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Editor's Choice War in Ukraine

How Kyiv was Defended in the First Days of The Russian Full-Scale Invasion

The story of Oleksandr Vdovychenko – Commander of the 72nd Separate Mechanized Brigade.

Feb. 24, 2023

Tatyana Popova recorded an interview with Oleksandr Vdovychenko – Commander of the 72nd Separate Mechanized Brigade.

- POPOVA: How did you know there would be a war?

- VDOVYCHENKO: Starting in early 2022, there was a premonition that there would be a war. Everyone expected a full-scale invasion on February 22, 2022. And when it happened, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. On February 23, I was diagnosing the left flank of the brigade's defense (Right Bank Ukraine). I came from Borodianka, stopped in Gostomel for gas station, and received a message that tomorrow, with a high probability, the Russian Federation would launch a full-scale invasion of Kyiv across the borders of the Republic of Belarus. I came to the grouping of the city of Kyiv. They said they also had this information, but they thought nothing would happen. I arrived at the location in Bila Tserkva, called a meeting and said: "It will probably start tomorrow". We also clarified the tasks, who was going where, who was acting how. I went to my room to fall asleep and woke up with rockets exploding in Bila Tserkva and near our town. A few minutes later, the phone rang, and the commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, called me and said: "It's war, go to Kyiv". I gathered the list No. 1 at the brigade's command and control center, clarified the tasks, and changed the order of movement to Kyiv.

- POPOVA: Why are you considered the commander of the brigade that defended Kyiv? That's how you are presented in the General Staff.

- VDOVYCHENKO: The 72nd Brigade at that time was the only mechanized full-time brigade that received a combat order to defend the city of Kyiv. Many units were transferred to us: a Territorial Defense unit, a National Guard unit, a Special Operations Forces unit, a GUR unit, and Self-Defense units. But they performed their tasks in the 72nd Brigade's defense line. While the tasks were being clarified in Kyiv on February 24-25-26, the 72nd Brigade was performing its intended task from the first minutes of the full-scale invasion. We stood up and occupied the specified defense line, and we did not retreat from it.

- POPOVA: Where did it take place?

- VDOVYCHENKO: It took place on the left bank of Ukraine – the village of Hoholiv, Rusaniv, Kalynivka; on the right bank of Ukraine - Vyshhorod, along Kozarovychi, Huta-Mezhyhirska, Moshchun, Horenka, Gostomel, along the Irpin River, the right bank. The task was to hold the brigade's line.

- POPOVA: And who came up with the idea to blow up the dam so that Irpin would become more flooded and they couldn't move to the other side?

- VDOVYCHENKO: At one of the meetings held by the commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, one person who knew the region asked why it was not blown up immediately. Because the Irpin River flows in the direction of the Kyiv Reservoir and there are pumps there that pump water into the Kyiv Reservoir, into the Dnipro River. When it became known that there were pumps there and the water level was more than 1.5 meters higher in the Kyiv reservoir than in the Irpin River, it was decided to blow up the locks.

- POPOVA: There were Russians in Moshchun, but they were on the other side, right?

- VDOVYCHENKO: No, they were already on this shore, they created a bridgehead for the offensive. Elite units, for example, the 333rd Kostroma Airborne Regiment, GRU units, units of the 155th Brigade Marines. They were concentrated on this small piece of land. From Moshchyn to Huta-Mezhyhirska. There they seized a bridgehead, and there they dropped the pontoons that were used to cross to our shore. But thanks to the fact that the Irpin River had spread out and in some places it was more than 2.5 km to 3 km wide, the enemy could not carry out logistics and evacuation. After they suffered casualties there, they realized that they could not conduct timely evacuations and bring in ammunition. At the end of March, they decided to withdraw from the city of Kyiv, suffering very heavy losses.

- POPOVA: Do I understand correctly that there were no Russian tanks in Kyiv and there was no breakthrough? Or could some groups have broken through?

- VDOVYCHENKO: According to the information I have, the enemy unit did not enter Kyiv because of the 72nd Brigade's combat orders.

- POPOVA: What happened to the Zhytomyr highway? I understand that it was partially under their control at some point.

- VDOVYCHENKO: Partly, this is where we are now, where the enemy really was. They were advancing from the Chornobyl zone, from the town of Ivankiv, where there are several roads. When they came to Gostomel, they pushed our units of the Armed Forces, the Territorial Defense unit, the National Guard out of there. After that, they moved on towards Bucha and towards Dmytrivka. After they entered Gostomel, they went to Horlivka, where there is a bridge across Irpin. This was the first bridge they wanted to capture, but they failed. There were already units of the 72nd Brigade there, and the Russians fell back. In Irpin, the Territorial Defense unit really showed their strength and power. When people defend their homes, defend their land, defend their families, they are invincible. There, ordinary, untrained people, civilians who took up arms, fought on a par with those elite units that entered the territory of our country, the territory of their hometowns of Irpin and Bucha. There they met tremendous resistance. The enemy was never able to overcome this resistance of the territorial defense units.

- POPOVA: Did they not capture Irpin?

- VDOVYCHENKO: No, they didn't. There were heavy battles in Irpin. The Territorial Defense unit, the GUR, the SSO, Alpha, the National Guard, a unit of the 72nd Brigade, which was constantly engaging artillery, tanks and motorized infantry, also worked in unison with them. And when the Russians realized that they would not be able to enter Kyiv through Horenka and Irpin, they made an attempt and established a bridgehead with Moshchyn and Huta-Mezhyhirska. They set up pontoons there and began to bring their equipment there. When they encountered resistance there, they also tried to go to the Zhytomyr highway Makariv, here, where we are. There was also resistance from the territorial defense unit, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, who were ready to meet them here and they could not disperse their forces. They concentrated everything they had in the direction of Moshchun. Everyone who cared, everyone who wanted to defend their future, took part in the battles for Kyiv, and we did. We were united and strong, no matter what the enemy was, no matter what the problems were, no matter what the enemy's attempts to break the resistance of the defenders of Kyiv. I knew that the Ukrainian Ground Forces, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Serhiy Shaptala, were behind me, and the Supreme Commander-in-Chief was behind us. The whole nation was watching what was happening near Kyiv. There were heavy battles near Chernihiv, Sumy, in the east of Ukraine, in the south of Ukraine, but still all the main forces and everything that was best was concentrated in the battles for Kyiv. Everyone understood that if the capital fell, further developments could be unpredictable.

- POPOVA: Even before the war, there was a certain officer corps in Russia that said it was impossible to capture Kyiv, impossible to capture Ukraine, not enough forces, don't do it. And yet for some reason they made this decision. Why? Was it some kind of miscalculation? Did they hope that you would get scared and lay down your arms?

- VDOVYCHENKO: Captured prisoners and the documents they had on "conducting exercises in unfamiliar terrain" that were supposed to last for 3 days. They expected to be met here as liberators, as they were met in Crimea at the time, where they were shouted that everything was for them, they were waiting for them. Here they met resistance from the people, starting with the first settlements in the north of Kyiv region, in the north of our country. When the full-scale invasion began, all the people who had any contact with the military passed on information about the movement of equipment, columns, their locations, where, whom, how many. And this information varied, there was a lot of it, but it was there. Every person who was in the temporarily occupied territory was fighting for their independence. When we entered the Chornobyl zone, the village of Dytiatky, we got a flat tire and stopped. Locals came to help us and one old lady said: "Please don't leave us here anymore". We said that since we had already come here, we would not leave.

- POPOVA: They made a mistake at the very beginning, they thought they were welcome here. It was either a mistake or misleading.

- POPOVA: How did the repulsion of the Russians from Kyiv to the border go? I understand that you cut off their logistics line and they ended up here with tanks?

- VDOVYCHENKO: We were not able to cut their logistics line because the enemy had superior forces. But they suffered enormous losses here, and the amount of ammunition they used per day of fighting, they did not have time to bring it and other material resources. In addition, when they realized that in the first days and in the first month, they would not be able to do it. They saw that the entire world community was on the side of good, on the side of Ukraine, that the United States, Great Britain, Poland and other countries were now behind us, helping us with material and technical means, ammunition, and financial support. The enemy realized that they could not conduct full-fledged combat operations on such a front, where they lacked resources, and they left the Kyiv region. We tried to pursue them, but they fled very quickly.

- POPOVA: Not even having time to hide their atrocities in Bucha.

- VDOVYCHENKO: Yes, it was scary. We went to Bucha in the first days. It was scary in Bucha, Gostomel, Horenka. I was especially shocked by Bucha and Borodyanka - the city center was ruined, houses and bodies were still burning, it was scary. Regular Russian troops were fighting in the front lines, and behind them were the Kadyrivians, Wagnerites, looters and their Russian Guard. Looters and rapists.

- POPOVA: To what extent did Western weapons, which at the first stage we didn't have a lot of them in terms of nomenclature, help destroy tanks?

- VDOVYCHENKO: It helped a lot. First of all, it helped because we realized that we are not alone. Secondly, I can't say that we turned the tide of the war, and now it will continue to do so, but we created all the preconditions for us to win. Because it is really more modern and more effective. Most importantly, we have realized that we are not alone. We are now the shield of the entire civilized society, we are the shield of Europe. We are now destroying the evil that needs to be destroyed here. Tomorrow it may be in another country. These people do not care about any agreements, they are just barbarians. You can see what they are doing to our country, what they are doing in our cities and villages, how they are destroying everything alive and sacred. Where the front line is now, there is not a single surviving house, not a single surviving life, there is death everywhere.

- POPOVA: What else do we need from our Western partners in terms of armaments?

- VDOVYCHENKO: There is always little good and always a lot of bad. Everything we receive, our military men and women master, use and destroy the enemy in good faith and with high quality. Because Russia is a big country and they have more Armed Forces than the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But not only the Armed Forces of Ukraine are at war, the whole country is at war. The Armed Forces fought until February 24. On February 24, everyone, as one people, started fighting for their future and the future of our children.

- POPOVA: I recorded Russian captured pilots. They all have the same phrase: "I started flying, bombing on February 24, bombed for two weeks, everything was fine. We were told that there was no missile defense, no air defense in Ukraine. And then I was shot down." What happened in the first weeks? I can't find an answer for myself. Why weren't they shot down in the first few weeks? One was shot down on March 7, the other on March 13. At some point, they started shooting down everyone.

- VDOVYCHENKO: I am not an air defense officer. I think this is because we have been fighting since 2014. But the air defense unit was fulfilling its task, keeping combat duty, but practically did not use its capabilities. After that, when they realized that the enemy was flying into our airspace, that these were not our planes but enemy planes, they began to act efficiently. They are now creating a shield for our country. I respect the Air Force.

- POPOVA: Russian pilots say they are not flying anymore.

- VDOVYCHENKO: It was the same in the battles near Kyiv. At first, they flew with impunity, and after several of their helicopters and airplanes were destroyed, they no longer flew into the air defense zone, they worked from the maximum permissible range. The same thing is happening now in eastern Ukraine. In the battles for Kyiv, one of the best crews was under the command of a former chief of the Air Defense Forces of the Army. I won't mention his name, but he and the crew under his command shot down five helicopters. A major general, a true patriot, a true officer.

- POPOVA: In addition to your work, in addition to the work of the Territorial Defense unit, the National Guard, the Irpin River, which also served its purpose, did the fact that the Russians failed to capture Vasylkiv airfield help or not? Or even if they had captured the airfield, would they have been knocked out?

- VDOVYCHENKO: At first, the airfields were covered by the 72nd Brigade and some units, and then this task was withdrawn. There were units of the National Guard and other military formations. I believe that Vasylkiv is very far away and that's when the air defense started working. I cannot comment on this issue. But I believe that this would not have created a turning point. We had military units from that direction that could have blocked the landing and destroyed it.

- POPOV: They did try to land there, but I understand that they were quickly finished with it.

- POPOVA: How do you think the war will end?

- VDOVYCHENKO: With victory.

- POPOVA: And when?

- VDOVYCHENKO: I don't know. It was a long time ago, almost a year ago, in April we went to the Chornobyl zone, to the abandoned town of Polissia. We were talking to a combatant there. And he asked: "When will we win?" We said: "We have already won". But now the question is at what cost, when, and within what administrative boundaries. I want the Katsaps to flee, just like they did from Kyiv, quickly, quickly from all of Ukraine, including Crimea.

- POPOVA: What do you think prompted them to flee so quickly? I recorded interviews with people who said that the white Volga that was stolen from our service station was driven by a Russian officer in a dress uniform. Did they really come with a dress uniform?

- VDOVYCHENKO: I think it was fear. Because we were already getting stronger, creating reserves, creating military units. And they were probably afraid of our offensive, afraid of failing here. In addition to the fact that they failed to capture Kyiv, they were afraid of failing. They realized that if several bridges across the Teteriv River were blown up, they would be completely surrounded. An offensive was launched from the Zhytomyr region to flank them, and the enemy realized that they could be surrounded. This is my point of view.

- POPOVA: What date was the turning point? We know the date of Bucha's release, but we don't know the date of the turning point.

- VDOVYCHENKO: I don't know the specific date. Because starting from February 24 to mid-August, I always had February 24. It was somewhere in the second half of March. They realized that they would not be able to take Irpin or Moshchun. They realized that no matter how many people they put near Kyiv...

- POPOVA: How much did they put in?

- VDOVYCHENKO: Once there was a Katsap movie and one general says: "We killed a lot of enemies." The other one asks: "How many?". The general answers: "A million." And this one said: "Your losses are more than our losses". I can't say what losses they suffered, but according to the information that was available, their units, these were regular units, lost 40 to 60% of the regular army personnel near Kyiv. It is only when we win, when we open the data, that we will calculate and say. Their elite fell here near Kyiv, just as they did near Chernihiv. They were marching here, thinking that they would be welcomed here, thinking that "3 days of exercises in unfamiliar terrain" as they had written in their documents and then a parade uniform and they would be "liberators and winners," but it didn't work out.

- POPOVA: What were the plans? What was written in the plans? Because according to the documents published by the New York Times, it was written there that they were supposed to be somewhere near Cherkasy in two days.

- VDOVYCHENKO: I don't know. They were supposed to take Kyiv in three days.

- POPOVA: Thank you for not doing that.

- VDOVYCHENKO: We tried our best.