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Members of the Russian military walk amid the rubble, near a damaged car, in a location given as Avdiivka, Ukraine, in this screen grab obtained from a social media video released on Feb. 22.RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY/Reuters

Russia’s recent battlefield gains against Ukrainian forces have come at great cost and are probably not sustainable in the near term in spite of Ukraine’s severe munitions shortages, according to a NATO intelligence assessment.

In a media background briefing on Friday, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization official said the battle for Avdiivka in Eastern Ukraine, just north of the Russian-occupied industrial city of Donetsk, in particular has been hard won by Russia.

After fighting to defend Avdiivka since the start of the full-scale invasion two years ago, Ukrainian forces retreated from the city late last week as their last supply routes came under ferocious Russian attack.

“Russia has taken Avdiivka at huge, huge cost,” said the NATO official. “Russia has lost 400 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles and other hardware, and thousands of personnel … This is one of the highest casualty rates we have seen so far in the war.”

The Globe and Mail is not naming the official, whose identity is protected by NATO.

The Centre for Defence Strategies (CDS), a Ukrainian military think tank, said in a note published Friday that Russia lost 364 tanks and 748 armoured combat vehicles in the battle for Avdiivka – numbers that cannot be verified by The Globe.

“Such losses will affect the tactics of the enemy’s further actions, compelling them to rely on infantry operations devoid of armoured-vehicle support across the entire operational theatre,” it said.

The NATO official said that the 7-to-1 Russian to Ukrainian casualty rate, cited by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, “is probably about right” as Russia poured thousands of ill-trained troops into the battle for Avdiivka.

Still, the fall of the ruined city marked the first significant Russian victory in nearly a year, handing Russian President Vladimir Putin a boost ahead of the presidential elections in March.

“The Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka really demonstrates the need for more military aid to Ukraine to ensure that Russia doesn’t continue to make further gains,” the official said. “Without a doubt [munitions shortages] certainly hindered Ukraine’s defence of Avdiivka.”

The Russian attacks on Kupyansk, in Ukraine’s northeast, and along the east bank of the Dnipro River in and near Kherson, have been far less successful, the official said.

Kherson, which had a preinvasion population of about 280,000, became the first big Ukrainian city to fall to Russian forces two years ago and was liberated by Ukrainian soldiers nine months later. In recent weeks, Ukraine has deployed fleets of drones equipped with small bombs to stall Russia’s advance on Kherson.

“Overall, it is very clear that Russia continues to lack the munitions and the manoeuvre units required for a successful major offensive,” the official said. “Russian commanders are struggling to orchestrate complex joint efforts or to concentrate sufficient artillery ammunition, and to maintain morale. Instead, they are ordering undermanned, inexperienced units to achieve unrealistic objectives due to political pressure.”

He added that Russia “will be likely unable to mount any significant offensive operation without another large-scale mobilization.” Unless a new recruitment drive happens – Russian lawmakers two weeks ago passed the first reading of a revised mobilization bill – Moscow may not be able to mount a major new offensive until some time after the spring, he said.

There is no doubt, however, that attacks along the 1,200-kilometre front line in eastern and southern Ukraine are intensifying. On Friday alone, the CDS said there were 101 combat engagements on various fronts. The CDS confirmed the Russian claim that its soldiers had captured the village of Pobieda in the eastern Donetsk region.

How long Ukraine can hold off most of the Russian attacks is not known as munitions, especially NATO-standard 155-mm artillery shells, run low. Those shells, and others, are being rationed as Western shipments fall short because of lack of weapons factories and inadequate financing.

While the European Union has made good on its commitment to supply another €50-billion in aid to Ukraine, the Republican-majority U.S. House of Representatives has yet to approve some US$60-billion in funding to Kyiv, because of pressure from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

In the meantime, Ukraine is trying to boost the supply of its own weapons, relying heavily on fairly inexpensive drones in the near term. Last month, Oleksandr Kamyshin, Ukraine’s Minister of Strategic Industries, told The Globe that the country is on course to build a million or more drones this year, including long-range drones that have been used to attack oil refineries deep inside Russia.

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