UKRAINE’S M-2 FIGHTING VEHICLES ARE SHOWING HOW RUSSIA LOSES—AND UKRAINE WINS
Dec 30, 2023
On Oct. 10, elements of two Russian field armies—together possessing 40,000 troops and thousands of vehicles—attacked the Ukrainian garrison in Avdiivka, just northwest of Russian-occupied Donetsk in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
It was the first and main attack of Russia’s third annual winter offensive in its 22-month wider war on Ukraine. And it failed.
More accurately, it has been failing. The Russian operation around Avdiivka is ongoing. But after advancing a short distance—a mile or so—north and south of the city last month, the Russian 2nd and 41st Combined Arms Armies at best have stalled. Some analysts believe they actually are losing ground around the village of Stepove on Avdiivka’s northern flank.
It’s no secret that Moscow’s new strategy is to outlast Kyiv—to win a war of attrition. But the Russians can’t win a war of attrition if they continue to lose many more vehicles and troops than the Ukrainians lose.
In that context, the battle for Avdiivka has been a disaster for Russia. It’s exactly the kind of fight the Kremlin can’t afford if its goal is to grind away Ukraine’s military strength. Around Avdiivka, it’s the Russians who are getting ground down.
The numbers tell the story. The Russian field armies have lost at least 411 tanks, fighting vehicles and artillery pieces trying, and failing, to capture Avdiivka. The Ukrainian brigades garrisoning Avdiivka—including the 110th, 57th and 47th Mechanized and the 1st Tank—have lost just 30 pieces of heavy equipment.
Russian casualties—dead and maimed—exceed 13,000 in just this one sector. Ukraine’s own casualties likely have been much lighter. Perhaps a few thousand.
Yes, the Russian army in Ukraine—at least 400,000 strong—is larger than Ukraine’s own front-line force is. Yes, Russia can mobilize many more replacement troops than Ukraine can mobilize. Yes, Russian industry out-produces Ukrainian industry.
No, Russia’s resources are not limitless.
This is apparent in Avdiivka, where the Russians repeatedly have switched up tactics in order to preserve one portion of their force or another. In October, Russian attacks around Avdiivka were heavily mechanized, with tanks and fighting vehicles leading the way.
When the tanks and fighting vehicles ran afoul of Ukrainian mines, drones and artillery, Russian commanders pulled back their remaining vehicles—and sent in the infantry, on foot. When the
infantry got massacred, the Russians deployed more explosives-laden drones in an effort to sever Ukrainian forces’ supply lines.
That didn’t work, either. Yesterday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky himself safely traveled to Avdiivka—and shot a selfie within view of the front line.
The most recent Russian attacks on Avdiivka have included tanks and infantry. But in the most critical northern part of the battlefield, in and around Stepove, the conditions—for the Russians—are unforgiving.
It’s there in Stepove that the Ukrainian 47th Brigade, with its mix of American-made M-2 Bradley fighting vehicles and German-made Leopard 2 tanks, is killing Russians by the truckload.
To the east, Stepove abuts east-west treelines and a north-south railway. “Ukraine is using the railroad treelines to isolate Stepove from the rest of the battlefield,” analyst Donald Hill wrote in fellow analyst Tom Cooper’s newsletter.
“As Russian troops and vehicles move out from [neighboring] Krasnohorivka across the open fields, Ukrainian artillery and drones reduce their numbers,” Hill explained. “They remain under fire until the assault loses momentum and stops. Ukraine then counterattacks, sometimes with Leopards—and often with Bradleys raking the treelines with 25-millimeter cannon fire. Bradleys also transport small assault teams that clear out Russian stragglers from time to time. Once Stepove and the treelines by the railroad are clear, or mostly clear, of Russian troops, Ukraine pulls back to their functional defensive positions and waits for the next Russian attack.”
“Constantly pushing the Russians back helps preserve the defensive positions Ukraine currently occupies,” Hill explained. “This tactic is much easier for the 47th Brigade to use because of the firepower of the Bradley, which can engage Russian armor and has done so, and its cannon fire is very effective against Russian infantry even when they are in cover.”
“The 30-ton, 11-person M-2 with its side-mounted reactive armor effectively resists Russian rocket-propelled grenades. This not only keeps the crew alive, it gives them the confidence to aggressively attack the Russians, which makes a huge difference,” Hill wrote.
The 47th Brigade got all 190 M-2s that the United States pledged to the Ukrainian war effort early this year. The brigade has lost at least 30 M-2s. But it needs just a hundred of the vehicles fully to equip its battalions.
All that is to say, the 47th Brigade isn’t hurting for firepower. And it’s found the perfect place to use it: Avdiivka. More specifically, Stepove. The Russians keep sending men and vehicles for the M-2 crews to chop to pieces.
This is not a winning strategy for Russia. The Kremlin can build, and restore from long-term storage, at most 1,500 tanks and a couple thousand fighting vehicles a year.
Taking into account the need to backfill losses from 2022, Russian forces can afford to lose at most 50 tanks a month without depleting their overall armor holdings. The Avdiivka fight lately has pushed the Russians’ armor losses well above sustainable levels.
The Kremlin drafted 300,000 fresh troops this year but, amid protests and labor-shortages, hasn’t yet begun a second mobilization.
Extreme losses—at least 355,000 killed or severely wounded in 22 months—have contributed to what the RAND Corporation, a California think-tank, described as a “ticking social time-bomb” in Russia, a country with just 143 million people.
Ukraine, a country with 44 million people, also has lost a lot of soldiers: at least 70,000 killed and several times that number wounded. But in recent months the loss ratio—Russian losses compared to Ukrainian losses—greatly has favored Ukraine. Around Avdiivka, it might be 10 to one as those M-2 crews go about their bloody work.
Say what you will about Russia’s material and manpower advantages and Russian society’s appetite for a cruel war of choice. Russia cannot sustain the kinds of losses it has experienced in the battle for Avdiivka. Not over the long term.
And to be clear, Russia is counting on staying in the war for the long term. That’s its whole plan for victory. A plan that a few battalions of Ukrainian fighting vehicles have exposed as a farce.