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What the US Army should learn from Ukraine's hasty retreat from a Russian assault

Ukrainian soldiers are seen on top of an armored personnel carrier on March 4 as they return from the Semenivka battlefield near Avdiivka.
Ukrainian soldiers are seen on top of an armored personnel carrier on March 4 as they return from the Semenivka battlefield near Avdiivka.Narciso Contreras/Getty Images
  • Ukraine's retreat under heavy fire in Avdiivka should be a wake-up call for the US Army.

  • A US Army officer argued the operation is proof that withdrawals must be carefully planned.

  • The force covering the retreat may need more key weapons and sensors to stall the attacker.

The art of war isn't just knowing how to attack or defend. It's also knowing how to retreat with minimum losses in personnel and equipment.

That's a lesson painfully learned by Ukraine, whose retreat from the city of Avdiivka in February was reportedly hasty and disorganized as the defense collapsed under relentless Russian incoming fire and waves of ground attacks. And it should be a wake-up call for the US Army, which could find itself in the same situation, according to a US Army intelligence officer.

"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," wrote Capt. Ryan Forte in an essay for the Modern War Institute at West Point.

Avdiivka, located in the Donetsk region of southeast Ukraine, was a producer of coke – a coal-based fuel – with a prewar population of 31,000. It had also been a Russian target since the beginning of the war in 2022, but since last autumn, Russia has committed massive resources to its capture to solidify its hold on Donetsk. By the end of the battle, Moscow had reportedly committed 15,000 troops — including elite paratroopers and commandos — backed by artillery, tanks and devastating air-launched glide bombs.

Despite stiff resistance by elite units such as the 3rd Assault Brigade, superior Russian firepower and a critical lack of artillery ammunition eventually left Ukrainian commanders with a grim choice: hold Avdiivka and risk encirclement and destruction, or retreat and hand Russia a symbolic victory. Wisely realizing that it was better to save an army to fight another day, the Ukrainians had to conduct one of the most difficult military operations: a retreat under heavy enemy fire.

While Ukraine managed to extract the bulk of its forces, the operation did not go smoothly. "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," Forte noted. Hundreds of soldiers were reportedly captured, and some were executed while trying to surrender.

US soldiers at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia
US Army infantrymen advance past a shattered German tank at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, February 1943.Corbis via Getty Images

Note the US Army's record is spotless. From the rout of the Union Army at Bull Run in 1861, to the debacle at Kasserine Pass in 1943 and the "bug outs" of the Korean War in 1950, America has had its share of embarrassing retreats. But not since Korea has the Army or Marine Corps had to perform major withdrawals under fire. With the potential for large-scale ground operations against well-armed Chinese or Russian forces, it's a topic that the US military cannot afford to neglect.

Current US Army doctrine distinguishes between different types of retreats. Delay operations mean sacrificing ground while slowing the enemy advance, while retirement involves forces not engaged in combat moving further away from the enemy. It is withdrawal operations — which mean disengaging from combat, as the Ukrainians had to perform at Avdiivka — that are particularly difficult.

Forte points to two lessons that the US Army should learn from the battle. First, withdrawals must be carefully planned. The Ukrainian retreat suffered from poor coordination between the 110th Mechanized Brigade that had been defending the city, and the newly arrived 3rd Assault Brigade that was supposed to cover the 110th's withdrawal.

"Primary and alternate routes need to be established, as does the timing of their use, recognition signals, and methods of communication," Forte warned. "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."

Battlefield movement — including retreats — has become difficult in the Ukraine war because of the constant presence of surveillance and explosive drones. But the biggest problem may be evacuating casualties; at Avdiivka, some wounded Ukrainian soldiers were left behind. "Medical evacuation procedures must be addressed in detail, to include designated vehicles, routes, and link-up points," said Forte. "Based on available time and enemy action, the ability to evacuate all casualties may not be possible."

The other lesson of Avdiivka is ensuring adequate support for a retreat, especially for the covering force that screens the withdrawal of the rest of the army. "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," Forte said. Or, mine clearance equipment must be available in case the enemy uses artillery to drop instant minefields along withdrawal routes.

To their credit, and despite a lack of ammunition, Ukrainian commanders were able to provide some fire support for the retreat. "Ukrainian military leaders were able to adjust prioritization of key weapon systems to maintain indirect fire effects that effectively enabled friendly movement and maneuver," said Forte.

In the end, while Avdiivka wasn't a Ukrainian victory, the battle could have ended a lot worse. "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," Forte concluded.

"A withdrawal does not intrinsically mean a defeat," he added. "But failing to train, plan, and resource a withdrawal could result in one."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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