Arbat are believed to be ex-Wagner fighters now serving with 1 (DNR) Army Corps.  They are drone, EW and assault specialists.
  8. Her name was Lidia Stepanivna.  She is one of millions of Ukrainians who have now been ‘liberated’ from their lives by the Russians.

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