Washington (AFP) – Kyiv has been a Russian defeat for centuries. The fighting started poorly for the invaders and went down the hill from there.
When President Vladimir Putin launched his war on February 24 after months of reinforcement on Ukraine’s border, he sent hundreds of helicopter-borne commandos – the best of Russia’s “Spetsnaz” special forces – to attack and capture the lightly-defended airfield. On the threshold of Kyiv.
Other Russian forces struck elsewhere across 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. This is how the elite airborne forces rushed into the opening hours of the war.
But Putin failed to achieve his goal of quickly crushing the outnumbered and heavily armed Ukrainian army. The Russians were ill-prepared for the Ukrainian resistance, proved unable to adapt to setbacks, failed to effectively combine air and ground operations, underestimated Ukraine’s ability to defend its airspace, and subverted basic military functions such as planning and executing the movement of supplies.
“That’s a really bad combination if you want to invade a country,” said Peter Mansour, a retired Army colonel and professor of military history at Ohio State University.
For the time being at least, Putin’s forces have moved from Kyiv to eastern Ukraine. In the end, the Russian leader may achieve some of his goals. However, his failure to capture Kyiv will be remembered for a long time – because he defied pre-war expectations and exposed surprising weaknesses in military thought to be one of the world’s most powerful ideas.
“It’s amazing,” said military historian Frederic Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War, who says he knows nothing of a military power as great as Russia invading a country at a time of its choosing and failing utterly.
On the morning of the first day of the war, Russian Mi-8 attack helicopters flew south towards Kyiv on a mission to attack Hostomil Airport on the northwestern outskirts of the capital. By capturing the airport, also known as Antonov Airport, the Russians planned to create a base from which more troops and lightly armored vehicles could fly within walking distance of the heart of the country’s largest city.
It didn’t work that way. A number of Russian helicopters were reported to have been hit by missiles even before they reached Hostomel, and once they landed at the airfield they suffered heavy losses from artillery fire.
An attempt to seize control of a military air base at Vasylkiv south of Kyiv also met with stiff resistance and reportedly saw several Russian Il-76 heavy transport planes carrying paratroopers shot down by Ukrainian defenses.
Although the Russians eventually gained control of Hostomel Airport, the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians in the metropolitan area forced a rethink of the invasion plan that was based on the expectation that the Ukrainians would quickly collapse, the West would hesitate, and Russian forces would be easy. fight.
Air attack missions behind enemy lines, such as those carried out at Hostomell, are risky and difficult, as the US military demonstrated on March 24, 2003, when it sent more than 30 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq from Kuwait to strike a division of the Iraqi Republican Guard. . On their way, the Apaches encountered small fire and anti-aircraft fire that brought down one of the helicopters, damaged others, and forced a mission abort. However, the US Army recovered from that setback and quickly captured Baghdad.
The fact that Hostomel’s attack by the Russian 45th Airborne Brigade of the Russian Guard might not have emerged later if the broader Russian effort had improved from that point on. But she didn’t.
The Russians made small and unsuccessful investigations into the heart of Kyiv, after which they tried at great cost to encircle the capital by bending to the west. Despite enormous odds, the Ukrainians held their ground and fought back, stopping the Russians, effectively utilizing a wide range of Western weapons, including Javelin portable anti-tank weapons, Stinger man-portable anti-aircraft missiles and much more.
Last week, the Russians abandoned Hostomil Airport as part of an overall retreat into Belarus and Russia.
The sidelight of the Battle for Kyiv was the widely reported story of a Russian resupply convoy that stretched dozens of miles along a major road towards the capital. It seemed at first a worrisome sign for the Ukrainians, but they were able to attack elements of the convoy, which had limited off-road capability and thus eventually dispersed or rendered inoperable in combat.
“They did not really provide any resupply of any value to the Russian forces that were massing around Kyiv, and they never came to their aid,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. “The Ukrainians put an end to this caravan very quickly by being too agile, destroying bridges, hitting the main vehicles and stopping their movement.”
Mansour says the Russians underestimated the number of troops they would need and showed a “staggering inability” to perform basic military functions. He says they greatly underestimated what it would take to win the Battle of Kyiv.
“This will be difficult even if the Russian army proves its competence,” he said. “It has proven completely incapable of conducting modern armored warfare.”
Putin was not the only one surprised by his army’s initial failures. American and other Western officials had figured out that if the invasion occurred, seemingly superior Russian forces would slash through the Ukrainian army like a hot knife in butter. They could take Kyiv in a few days and the entire country in a few weeks, although some analysts have questioned whether Putin estimated how much Ukrainian forces gained from Western exercises that intensified after Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and incursion into the Donbass .
On March 25, barely a month after the invasion began, the Russians announced that they had achieved their objectives in the Kyiv region and would shift focus to the breakaway Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Some suspected Putin’s ploy to buy time without giving up his extremist goals, but within days Kyiv’s withdrawal was within sight.
Putin may be able to refocus his war effort on a narrower goal of expanding Russian control in Donbass and possibly securing a land corridor from Donbass to Crimea. But his failure in Kyiv exposed weaknesses that suggest Russia is unlikely to try again soon to defeat the national capital.
“I think they learned their lesson,” Mansour said.
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