For nearly a decade, the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka has been at the center of armed conflict. Situated in Donetsk oblast, it sat along the front lines between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists since 2014. In 2017, it was the site of one of the largest battles of the period before Russia’s large-scale 2022 invasion. Since that invasion, Russian forces have fought to seize control of the city. In March 2023, Ukrainian forces warned that is could become a “second Bakhmut.” Assaults intensified through the fall of last year, and last month, the Ukrainian military’s commander-in-chief, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, ordered the complete withdrawal of all Ukrainian forces in Avdiivka.

The battle for the small city, consisting of a prewar population of thirty-two thousand people, holds a number of important lessons on the conduct of modern war. But the most recent lessons from the city are among the most important. Syrskyi’s decision to conduct a retrograde was an enormous one. The capture of Avdiivka could serve as a significant propaganda victory for Russia and may make the city a base for future Russian offensive operations. But it also preserved important combat power. The withdrawal of Ukrainian defenders serves as a textbook example for the US Army of the challenges, requirements, and risk mitigation considerations involved in successful execution of such an operation.

Withdrawing from Avdiivka

Although reporting is still emerging regarding its final stages, the Battle Avdiivka provides an important case study of a withdrawal under pressure. After months of stiff resistance, the vast commitment of Russian resources and manpower—with reports of nearly fifteen thousand assault troops that included special operations and airborne personnel—was overwhelming Ukrainian defensive positions and threatening ground lines of communication. Logistical limitations, specifically the difficulty of adequately resupplying artillery and air defense munitions, hampered effective defensive efforts. The Institute for the Study of War highlighted how Russia capitalized on these vulnerabilities by establishing limited and localized air superiority over the city, which enabled routine usage of glide bombs on Ukrainian positions. Entering February, the possibility of a complete encirclement of Ukrainian defenders required a decision from Syrskyi to withdraw to “to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of service personnel.”

The first challenge facing those organizing the withdrawal was task-organizing Ukrainian forces appropriately to execute this operation. In early February, the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade was deployed to Avdiivka to act as the security force to enable the 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade’s retrograde by engaging with Russian forces on several axes. Fierce fighting continued for days as Ukrainian forces fell back to new defensive lines. Russian sources claimed a vast encirclement had enabled Russian forces to capture hundreds of Ukrainian troops due to a chaotic retreat, but the claims have thus far lacked concrete evidence. Ukrainian reporting and available imagery largely indicate a successful withdrawal, although there are possible indications of the capture of wounded personnel. Withdrawal from the completely encircled “Zenit” position in the southeastern outskirts of Avdiivka was a particularly difficult affair for Ukrainian forces, with witness reporting of a disorganized nighttime movement under attack from Russian artillery, direct fire, unmanned aerial vehicles, and loitering munitions.

Despite the challenges, the operational intent set by Syrskyi to preserve combat power by saving Ukrainian service members’ lives was met. Most defenders reached newly established positions and are prepared for future operations. One cannot underestimate the psychological toll of the decision to withdraw. The 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade had defended Avdiivka for nearly two years, demonstrating immense sacrifice and experiencing untold suffering to hold this piece of Ukraine. And this account—both the challenges Ukrainian forces encountered and the overall successful accomplishment of Syrskyi’s intent—demonstrates the clear obstacles that a withdrawal under pressure poses.

Lessons for the US Army

The strategic impact of withdrawing from Avdiivka in relation to the overall outcome of the war is far too early to tell. However, the battle provides initial lessons for the US Army. Field Manual 3-0, Operations defines retrograde as a “type of defensive operation that involves the organized movement away from the enemy.” The manual further breaks down retrograde into three variations—delay, withdrawal, and retirement. Looking specifically at withdrawal, chapter 11 of Field Manual 3-90, Tactics provides greater detail on general considerations, organization of forces, control measures, and techniques. It specifies that a withdrawing force consists of a security force, a main body, and a reserve. One of the manual’s key highlights is that withdrawals are “inherently dangerous because they involve moving units to the rear and away from an enemy force.” In short, a withdrawal under enemy pressure can be one of the most dangerous operations a unit might be required to execute on the modern battlefield. Given the danger and complexity involved, important efforts have been made to extract lessons from historical cases of retrograde operations. But we can—and should—seek to do the same from reports of contemporary cases, like Avdiivka. Two lessons, in particular, stand out.

The first lesson from Avdiivka centers on effective planning. Before finalizing the decision to an execute a withdrawal, units involved need to organize their forces, establish control measures, and ensure mechanisms to maintain operational security throughout. Timely and deliberate coordination between subordinate and adjacent units is critical to preserve combat power over the operation’s duration. In Avdiivka, the challenge of coordination was compounded by the entry of a new unit, the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, in early February to serve as the security force enabling the withdrawal of the 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade that had long defended the city. Primary and alternate routes need to be established, as does the timing of their use, recognition signals, and methods of communication. For example, if an element of the withdrawing force’s main body begins its movement before the security force is in position to effectively support, it may be preemptively engaged and destroyed during this period of vulnerability. Potentially most challenging, medical evacuation procedures must be addressed in detail, to include designated vehicles, routes, and link-up points. Based on available time and enemy action, the ability to evacuate all casualties may not be possible, which is reported to have been the case in at least one Ukrainian position in Avdiivka. If time is available, detailed rehearsals at echelon should occur. Like most rehearsals, final gaps in the plan can be identified and mitigated, while also building shared understanding at all levels. The sheer multitude of planning considerations in a dynamic situation that can deteriorate rapidly presents a major problem set for a commander and his or her staff to overcome.

The second major lesson from Avdiivka emphasizes the proper prioritization and allocation of key enablers and weapon systems. The assigned security force must be able to maintain contact with the enemy until ordered to disengage to enable the main body movement away from enemy forces. To accomplish this task, in which the security force is potentially outnumbered or outgunned, it will need prioritization from higher echelons for key enablers and weapons systems, such as air defense, fuel depots, and counterbattery radar. In the final weeks of the Battle of Avdiivka, major shortages of Ukrainian artillery ammunition led to leaders to prioritize it for high-value targets, with small unmanned aerial vehicles used to strike targets of lower priority, such as infantry formations. Despite resource shortfalls, Ukrainian military leaders were able to adjust prioritization of key weapon systems to maintain indirect fire effects that effectively enabled friendly movement and maneuver. For the withdrawing force’s main body, which will likely be exposed during its movement to the new defensive line, the most important resources to prioritize are protection assets, especially portable air defense systems to mitigate enemy unmanned aerial vehicles and whatever close air support aircraft and helicopters are available. The withdrawal force may even require mobility assets, as the enemy may launch scatterable mines on likely routes that lead to the new defensive line. Without allocation of key enablers to both the main body of the withdrawing force and the security force, the operation may not achieve the conditions necessary for the withdrawal, compromising the entire mission.

The Battle of Avdiivka will certainly be studied for decades to come to come with a plethora of lessons for military professionals. Among the most immediately apparent are those that relate to the challenges of withdrawing forces—but also of the imperative of being able to do so when battlefield conditions require it. After all, the loss of Avdiivka after its resolute defense for so long is surely a bitter pill to swallow, but the Ukrainian withdrawal’s successful execution preserves experienced manpower and meaningful military capacity that can be brought to bear in the future. Two of the most critical components to that operation were effective planning and the proper allocation of key enablers—lessons the US Army should be learning now. A withdrawal does not intrinsically mean a defeat, but failing to train, plan, and resource a withdrawal could result in one.

Ryan N. Forte is a senior military intelligence captain assigned to Fort Liberty, North Carolina, with experiences at the company, battalion, brigade, and task force level.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

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