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ISW explains why Russia lies about "active defence" of Avdiivka

Saturday, 2 December 2023, 05:18
ISW explains why Russia lies about active defence of Avdiivka

Experts at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) have stated that the Russian military leadership is talking about the "active defence" of Avdiivka to hide "the lack of any major Russian progress around Avdivka" and to explain the inability of the Russians to "translate tactical gains into operationally significant advances."

Source: ISW

Details: Analysts note that Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu is continuing to distort the characterisation of Russian offensive actions in Ukraine as part of "active defence" to lower expectations of the Russian military's ability to achieve operationally important goals.


Shoigu said on 1 December during a conference call with the Russian military leadership that Russian troops were conducting "active defence" in Ukraine and were seizing more advantageous positions on every operational front.

Experts say that the Russian minister noted those brigades that are likely to be operating in areas where Russian troops are conducting offensive operations in the east of Ukraine, rather than defending against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

Shoigu and Putin have previously referred to Russian offensive operations to capture Avdiivka as "active defence" after the first Russian mechanised offensive failed to achieve significant tactical gains in early October 2023.

Since the beginning of October 2023, Russian forces have launched two subsequent large-scale offensives to capture Avdiivka and are continuing to attack the town at a high rate using exhausted infantry.

The review emphasises: "Russian officials’ characterisation of these offensives as being part of an ‘active defence’ are intentionally misleading."

Ukrainian forces have never conducted large-scale offensive operations in the area of Avdiivka since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and Avdiivka has been a known static Ukrainian defensive position since 2014.

Despite this, the Russian leadership continues to present the operations falsely around Avdiivka as "active defence", which likely explains the lack of any significant Russian progress around Avdiivka, despite more than two months of large-scale Russian attacks.

Experts say that the Russian military command would have to pursue a clearly defined operational goal if it recognised the operations to capture Avdiivka as an offensive.

This means that "active defence" allows the Russian military leadership to claim success as long as Russian forces do not allow Ukrainian forces to make significant gains, which is an entirely achievable goal, given that Ukrainian forces are not conducting and have never conducted counteroffensive operations in the area.

The "defensive" framing by the Russian command of offensive actions around Avdiivka, as well as local offensive operations in other places in eastern Ukraine, shows that it is not confident in the ability of the Russian military to transform tactical achievements into operationally significant successes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned about declining Russian support for the war ahead of the 2024 presidential election, so he has likely decided to downplay the extent of Russian operations to the Russian public.

"The increasing disconnect between heavy Russian losses in these offensive efforts and the Russian command’s framing of these operations may nevertheless fuel discontent in the wider Russian information space," the review concludes.

To quote ISW’s Key Takeaways on 1 December:

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi signalled intent to increase Ukrainian defences and fortifications around the Ukrainian theatre, but notably did not include Zaporizhzhia Oblast in discussions of ongoing and future defensive measures.
  • Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu continues to falsely characterise Russian offensive efforts in Ukraine as part of an "active defence" in an effort to temper expectations about the Russian military’s ability to achieve operationally significant objectives.
  • Ukrainian intelligence reportedly damaged another train along a section of the Baikal-Amur Railway on 1 December in an apparent effort to degrade Russian logistics in the Russian Far East.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin officially changed the composition of the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) on 1 December, removing several members and appointing a prominent anti-opposition media figure.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that a second group of Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip arrived in Chechnya on 1 December, possibly partially funded by his daughter’s "Children of Chechnya – Children of Palestine" organisation.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that the Russian Ministry of Defence’s disproportionate allocation of drones among frontline units and poorly executed grassroots drone production campaigns are impacting frontline unit effectiveness.
  • Russian sources complained that Russian soldiers' continued use of personal electronics and messaging apps in frontline areas is jeopardising Russian operational security (OPSEC).
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupiansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, and in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast and advanced in some areas.
  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev claimed on 1 December that the Russian military has recruited over 452,000 personnel between 1 January and 1 December 2023.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to set conditions for the deportation of Ukrainians to Russia under various vacation schemes.

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