The world remembers President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inspiring declaration, when Russia invaded Ukraine with the objective of capturing Kyiv in three days and taking over Ukraine in a week, that he planned to stay put and fight.
But it was tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, fighting and volunteering in Ukraine’s northern regions in late February and early March, that made the Battle of Kyiv almost certainly the most decisive defeat handed Russian President Vladimir Putin in 11 months of war.
Fought in Kyiv’s northern suburbs, in the thick woods and swamps of the Zhytomyr and Chernihiv regions, and across the rolling hills and farmland of the Kharkiv region, the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s (AFU) successful defense of the country’s north eviscerated some of Russia’s best combat formations, convinced critical decision-makers in Washington that Ukraine would fight, and rubbished the Kremlin’s assumption that Ukrainian resistance would be weak and easily overcome, and that the war would be short.
Zelensky’s Feb. 24 declaration that he intended to stay in Kyiv, of course, encouraged Ukrainians. A common reaction was that the former comedian’s stand was a little surprising for a professional entertainer, but the right thing for Ukraine’s national leader to do. His message that Ukraine would fight flashed onto computer screens and smart phones across the planet, thus beginning Ukraine’s long, and in some cases ongoing, battle to convince the world that surrender to Russia is not an option. Yet the Battle of Kyiv was not won by words. It was won by the actions of average Ukrainians on the ground.
What went wrong for the Russians
The Russian plan called for massed paratrooper and heliborne infantry landings at two airports on the edges of Ukrainian capital, to be followed up by armored columns lunging south from Belarus. Russian agents inside Kyiv would attack key government buildings, and missiles and bombers would decapitate Ukrainian state and military communications. One Kyiv Post reporter found the debris of a cruise missile on the street in front of his apartment building.
A great deal of the Kremlin schemes went wrong very quickly. The Ukrainians had pre-positioned anti-aircraft gunners around the airfields, armed with recently delivered Polish and American anti-aircraft missiles. Hundreds of Russian soldiers died in helicopter and air transport crashes. At the Vasylkiv air base, to the south of Kyiv, air defenders shot down a Russian Il-76 transport jet, killing upwards of 250 elite Russian paratroopers with a single missile.
Russian air assault fighters that made it to the ground found themselves surrounded by recently raised territorial defense units – at times armed by police on an “anyone who wants one gets an AK” principle – and under surprisingly accurate fire by Ukrainian artillery. A territorial defense major later told Kyiv Post his unit captured Russian officers who were using 1970s-era maps. The Russians usually seemed lost as they walked into ambushes, he said.
Russia sent special forces infantry to take over government buildings in multiple city centers. Ukrainian police, territorials and armed civilians, operating on their own ground, corralled the elite Russian troops, and captured or killed them. Kyiv Post reporters and thousands of citizens, on the second day of the war, saw bits of a movie-like chase of Russian agents by city law enforcers down a central street of the capital. The Russians were cornered and killed. The same disaster met a column of Russian operatives attempting to drive armored cars into the center of Kharkiv.
A Ukrainian water works engineer of genius took advantage of the fact that the pine woods north of Kyiv are wet and drained by canals, and that the winter freezes were relative light; he ordered locks holding back the water opened, flooding hundreds of square kilometers around the capital to create swampland. International military analysts scratched their heads at the Kremlin decision to launch an armored attack in one of Europe’s biggest wetlands – at the outset of the melt season, no less.
Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles found themselves locked on roads in traffic jams, at one point 60 kilometers long. Ukrainian infantry, using high-tech American, British and Swedish anti-armor missiles, hiding in woods and villages, picked off Russian vehicles in the hundreds.
A retired British army sniper, volunteering as a trainer for territorial infantry units defending the northern Kyiv suburb of Irpin, told Kyiv Post that the untrained territorials took heavy casualties learning to fight house-to-house, but there always seemed to be volunteers willing to take a couple of missiles and go tank hunting, and that the Russian army was hesitant to push into built-up areas where a man with an anti-tank missile might be hiding behind any corner.
Prowling Turkish-made Bayraktar strike drones hunted down Russian anti-aircraft systems. And once the sky was clear, the Bayraktars, equipped with high-tech thermal sights, thinned the Russian columns in night strikes.
The Russians sent flanking columns to encircle Kyiv, but Ukrainian reinforcements started arriving on the scene. On March 4, a Kyiv Post reporter based in a village to the west of the capital saw hundreds of AFU tanks and infantry fighting vehicles from 95th Air Assault and 24th Mechanized Brigades moving at night to take up positions in the Buchansky disctrict. They looked grim and cold, but they told civilians the Russians weren’t coming any farther south.
In swirling, mobile armored battles not seen in Europe since World War II, regular AFU formations like 92nd Mechanized Brigade dry-gulched Russian tank and BMP units; in the case of Russia’s 200th Guards Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, the ambushes were repeated two or three times. The Russian grand plan of operations, it turned out, contained no real contingency for hardcore Ukrainian defenders with knowledge of fighting tactics. Journalist Yuriy Butusov, a frequent visitor to the 92nd, said almost the entire chain of the command was already battle-tested, having served in multiple rotations to the Donbas starting in 2014, after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian artillery, as it turned out, was not just competent, it had stepped firmly into the 21st century, using hand held computers loaded up with crowd-sourced apps, and communicating via Elon Musk’s Starlink system, to identify targets to bombard and decide which Ukrainian guns should do the shooting. Thanks to their Donbas combat experiences, the Ukrainian gunners, Butusov reported, were using off-the-shelf drones to drop shells and mortar rounds on targets within minutes, whereas in a similar situation the Russian army’s paper-using artillery would take hours or days. A volunteer from Aerorozvidka, a public action group of volunteers working to put drones into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers, later told Kyiv Post the AFU is probably the most sophisticated drone-operating military in the world right now.
What to expect
By mid-March the great Russian offensive to capture the Ukrainian capital was stopped cold, and by the start of April the Kremlin’s forces had retreated back into Belarus. The AFU followed at a respectful distance, capturing hundreds of abandoned and often late-model Russian tanks and fighting vehicles –starting a trend, still the case 11 months later, that made the Russian army Ukraine’s single biggest contributor of combat equipment.
By early April, Vladimir Putin and his generals’ bid to conquer Ukraine quickly and painlessly, with a massive attack from the north, was not just a shambles, but the troops were right back where they started. Propaganda, maneuver and shock-and-awe had had their chance to decide the outcome of the war – and they failed. The Battle of Kyiv and its outcome has made the Russo-Ukraine war a contest of will and material.
By mid-April, most NATO nations, led by the United States, had publicly declared the Russian invasion of Ukraine would not be allowed to stand, pitting Russia – which at the time of the invasion had a GDP smaller than Italy’s – against the economies and manufacturing capacity of North America and the European Union combined.
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