In mid-August, as Ukrainian brigades broke through Russian lines in Verbove, a key strongpoint on the road to Melitopol in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine, the Kremlin panicked.
It deployed, from eastern Ukraine to southern Ukraine, its last uncommitted elite division, the 76th Guard Air Assault Division.
But that deployment left Russian forces in the east without a good mobile reserve. And that helps to explain how, on or just before Friday, the Ukrainians liberated Andriivka, a key settlement anchoring the supply lines into Russian-occupied Bakhmut.
Ukrainian commanders forced Russian commanders to make a hard choice—and then exploited that choice. It’s consistent with the strategic trend. “The Ukrainian general staff is running rings around the Russian general staff,” noted Ben Hodges, a retired U.S. Army general.
The Ukrainian army’s elite 3rd Assault Brigade led the attack on the Russian army’s 72nd Motor Rifle Brigade in Andriivka. The 3rd Brigade surrounded the settlement, then pushed into and through its ruins. On Friday, the Ukrainian brigade posted a video announcing Andriivka’s liberation.
“As a result of a lightning operation, the Russian garrison of Andriivka was surrounded, cut off from the main forces and destroyed,” the 3rd Assault Brigade stated.
“The unwelcome ‘guests’ in Andriivka are being removed by the 3rd Assault Brigade,” the Ukrainian defense ministry joked.
In two days of hard fighting, the 3rd Assault Brigade claimed it killed the chief of intelligence of the 72nd MRB, many of the Russian brigade’s officers “and almost all the infantry.” Russian casualties—dead, wounded and captured—could number a thousand or more.
The fighting was brutal, and the 3rd Assault Brigade’s own casualties were significant. “We pay a high price for the results of these battles,” the brigade stated.
The battle’s cruelty was most evident in its final hours, as Ukrainian troops swept the ruins of Andriivka. A Ukrainian drone broadcast an invitation for Russian survivors to surrender. In at least one case, Russian artillery exploded among the Ukrainians and their Russian prisoners.
Andriivka’s liberation puts the squeeze on the Russian garrison in Bakhmut, five miles to the north. “The capture and holding of Andriivka is our way to a break through on the right flank of Bakhmut, and the key to the success of all further offensives,” the 3rd Assault Brigade stated.
Worse for the Russians, they now are down a whole brigade—and no longer have a division in reserve to make good that loss. If the Kremlin were to shift the 76th GAAD back to the east, it would only weaken Russian positions in the south.
In moving their reserve division to the south, the Russians accepted risk in the east. It was a gamble. One that paid off … for the Ukrainians.