Russia’s failure to defeat Kyiv was a defeat for the ages

WASHINGTON (AP) — Kyiv has been a Russian defeat for the ages. The fight started badly for the invaders and went downhill from there.

When President Vladimir Putin launched his war on February 24 after months of buildup on Ukraine’s borders, he sent hundreds of helicopter commandos – the best of the best Russian “spetsnaz” special forces soldiers – to attack and capture a lightly defended airfield. at the gates of Kyiv.

Other Russian forces have struck elsewhere in Ukraine, including towards the eastern city of Kharkiv as well as in the disputed Donbass region and along the Black Sea coast. But as the seat of national power, Kyiv was the main prize. Hence the surge of elite airborne forces in the early hours of the war.

But Putin failed to achieve his goal of quickly crushing the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian military. The Russians were ill-prepared for Ukrainian resistance, proved unable to adapt to setbacks, failed to effectively combine air and ground operations, misjudged Ukraine’s ability to defend its skies, and messed up basic military functions like planning and executing the movement of supplies.

“It’s a very bad combination if you want to conquer a country,” said Peter Mansoor, a retired colonel and professor of military history at Ohio State University.

For now at least, Putin’s forces have moved from kyiv to eastern Ukraine. Eventually, the Russian leader could achieve some of his goals. Yet his failure to take kyiv will be long remembered – for the way he defied pre-war expectations and revealed startling weaknesses in an army considered one of the strongest in the world.

“It’s astounding,” said military historian Frederick Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War, who says he knows of no parallels with a great military power like Russia invading a country at the time of his choice and failing so completely.

On the first morning of the war, Russian Mi-8 assault helicopters flew south towards kyiv on a mission to attack Hostomel airfield on the northwestern outskirts of the capital city. By capturing the airfield, also known as Antonov Airport, the Russians planned to establish a base from which to fly more troops and light armored vehicles within striking distance of the heart of the greater city ​​of the country.

It didn’t work that way. Several Russian helicopters were reportedly hit by missiles even before arriving at Hostomel, and once settled on the airfield, they suffered heavy losses from artillery fire.

An effort to take control of a military airbase at Vasylkiv south of kyiv also met strong resistance and reportedly saw several Russian Il-76 heavy transport planes carrying paratroopers shot down by Ukrainian defences.

Although the Russians eventually succeeded in controlling the airfield at Hostomel, fierce Ukrainian resistance in the capital area forced a rethink of an invasion plan that was based on the expectation that the Ukrainians would quickly retreat, that the West would dither and Russian forces would have an easy way to fight.

Air assault missions behind enemy lines, like the one executed at Hostomel, are risky and difficult, as the US military demonstrated on March 24, 2003, when it sent more than 30 Apache attack helicopters into Iraq from Kuwait to hit a division of the Iraqi Republican Guard. . On their way, the Apaches encountered small arms and anti-aircraft fire which shot down one of the helicopters, damaged others and forced the mission to be aborted. Even so, the US Army recovered from this setback and quickly captured Baghdad.

The fact that the Hostomel assault by the Russian 45th Guards Special Airborne Brigade failed might not be apparent in retrospect if the wider Russian effort had improved from that point on. But that was not the case.

The Russians made unsuccessful small probes into the heart of kyiv, and later tried at great expense to encircle the capital by arcing further west. Against all odds, the Ukrainians held their ground and fought back, pinning the Russians down and effectively using a wide array of Western weaponry, including Javelin man-portable anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and more.

Last week the Russians abandoned Hostomel airfield as part of a massive retreat into Belarus and Russia.

A secondary element of the Battle of kyiv was the widely reported saga of a Russian supply convoy that stretched for tens of kilometers along a main road to the capital. This initially seemed like a worrying sign to the Ukrainians, but they managed to attack elements of the convoy, which had limited off-road capability and therefore eventually dispersed or became a non-factor in the fight.

“They never really provided any valuable supplies to the Russian forces that were gathering around kyiv, never really came to their aid,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. “The Ukrainians put a stop to this convoy quite quickly by being very agile, knocking down bridges, hitting lead vehicles and stopping their movement.”

Mansoor says the Russians underestimated the number of troops they would need and showed “a startling inability” to perform basic military duties. They grossly misjudged what it would take to win the battle for kyiv, he says.

“It was going to be difficult even though the Russian military had proven capable,” he said. “It proved completely incapable of conducting modern armored warfare.”

Putin was not the only one surprised by his army’s early failures. American and Western officials had thought that if the invasion occurred, Russia’s seemingly superior forces would slice through the Ukrainian military like a hot knife through butter. They could take kyiv in days and the whole country in weeks, though some analysts wonder if Putin appreciated all that Ukrainian forces had gained from Western training that intensified after the takeover. of Crimea by Putin in 2014 and his foray into the Donbass.

On March 25, barely a month after the start of the invasion, the Russians declared that they had achieved their objectives in the kyiv region and that they would concentrate on the breakaway region of Donbass, in the east of Ukraine. Some suspected a ploy by Putin to buy time without giving up on his maximalist goals, but within days kyiv’s retreat was in full view.

Putin may yet succeed in refocusing his war effort on a narrower goal of expanding Russian control in Donbass and perhaps securing a land corridor from Donbass to the Crimean Peninsula. But his failure in Kyiv has exposed weaknesses that suggest Russia is unlikely to try again soon to destroy the nation’s capital.

“I think they’ve learned their lesson,” Mansoor said.

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