Six days before Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, a small group of Western intelligence officers was laying out the details of the Russian military plan. Sitting at a low-key table in an anonymous London restaurant, they recounted a stunning strategy: a blitzkrieg to encircle Kiev and Ukraine’s other major cities, followed by an assassination operation led by Russia’s FSB secret service to oust Ukraine’s leadership. .

Russia massed troops on the border a few months before the invasion PHOTO Archive

Western intelligence had no doubt about the Kremlin’s intentions. But many of the Russian soldiers who were about to start Europe’s biggest war since World War II had no clear idea of ​​what was about to happen. In the week before the invasion, Russian soldiers, who were on paper training in Khoyniki, Belarus, 50 kilometers north of Ukraine, were selling their diesel and trying to escape boredom by drinking alcohol.

Moscow had begun massing its troops on the Ukrainian border as early as March 2021, but it was not until the fall that the US and Britain were certain that Putin had made his invasion plan. Soon after, information from the services began to leak into the Western media. Ukrainian leaders, some of them skeptical, have been given warnings about the key part of the plan: a direct attack from Belarus on Kiev via Chernobyl, backed by the seizure of the Hostomel airbase, northwest of the capital, which would allow Russia to introduce the necessary troops and supplies into Ukraine.

It is well known that CIA director Bill Burns met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in January to warn him of Russia’s plans to launch an attack from Hostomel: the airfield could be a transport platform for thousands of troops to be sent to capture Kiev. It was just one of many detailed briefings provided by the West, just the beginning of a period of strategic cooperation that helped Ukraine prepare its defenses for its most important battle yet.

A plan that quickly fell apart

At the same time, Russia’s initial plan was so poorly organized and communicated that it proved easy to counter. While the bulk of the soldiers who were massed at the border had not the slightest idea of ​​Putin’s strategy, others, especially those in the elite units, were asked to conquer Kiev in just half a day. In some cases, soldiers were given parade uniforms to march on Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main street, just three days after the attack. All of this was made possible through the mistaken belief that it was all about some sort of law enforcement operation against a docile population.

It had been a day since the invasion, and control of the capital was all that mattered. As Oleksi Reznikov, the Ukrainian defense minister, recalls, many in the West, along with the Kremlin, believed that Ukraine would collapse quickly – “that in 72 hours, Kiev would fall.” With all the help of the intelligence services, the Ukrainian forces had been lightly armed by the West, with Javelin anti-tank weapons from the US and NLAW from the UK, designed for a guerrilla campaign against an occupying force. Russia had over 150,000 troops at its disposal, a force similar to the Ukrainian army as a whole, but with a larger volume of tanks and superior air and missile power.

“I personally saw a secret order from Russian commanders to their air assault troops that they must control the government quarter … within 12 hours,” Reznikov revealed earlier this month. The order had been recovered from the body of a soldier, he he added, probably killed in the fighting at Hostomel.

The strategic air base, located about 24 km northwest of the capital, was captured on February 25 by Russian paratroopers, who landed in two dramatic waves of 10 helicopters each. However, in the absence of air support, nearby Ukrainian ground defenses were able to remain largely intact, thus preventing the dispatch of hundreds of Russian reinforcements.

It was a decisive element, but it was also a narrowly won battle, not least because Kiev kept most of its best forces – 10 brigades – in the east to defend the Donbass. Andri Antonishcheak, a former deputy and Ukrainian National Guard colonel who fought in Kyiv, said the defense initially fell on the shoulders of a small deployment of national guardsmen.

“I also want to emphasize the feat of our brigade in Hostomel, 150 people, who were not combatants. There was a rotation, and those who were ready for combat were sent to the east,” said the commander. If the guards and their reinforcements had not intervened to prevent the landing of the transport planes, Antonishcheak added, “the road to Kyiv would have been open.”

A cascade of errors

Russia was failing to make its military advantages count, proving that it did not quite understand what it was up against. “Russia did not conduct a full-scale air and missile campaign aimed at destroying Ukrainian command and control elements and striking concentrations of conventional forces. Their initial air campaign lasted only seven hours, when, to be effective, they would should have lasted 72 hours,” noted George Barros, a Russia expert at the US Institute for the Study of War. This has largely focused on static military targets, reflecting a lack of real-time intelligence and, says Barros, a belief that “the Ukrainians are not going to put up much of a fight.”

There were no coordinated attempts to attack the president’s official residence, the Mariinsky Palace, or other government buildings in Kyiv. Instead, there were special forces raids aimed at capturing or killing Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an approach similar to the flashy and ultimately overconfident assault on Hostomel. Two months later, the Ukrainian president revealed to Time magazine that he had been warned that Russian strike teams had parachuted into Kyiv to kill or capture him and his family.

At nightfall, on the first day of the war, there were exchanges of fire around the government quarter, with Russian forces making two attempts to break in. Assault rifles and bulletproof vests were brought in for Zelenski and his aides amid chaotic scenes. “It was a real madhouse,” Oleksi Arestovich, one of the president’s top advisers, recalled to the US magazine. “Automatic weapons for everyone.” Zelenskiy memorably refused the American offer to leave the country – “I need ammunition, not transport” – and, after dark on February 25, released a video to confirm that he and his officials were alive. “We are here,” they said.

A numerical advantage that Moscow did not know how to take advantage of

Zelenski has been criticized for being slow to react to Russian troop movements and Western warnings. Ukrainian reservists were mobilized only a day before the invasion, on February 23. The president was not “responsible enough and attentive to the information received from the British secret services,” complained a senior Ukrainian parliamentarian. Still, by refusing to go and fighting, Zelenskiy gave Ukraine a foothold around which to rally its resistance.

The task of attacking Kiev fell to Colonel General Alexander Chaiko and forces from Russia’s Eastern Military District, traditionally “the least capable part of the Russian military,” according to Barros. While the Russian invaders from the south and east adopted more conventional military battle plans suitable for a war, a document recently published by the RUSI study center described the forces heading for Kyiv from Belarus as marching “in administrative column on the road “, as if they were preparing to enter an already pacified city.

With Ukraine’s best forces concentrated in the east, Russia at one point had a staggering 12-to-1 numerical advantage north of Kyiv, according to RUSI. But the Russians, whose tanks and trucks were painted with the invasion symbol (V), could not take advantage of this advantage. Meanwhile, the task of defending the capital fell to three Ukrainian brigades, two of which were artillery, at a time when Kiev’s forces could somewhat withstand Russian heavy artillery.

The key to the defense was artillery

While there was no shortage of publicity – accompanied by videos – of the Ukrainians successfully taking down tanks with Javelin missiles and NLAWs, RUSI’s assessment in hindsight is that they were nowhere near enough to make a difference on the battlefield. Instead, the heavy guns were decisive. “Despite the prominence of anti-tank guided weapons in the public narrative, Ukraine thwarted Russia’s attempt to capture Kiev using the massive fire of two artillery brigades,” the thinktank concludes.

After three days of war, the most advanced Russian forces were stopped between Bucea and Irpin, about 20 km northwest of the capital, leaving behind a trail of contorted and smoking remains, described by one of the first reporters to visit- as a “Russian Valley of Death”. The invaders would never advance again. Instead, they remained lined up in a column that wound to the Belarusian border and grew to be 65 kilometers long, an increasingly easy target for Ukrainian counterattacks, which succeeded in creating roadblocks by destroying more and more Russian armored vehicles.

Hit by artillery, ambushed – and even bombed from the air for several days by what was left of the small Ukrainian air force – it became clear that the column aiming for Kiev was suffering too many casualties. Few reinforcements were available, as the full-scale Russian invasion meant that troops were scattered across Ukraine, from Kherson to Kharkov. It was inevitable that the attack on Kiev would be abandoned – and after 35 days it was, which meant that whatever happened next, Ukraine’s existential survival was guaranteed.

The attackers failed because Putin and the Kremlin completely misjudged the situation and their opponents. “The way the Russians designed their campaign and the key assumptions of their military plan fundamentally undermined their chances of success on the battlefield,” Barros explained.

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