As the first snows of winter fell across Ukraine this week, the mood seemed to change with the weather. After months of optimism as Ukrainian troops pushed forward, slowly liberating more areas in the south and east of the country, it’s now the Russian army that appears to be on the front foot, escalating attacks along the 1,000-kilometre-long line of contact.
The ferocity of the new Russian offensive has been felt among the Canadian volunteers fighting the invaders. Six Canadians are known to have been killed in action through the first 18 months of the war. Three more have died fighting in just the past 10 days.
Brad Stratford, a Canadian military veteran from North Vancouver, is the most recent addition to the list of those killed by Russian fire. On Friday a source confirmed to The Globe and Mail that Mr. Stratford died several days ago in heavy fighting around Avdiivka, an industrial city in the southeastern Donetsk region. Avdiivka has been almost completely destroyed by an escalating Russian assault that has now surrounded the remaining Ukrainian positions in the centre of the city on three sides.
Brad Stratford, a Canadian volunteer sniper in Ukraine with the callsign "Switchback," has been killed in heavy fighting around Avdiivka. In a video from the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine, he talks about why he wanted to fight.
The Globe and Mail
Mayor Vitaly Barabash told Ukrainian media Thursday that Russian forces were attacking Avdiivka “from all directions” and that there were “massive” artillery hits and air strikes throughout the day. About 1,350 people – of a pre-war population of more than 31,000 – remained in the city, he said.
Avdiivka – which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance – is just one of several places along the front line where the invading forces have at least partly taken back the initiative after a summer and fall Ukrainian counteroffensive that liberated several small villages in southern Ukraine but failed to achieve the major breakthrough many had hoped for.
There are also increasing Russian attacks in the direction of Kupyansk, a key transportation hub in the eastern Kharkiv region that fell under Russian occupation during the first six months of the war but was liberated by Ukrainian troops in September, 2022.
“The current situation on the front line is that we are more on active defence, especially on the eastern front … beginning from the northern point, Kupyansk, to the southern points of Avdiivka and Vuhledar,” said Oleksandr Musiienko, the head of the Kyiv-based Centre for Military and Legal Studies.
The main target in recent weeks has been Avdiivka, which Ukrainian forces have been clinging to since 2014, when Russian proxy forces seized control of the nearby city of Donetsk. On Thursday, Ukrainian military spokesperson Oleksandr Shtupun estimated there were more than 40,000 Russian troops operating near Avdiivka, “mainly motorized rifle units supported by artillery and tanks.”
Volodymyr Dacenko, a columnist for Forbes Ukraine and a former member of a team working to reform the country’s defence industry, says it is now apparent that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed to penetrate the dense Russian network of trenches and minefields in the south of the country. The main fighting has switched back to the eastern front, where he says Russia has amassed some 500,000 fresh conscripts, including convicts freed from prison to join the fight.
But while the thwarted Ukrainian counteroffensive has demonstrated that Russia’s ability to hold captured territory has improved since the start of the war, Moscow’s troops are still using Soviet tactics – hoping to overwhelm Ukrainian positions through numerical superiority alone – when they switch to attack. “We can see that the tactics of the Russian offensive have not changed significantly. Russia lost more than 220 pieces of equipment during several weeks of the offensive on Avdiivka,” Mr. Dacenko said.
Mr. Musiienko agreed that while the Russians have achieved “some tactical successes” around Avdiivka and Kupyansk, Ukrainian forces appear to have inflicted enough losses to thwart any major Russian gains in the area.
Ukraine, meanwhile, achieved a strategic win of its own in recent weeks, establishing several beachheads on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine, across from the city of Kherson. “Until this offensive operation ends, we cannot say the counteroffensive is over,” Mr. Musiienko said.
The new Russian offensive comes on the heels of rare public infighting between Ukraine’s top military and civilian leaders. The country’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, made headlines earlier this month when he told The Economist magazine that the war had reached a stalemate and “there will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – who has consistently projected optimism about his country’s chances of winning this war – publicly rejected the idea. “The situation is now the same as it was before – if there is no victory, there will be no country.”
The Ukrainian military does not publish information about the soldiers and equipment it has lost, so it’s impossible to say whether the spike in Canadians killed in action is coincidental or reflective of a wider pattern of rising casualties. The Russian military also keeps its casualty figures secret, while both sides regularly claim the other has suffered staggering losses.
A source in the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine – a unit of foreign volunteers fighting in the country – said Mr. Stratford, who arrived in Ukraine in the spring of 2022, shortly after the start of the invasion, spent much of his time training snipers. The Canadian, described as being in his 50s, had recently finished a stint at the sniper school and was on a combat mission in Avdiivka when he was killed. The details of his death were not immediately made public.
“The Russians have counterattacked in several places where the fighting was already pretty intense. These new waves of attacks from the Russians made fighting conditions harder and harsher,” the Legion source said, adding that the foreign fighters had been assigned “dangerous and intense missions, which unfortunately do lead to losses.”
The source, whom The Globe is not naming because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said Mr. Stratford was one of the older legionnaires but “as fit as the younger guys” and “loved by all.” He was described as a top-notch sniper instructor. “He was a pro. We lost a really good guy.”
News of Mr. Stratford’s death came one day after the family of Josh Mayers, a 34-year-old paramedic from Edmonton, announced that he had been killed while digging a trench near the Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, on Nov. 10.
Austin Lathlin-Bercier, a 25-year-old Cree man from Manitoba whose death was announced earlier this month, was killed around the same time, also in the Bakhmut area. Mr. Lathlin-Bercier, a graduate of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Bold Eagle program for Indigenous youth, had served in Ukraine’s International Legion since early in the war.