February 20, 2024

Institute for the Study of War: Russian casualties in Avdiivka estimated at between 16,000 and 47,000

Institute for the Study of War

Ukraine has been defending itself against illegal Russian military intervention and aggression for 10 years.[1] Russia violated its commitments to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and began its now decade-long military intervention in Ukraine on February 20, 2014 when Russian soldiers without identifying insignia (also known colloquially as “little green men” and, under international law, as illegal combatants), deployed to Crimea.[2] The deployment of these Russian soldiers out of uniform followed months of protests in Ukraine against pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych for refusing to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU) that the Ukrainian Rada had approved.[3] The Yanukovych government killed and otherwise abused peaceful Ukrainian protestors, leading to an organized protest movement calling for Yanukovych’s resignation. This Ukrainian movement — the Euromaidan Movement — culminated in Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity during which the Rada voted to oust Yanukovych who then fled to Russia with the Kremlin’s aid. Russian President Vladimir Putin viewed these events as intolerable and launched a hybrid war against Ukraine as the Euromaidan Movement was still underway with the goal of reestablishing Russian control over all of Ukraine.  Russia’s military intervention in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 violated numerous Russian international commitments to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Russia’s recognition of Ukraine as an independent state in 1991 and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia specifically committed not to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty or territorial integrity.[4]

Russia’s grand strategic objective of regaining control of Ukraine has remained unchanged in the decade since its illegal intervention in Ukraine began. Russia’s overarching strategic objective in Ukraine, as first manifested in the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the Donbas, has been and remains the destruction of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the re-establishment of a pro-Russian Ukrainian government subservient to Moscow’s direction. Russia began immediate efforts to dismantle and eradicate Ukrainian identity in Crimea, consolidate its military presence on the peninsula, and forcibly integrate Crimea into the Russian Federation along multiple avenues, all while promoting a parallel political subversion campaign to destroy Ukraine’s ability to resist dominant Russian influence.[5] 

Russia worked hard to obfuscate its grand strategic objectives of regaining control of Ukraine between 2014 and the start of the full-scale invasion in 2022. The Kremlin successfully employed disinformation to obfuscate Russia’s objectives in Ukraine for many Western leaders. Putin learned valuable lessons from the way the West responded to Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine and tailored Russia’s information operations to mask his grand strategic intent towards Ukraine in the years leading up to the 2022 full-scale invasion. Putin succeeded in convincing many Western leaders that Russia had limited objectives in Ukraine: that Moscow only sought control over Crimea, or that Russia sought only to occupy parts of eastern Ukraine, for example.[6] Russia also obfuscated its true intentions in Ukraine by promulgating the lie that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were aimed at preventing NATO expansion. The Euromaidan Movement and the Revolution of Dignity were never about NATO — they were about Ukraine’s desire to associate with the EU. In the years between 2014 and 2022, however, Russia managed to pollute the global information space with the fallacy that pro-NATO policies in Ukraine forced Russia’s hand. While the mechanisms Russia uses to cloak its intentions in Ukraine have adapted and evolved in the past decade, Russia’s grand strategic objectives of controlling Ukraine and denying Ukrainians their right to choose their own future have persisted and likely will not change until Russia is defeated.  The Kremlin continues information operations to persuade Western audiences and leaders that Russia has limited objectives in Ukraine in order to fuel calls for negotiations on terms that would destroy Ukraine’s independence and damage the West.

Russian military intelligence is reportedly learning from its failures in recent years and has renewed efforts against NATO states.[7] The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) published a report on February 20 arguing that Russian special services aim to expand their capacity in several ways that pose strategic threats to NATO members, including rebuilding their recruitment, training, and support apparatus to better infiltrate European countries; adopting the Wagner Group’s former functions and pursuing aggressive partnerships with African countries to supplant Western partnerships; and using Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov to significantly expand Russian influence among Chechen and Muslim populations in Europe and the Middle East to ultimately subvert Western interests.[8] RUSI noted that Russian intelligence services have suffered a slew of intelligence failures in the past several years, including the Russian Federal Security Service’s (FSB) botched poisoning of now-deceased opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the FSB’s overconfident assessment of Russian military capabilities ahead of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the mass expulsion of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) operatives from embassies across the globe, and Bellingcat’s exposure of the Russian Main Military Intelligence Directorate’s (GRU) Unit 29155’s failed poisoning of defected Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.[9] RUSI noted that the GRU reformed Unit 29155 and formed a “Service for Special Activities” to increase operational security and data security and is beginning to recruit individuals with no military experience to make it harder for the West to identify them.[10] RUSI reported that Russian Presidential Administration Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko is in charge of creating “special committees” to run information operations against the West, an assessment that is consistent with previous reporting from the Washington Post about purported Kremlin documents outlining Kiriyenko’s roll in wide-scale disinformation campaigns.[11]

The Ukrainian Center for Combating Disinformation similarly reported on February 20 that Russian special services have significantly increased their operations in NATO member states and Ukraine as part of large-scale disinformation efforts aimed at demoralizing the Ukrainian military.[12] Estonian Security Police, for example, reported that Estonian security services have detained 10 people for participating in alleged Russian special services activity in Estonia between December 2023 and February 2024.[13] Such subversive control tactics likely support the Kremlin’s near- and medium-term goals of spoiling Western military assistance to Ukraine and rebuilding intelligence capacities in support of long-term objectives against NATO states.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu preened themselves on the Russian seizure of Avdiivka. Shoigu briefed Putin about the seizure of Avdiivka and the wider Russian war effort in Ukraine in a February 20 meeting during which Putin and Shoigu both amplified an information operation that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) began on February 19 that aims to sow resentment and distrust against the Ukrainian command for an allegedly chaotic Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka.[14] Shoigu used the briefing and a subsequent interview with Kremlin newswire TASS to portray the five month long attritional Russian offensive operation to seize Avdiivka as an astounding success with minimal losses, despite the fact that Ukrainian and Russian estimates place Russian losses in the fight for Avdiivka between 16,000 and 47,000.[15] Shoigu argued that the Russian operation to seize Avdiivka was an operational success because Ukrainian forces had long fortified the settlement, but Shoigu did not claim that the seizure of the settlement would provide any specific operational benefits — as he recently claimed about the Russian seizure of other small settlements in Donetsk Oblast.[16] Shoigu also claimed that Russian forces conducted up to 450 high-precision airstrikes per day during the last days of the Russian effort to seize Avdiivka.[17] ISW assesses that Russian forces likely established temporary limited and localized air superiority during this time, and Shoigu is likely attempting to portray this temporary period as a persisting Russian capability.[18] Putin’s and Shoigu’s attempts to establish the seizure of Avdiivka as a major battlefield victory within the Russian information space likely aim to portray the Russian war effort in Ukraine as increasingly successful and portray Putin as a competent wartime president ahead of his assured reelection in March 2024.[19] The Kremlin’s efforts to highlight Russian success in Avdiivka also mutually supports increasing Russian efforts to use the seizure of the settlement to generate panic in the Ukrainian information space and weaken Ukrainian morale.[20]

Shoigu also claimed that Russian forces completely seized Krynky in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast, although available open-source visual evidence and Ukrainian and Russian reporting suggests that Ukrainian forces maintain their limited bridgehead in the area. Shoigu claimed during his briefing with Putin that Russian forces cleared Krynky, although Putin claimed that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) and “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky told him that a handful of Ukrainian personnel remained in the settlement.[21] Shoigu refuted Teplinsky’s claim and portrayed Russian efforts to eliminate the bridgehead as a successfully completed effort and praised unspecified VDV elements and the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade as distinguished units for their role in the operation, a typical Kremlin accolade following the Russian seizure of a tactical objective.[22] ISW has not observed any visual evidence of recent notable Russian advances near the limited Ukrainian bridgehead in and near Krynky as of the time of this publication, and Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Colonel Nataliya Humenyuk reported that Ukrainian forces continue to gradually expand their bridgehead in the area.[23] Russian milbloggers claimed that regular positional fighting continued near Krynky on February 19 and 20 and did not note any Russian success in the area.[24]

The Kremlin likely prematurely claimed the Russian seizure of Krynky to reinforce its desired informational effects ahead of the March 2024 presidential election, although the Kremlin is likely setting expectations that the Russian military may fail to meet. Humenyuk identified Russian efforts to eliminate the Ukrainian bridgehead as a Russian effort to achieve informational objective ahead of the Russian presidential election, and Shoigu framed the Russian effort in east bank Kherson Oblast as similar to the seizure of Avdiivka.[25] Shoigu claimed that Russian forces have destroyed up to 3,500 Ukrainian personnel in east bank Kherson Oblast since the start of larger-than-usual Ukrainian ground operations in the area in October 2023.[26] Shoigu called the alleged Russian seizure of Krynky the official end of the Summer 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive.[27] The Kremlin notably has delayed acknowledging the Russian seizure of the theater-wide initiative in Ukraine, likely out of potential concerns about Russian capabilities to advance, and Shoigu likely formally announced the “end” of the Ukrainian counteroffensive to publicly highlight that Russia has the initiative.[28] The Kremlin’s willingness to rhetorically address the tempo and initiative of Russian offensive operations in Ukraine may be due to increasing Kremlin confidence about Russian prospects and a conscious effort to support Kremlin narratives about the war as the presidential elections approach. The Kremlin may increasingly claim battlefield victories in Ukraine without full assurances of Russian tactical and operational success to support informational efforts that simultaneously glorify Putin and demoralize Ukraine, although such increasing rhetorical confidence may create expectations in the Russian information space that the Russian military cannot meet. Chechen Akhmat Spetsnaz Commander Apty Alaudinov notably claimed that he expects that Russian forces will successfully complete Putin’s Special Military Operation by September 2024, a forecast that is extremely implausible.[29]

The New York Times (NYT) reported that the Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka may have left hundreds of Ukrainian personnel “unaccounted” for. The NYT reported on February 20, citing two Ukrainian soldiers, that about 850 to 1,000 Ukrainian personnel “appear to have been captured or are unaccounted for” following the Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka.[30] The NYT reported that unspecified senior Western officials stated that the range of apparent Ukrainian personnel losses “seemed accurate.” The NYT reported that some unnamed Western officials stated that Ukrainian forces failed to conduct an orderly withdrawal from Avdiivka on February 16 and 17, which resulted in an apparent “significant number of soldiers captured.” Personnel who are “unaccounted for” include those killed in action, wounded in action, missing in action, and captured. ISW has not yet observed open-source visual evidence of massive Ukrainian personnel losses or the Russian captures of Ukrainian prisoners at such a scale, and the Russian information space customarily displays such evidence when it has it. The lack of open-source evidence does not demonstrate that the NYT’s report is false, however, and ISW continues to monitor the information space for evidence on which to base an assessment of the outcome of the Ukrainian withdrawal. The Kyiv Independent reported on February 20 that some Ukrainian forces conducted a disorderly withdrawal from the Zenit strongpoint south of Avdiivka and experienced high losses.[31] ISW has observed that this Ukrainian position was the only identified tactically encircled position at the time of the Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka.

Ukrainian officials launched an investigation into additional apparent Russian violations of the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war (POWs) in Zaporizhia Oblast.[32] The Ukrainian Prosecutor General stated on February 20 that it launched an investigation into footage published on February 20 showing Russian forces executing three Ukrainian POWs near Robotyne on February 18.[33] The killing of POWs violates Article III of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs.[34] The Ukrainian Prosecutor General previously launched investigations into footage showing a Russian execution of Ukrainian POWs and Russian soldiers using Ukrainian POWs as human shields near Robotyne in December 2023.[35] ISW has recently reported on several such apparent war crimes in Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts.[36]  Russian President Vladimir Putin made a point of remarking on Russia’s treatment of Ukrainian POWs on February 20, claimed that Russia holds POWs in accordance with international conventions, and declared that Russian forces must act in the same way in Avdiivka, likely in an attempt to deflect responsibility for high-profile apparent Russian war crimes away from himself. Putin is likely concerned about international repercussions for his subordinates’ actions.[37] The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March 2023, which has likely impeded his ability to travel internationally, and Putin may have explicitly addressed Ukrainian POWs given recent international attention on Russian atrocities in Ukraine in order to protect himself against another such international legal ruling against him.[38]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukraine has been defending itself against illegal Russian military intervention and aggression for 10 years.
  • Russia’s grand strategic objective of regaining control of Ukraine has remained unchanged in the decade since its illegal intervention in Ukraine began.
  • Russia worked hard to obfuscate its grand strategic objectives of regaining control of Ukraine between 2014 and the start of the full-scale invasion in 2022.
  • Russian military intelligence is reportedly learning from its failures in recent years and has renewed efforts against NATO states.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu preened themselves on the Russian seizure of Avdiivka.
  • Shoigu also claimed that Russian forces completely seized Krynky in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast, although available open-source visual evidence and Ukrainian and Russian reporting suggests that Ukrainian forces maintain their limited bridgehead in the area.
  • The Kremlin likely prematurely claimed the Russian seizure of Krynky to reinforce its desired informational effects ahead of the March 2024 presidential election, although the Kremlin is likely setting expectations that the Russian military may fail to meet.
  • The New York Times (NYT) reported that the Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka may have left hundreds of Ukrainian personnel “unaccounted” for.
  • Ukrainian officials launched an investigation into additional apparent Russian violations of the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war (POWs) in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian forces made a confirmed advance west of Avdiivka amid continued positional engagements along the entire frontline.
  • The Kremlin continues to promote Russia’s efforts to expand its defense industrial base (DIB).
  • Zaporizhia Oblast occupation authorities are expanding public services provision in occupied parts of the oblast to consolidate bureaucratic control and generate dependencies on the occupation administration.
Share the Post: