It has already been a full week since the invasion of Ukraine began. Let us recap the events on the ground, and conclude with analysis of the performance of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries. (The Ukrainian military analysis will follow in tomorrow’s analysis).
Progress of the Invasion
Russia has made incursions into Ukraine along several axes of attack, securing swathes of territory along four main fronts: the north (Kiev and Chernihiv), the northeast (Sumy; between Chernihiv and Kharkiv), the east (Kharkiv, Donbass) and the south (Mykolaiv, Kherson, Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia).
Western media has made much of the fact that Russia has experienced little success in capturing cities, and after a week’s fighting it appears that Kherson and Melitopol are the only cities under Russian control (although numerous towns and villages are occupied). Mariupol and Sumy are surrounded from multiple sides, while most of the main roads outside Kharkiv and Chernihiv are occupied by Russian formations. Kiev is besieged from the north, with the west road to Zhytomyr coming under threat from outflanking armoured units. Mykolaiv has also come under attack.
However, these advances must be placed in the context of warfare and not the context of Twitter. The occupation of Baghdad by an overwhelmingly superior allied army took three days of fighting, after a desert campaign that lasted three weeks. In light of this timetable, the Russian advance does not seem quite as slow as the gutter press seems to think.
Analysis of the Russian Military
There are various indications that the Russians expected a quick victory. In 2014, the Russian takeover of Crimea was effected quickly and easily, with almost no bloodshed. Fighting in Donbass was long and costly, but the deployment of soldiers from elite Russian units such as the Airborne Assault Divisions (VDV) enjoyed some success against the Ukrainian Army. Significantly, the occupation of the Crimea saw large scale defections from Ukrainian soldiers, with approximately 50% of the garrison switching sides (according to the deputy chief of the Ukrainian general staff).
In Putin’s many hours of public speeches over the last few years, he has repeatedly landed on the theme of neo-Nazis in Ukraine, as well as alleging the oppression and genocide of ethnic Russians. It is conceivable that the Kremlin expected the defections in the Crimea to be imitated by Ukrainian towns, cities, and troops in 2022. As far as we can ascertain, this has not taken place. Ukrainian troops and civilians have rallied against the Russian invasion and are maintaining an effective defence.
The expectations of Russia’s soldiers must also be considered. Although we have resisted focusing on these thus far, there are numerous reports which claim to show Russian conscripts surrendering, claiming that they believed they were merely participating in military exercises in Belarus — not a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Further reports indicate low morale among Russian soldiers, some of whom are reluctant to fight Ukrainians who they see as cultural kin. As to whether these reports are accurate, or part of a Ukrainian information warfare campaign, we cannot currently draw any conclusions.
The Russian army is principally composed of Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs). These BTGs are mobile infantry formations that are heavy on armoured vehicles, with sizeable units of mobile anti-air and mobile artillery attached. However, in most sectors the Russian BTGs do not appear to be fighting like BTGs, with massed firepower and coordinated assaults: instead we see mini-convoys of infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and other vehicles rambling all over the Ukrainian countryside. Plenty of smartphone footage has shown these vehicles crashed, bogged down, destroyed, or abandoned.
Mainstream media outlets have taken this wealth of embarrassing footage to declare that the Russian Army is inept. A more prudent analysis would be that there is a wide variation in the quality of Russian units engaged in this war. In low priority sectors, such as perhaps Sumy, there will be a greater concentration of conscripts or low-quality troops. In high priority sectors, the soldiers are better; the Russian forces in the south of Ukraine have performed consistently well, and include elite formations such as the 7th Guards Mountain Air Assault Division (an experienced unit which participated in the Battle of Ilovaisk in 2014).
The Russian mentality of war is significantly different to that of the West, and tolerates much higher casualties. It may be that many of the formations operating haphazardly in northeastern Ukraine are a sort of ‘smokescreen’, intended to both soak up firepower and distract the focus of enemy assets away from more effective units in the Russian Army. Small, veteran units such as the Spetsnaz, the marines, the Wagner Group, the Chechen battalions, or the paratroopers may then be inserted into this smokescreen of regular units in order to make decisive progress at important locations.
Whether this is the case or not, the performance of Russian elite units has been underwhelming on several fronts. During the day one assault on Hostomel airport, two Ilyushin IL-76 transport aircraft are believed to have been shot down as they approached the embattled air facility; if true, this could mean hundreds of paratroopers killed without firing a shot. In addition, footage has recorded a Russian special forces convoy burnt out during an early assault on Kharkiv, and various reports indicate that the Spetsnaz performed poorly during street fighting in the outskirts of Kiev during the first few days.
The reliance on BTGs has led to Russian formations making reasonable progress through rural areas, but enjoying little success in well-defended, high priority cities and urban areas. As a result, a strategy of encirclement, bombardment, and siege appears to be taking place, in order to provide the best chance of taking large cities such as Kharkiv and Chernihiv without incurring a repeat of the attack on Grozny in the First Chechen War of 1994, where 105 Russian vehicles were destroyed in a fruitless urban assault. Russian units have penetrated deep into the Ukrainian countryside in the northeast, and may be operating significantly in advance of the front lines in piecemeal groups elsewhere.
Although the Russians have made extensive and successful use of drones in previous conflicts, including small, portable drones for locating precision artillery strikes, they do not appear to be using drones at all in this war. Various explanations have been suggested. Firstly, Russia does not have an abundance of combat drones, and so their use may be limited to high quality troops. Secondly, it may simply be the case that the drones are operating at higher altitude where they are very difficult to spot. Thirdly, Ukrainian electronic warfare may be preventing the successful operation of Russian drones.
The terrain of Ukraine presents a number of logistical challenges. The sheer amount of mud and swamp in many regions prevents Russia from deploying armour across a wide front and hinders the ‘Blitzkrieg’ combined arms assault that their BTGs were likely designed for. Instead, the Russians often seem to find themselves funnelled into vulnerable convoys on narrow roads. The 40-mile traffic jams of armoured trucks north of Kiev are reminiscent of the M-25 in London at rush hour. With the Ukrainian Air Force yet to be neutralised, these convoys are a huge liability.
In addition, unconfirmed reports have been coming out of Ukraine that refer to Russian conscripts wandering around rural areas, willing to buy fuel, sugar, or moonshine ‘for any price’. Combined with footage of fuelless abandoned vehicles dotting the countryside, it would appear that the Russian Army is experiencing severe logistics problems. The destruction of a train carrying oil to the front from Russia, by a TB-2 combat drone, will do little to assuage these issues.
Alternatively, it may be that these abandoned vehicles are suffering from mechanical breakdown — a significant problem for the Russian Army during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. This is more likely to be the case for regular army units and conscript brigades, which will experience a lesser degree of prioritisation for maintenance and upkeep. Inexperienced conscripts will be much less likely to ‘troubleshoot’ a broken-down vehicle.
Remarkably, the Ukrainian Air Force was not neutralised on day one by Russia’s vastly larger air force. Following the first day of intense air operation where hundreds of helicopters were deployed on incursions across Ukraine, and many Ukrainian airbases were attacked with numerous planes destroyed on the ground, there appeared to be a lull in the operation of Russian air assets. Various observers have speculated that this was caused by excessive casualties from Ukrainian MANPADs, aircraft, and air defence systems. Alternatively, a lack of logistics capacity may be preventing the efficient recycling of warplanes in the combat theatre. The prominence of Russian air power has increased in recent days, with SU-34 fighter-bombers being recorded on bombing runs over Kharkiv.
It is highly possible that the Ukrainian air assets may be operating out of NATO bases in Romania or Poland. On the first day of the conflict, a fully armed Ukrainian SU-27 was allegedly recorded landing on a Romanian airbase, which was at the time assumed to be a desertion. Perhaps it was instead a contingency.
NATO refuelling planes have been circling the Polish border for several days, and public flight tracking shows these planes engaging in manoeuvres consistent with aerial refuelling. It is quite possible that Ukrainian planes are benefiting from NATO refuelling, and possibly even NATO airborne warning and control system (AWACS) capabilities. However, we can make no definitive assessment on these speculations.
Judging by the sheer number of aircraft in service, the Russians would appear to be quite capable of devastating strategic bombing campaigns against Ukrainian cities. This would of course be a war crime and cause many civilian deaths. It is quite possible that the world is currently seeing the more ‘restrained’ and ‘precise’ approach from the Russian military, which has never been particularly good at either (and is unlikely to break the habit of a lifetime). The sight of Russian convoy troops nonplussed in the face of civilian peaceful protests is another indication that the Russians are seeking to avoid gratuitous civilian casualties.
This Week One Summary will continue tomorrow evening with an in-depth analysis of the Ukrainian military.
Photo credit: Фото Дмитрий Муравский, Ministry of Defence of Ukraine. CC 2.0
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