Ukraine Has Two Specialized Assault Brigades. It Sent One To Avdiivka To Cover The Garrison’s Retreat.

For two years since Russia widened its war on Ukraine, the Ukrainian army’s 110th Mechanized Brigade defended Avdiivka, a Ukrainian stronghold just northwest of Russian-occupied Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

In recent days, however, the survivors of the 2,000-person brigade finally retreated west, escaping a gradual Russian encirclement of the ruined city, which once was home to 30,000 people and significant heavy industry.

The weary 110th Brigade pulled out of Avdiivka under the thundering guns of one of Ukraine’s best brigades, the 3rd Assault Brigade. There are just two such brigades in Kyiv’s army—the 3rd and 5th—and, as their name implies, they train to assault. That is, to attack.

But in Avdiivka, the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainians are on the defense.

A desperate shortage of artillery ammunition—the direct result of Russia-aligned Republicans in the U.S. Congress blocking U.S. aid to Ukraine starting last fall—means a handful of Ukrainian brigades in and around Avdiivka barely have held off a Russian force with perhaps a dozen brigades.

In deploying an assault brigade into a defensive campaign, Ukraine’s eastern command is putting into practice an “active defense” strategy. That is, a flexible, mobile and aggressive defense.

The 3rd Assault Brigade’s active-defense tactics were starkly on display soon after the unit deployed into the industrial coke plant northwest of Avdiivka’s city center, sometime in the last week or so.

A gunner in an American-made MaxxPro armored truck recorded video from his helmet-mounted camera, capturing the truck speeding along roads in the coke plant—and the gunner blasting away with his M-2 heavy machine gun.

The brigade’s obvious aim is to hold the coke plant, potentially as the northern anchor of a new, less exposed front line for a rebuilt Ukrainian garrison in western Avdiivka.

The brigade’s methods include moving quickly in, and firing fast from, nimble armored trucks. In the gunner’s video, a Russian mortar or artillery shell explodes nearby, underscoring just how risky the 3rd Brigade’s tactics can be for its volunteer fighters.

“Ukraine compensates for a lack of shells with, first of all, first-person-view drones and with, of course, their lives,” Ukrainian analyst Mykola Bielieskov said in a recent podcast.

An active defense might help to keep the Russians off-balance, buy time for the 110th Brigade fully to withdraw from eastern Avdiivka and set conditions for a new Ukrainian defensive campaign that lets go of the most vulnerable parts of the city.

But if Ukrainian commanders indulge their anger at being abandoned by their American allies, and try to launch a serious counterattack in Avdiivka, they could lead the 3rd Assault Brigade to disaster.

“Fighting for the initiative makes little sense if there are no resources to exploit it,” wrote Michael Kofman, a Russia expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“In theory, localized offensives maintain pressure on Russian forces, limiting their freedom of action,” Kofman added, “but in practice, they could impede rebuilding the combat power of the Ukrainian military.”

All that is to say, the survivors of the battered 110th Brigade surely are grateful for the 3rd Brigade’s aggressive tactics as they retreat from eastern Avdiivka under the assault brigade’s covering fire.

But they also should hope commanders don’t push their luck—and order the 3rd Assault Brigade to advance. Ukraine needs the 3rd Brigade. It can’t afford to waste it fighting for half of a ruined city that Ukrainian forces simply can’t hold.

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