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6 months of war: How Russia got derailed in Ukraine
Shock and awe roared over Kyiv Oblast in the early hours of Feb. 24, 2022.
Dozens of Russian Ka-52 and Mi-8 helicopters rushed south at low altitude over the Dnipro River, carrying 200-300 elite stormtroopers with the 11th Guards Air Assault Brigade.
Some of the helicopters were downed and fell into the cold river. But nothing could stop them. It took them little time to break through Ukraine’s defenses, still stunned after massive missile attacks.
CNN was soon showing Russian airborne units regrouping at the Hostomel Airfield — a landing foothold less than 30 kilometers from downtown Kyiv.
White armlets, willow green helmets, assault rifles, grenade launchers.
They were gaining ground for an even greater landing force to attack Ukraine's capital city. They would have attacked the government quarter and raised the Russian flag over the ruins on Bankova Street, spelling the end to 30 years of Ukraine's independence.
At the same moment, gargantuan Russian army convoys rushed towards Kharkiv, Kherson, Sumy, and Chernihiv.
Doomsday had arrived, long anticipated and inevitable.
Or had it really?
By the end of the day of Feb. 24, Ukraine's 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade, part of the National Guard, made a picture of its soldiers rejoicing and demonstrating a bullet-riddled Ukrainian flag at the airfield facilities.
Russia's "invincible airborne" that landed in Hostomel had been encircled and destroyed.
That was just the beginning of the Battle of Kyiv. The fighting continued for weeks. But Russia’s disastrous plan to try to score a rapid victory determined the battle's result — the complete Russian withdrawal from Ukraine's north.
Six months later, those memories feel like they were from a different war.
Instead of a splendid blitzkrieg and a rapid triumph over a hopeless Ukraine, the Kremlin slipped into a brutal, prolonged battlefield war it never expected to fight.
The Russian military suffered humiliating defeats, triggered massive Western arms supplies to Ukraine, and wasted months gaining desolated territories in Ukraine's east.
Over these six months, the war has gone from the expectation that Kyiv will fall within 72 hours to Russia having its strategic airfields in Crimea devastated by Ukrainian attacks.
Now the 1,000-kilometer front line has largely stabilized.
Russia, exhausted by unreasonably costly battles in the previous months, finds it increasingly hard to secure any significant gains. Moreover, it struggles to generate high-quality military power to compensate for its losses and step up its effort against Ukraine.
But Ukraine is also in a deadlock — as it still lacks Western arms and equipment to gain a decisive advantage and bring this war to an end.
Phase one: The Blitzkrieg
Russia made its worst strategic mistake when its convoys marked Z, V and O rushed in Ukraine before dawn on Feb. 24.
The force of over 150,000 troops supported from the air and the sea was dispersed among nearly nine strategic axes, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donbas, and Kherson.
The Kremlin did this to ensure the seizure of the whole (or most) of Ukraine as quickly as possible — just one of so many purely political reasons that have derailed this campaign.
Russia lacked power for such a large operation. Yet it had its invasion forces scattered around a country larger than France.
As a result, none of those strikes had an ultimate power Ukraine couldn’t withstand.
Massive Russian missile attack against the Ukrainian military infrastructure did inflict damage.
But, as the following events showed, it failed at disorganizing Ukraine's military or destroying the country's air defense.
The Ukrainian military, particularly its Air Force, took up the fight — outnumbered and outgunned, but thanks to Western intelligence, warned in advance.
Russia’s overconfidence was stunning.
Brazen Russian soldiers were already making calls to make reservations at Kyiv restaurants. Convoys of Russia's Rosgvardia were carrying shields and clubs to be used against revolting civilians in Kyiv and Kharkiv.
Many Russian units were so sure of their easy victory that they had their ceremonial uniforms with them for parades in Kyiv.
Invasion convoys stretched many kilometers on Ukrainian roads in the woods. And that's where the Ukrainian military and numerous paramilitaries applied one of the only possible tactics available at the moment — mobile defense.
Small Ukrainian units covered by woods and armed with Western-provided anti-tank weapons like Javelins and NLAWs attacked those convoys, cloddish and vulnerable.
This derailed Russian logistics and supplies deep in Ukrainian territory.
Quite common were instances when Ukrainian defenders, detecting a Russian convoy, would let tanks and personnel carriers pass by but then attacked fuel trucks. As a result, stripped of fuel, Russian crews often had no choice but to stop and abandon their tanks.
Dozens of convoys were crushed on the march, leaving scores of scorched Russian vehicles across northern Ukraine.
Moreover, Russia failed to overwhelm Chernihiv or Sumy on its way, and those two cities distracted a significant share of Russia's military power.
For instance, according to Ukrainian intelligence, out of nearly 30 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) that were committed to attacking Kyiv from the east, just six or seven made it due to fierce resistance in Ukraine's northeast.
Russian advances, chaotic and poorly organized, quickly got bogged down in the dense suburbs of Kyiv, the sadly-remembered Bucha-Hostomel-Irpin triangle that also has many rivers and bridges.
Fierce urban war, where Russian air support was weakened, and supplies were problematic, continued through most of March, with extremely slow and painful Russian movement.
In the Battle of Kyiv, Russia ended up having up to just nearly 25 BTGs on both sides of the Dnipro River — and that's against a fortified large capital city located in very complicated river terrain and defended by selected combat units.
The outcome was predestined — "the goodwill gesture," the full withdrawal from Kyiv Oblast by late march, following Ukrainian attacks upon exhausted and undersupplied Russian units.
With Russia giving up on Kyiv, storming Sumy and Chernihiv also no longer made sense.
So by early April, as the world was unearthing the horror of Bucha, Russia also withdrew from Sumy and Chernihiv oblasts.
In all, Russia gave up on up to 40% of Ukraine's territory occupied after Feb. 24.
In the country's south, however, things were quite the opposite.
The Ukrainian failure to protect Kherson and local transport communications in the oblast paved the Russian way northeast along the Azov Sea coastline to Melitopol, Berdiansk — and eventually, to the tragic siege and the destruction of Mariupol.
Only thanks to the stubborn defense of Mykolaiv, the Russian advance was halted and thrown back to Kherson, which in turn saved Odesa.
Russia failed to use its only chance to get the full victory it expected by inflicting a quick defeat upon Ukraine. It failed to disorganize the Ukrainian military, or neutralize the country's political leadership, or demoralize the Ukrainian society.
The price was extremely high: according to Ukrainian estimates, some 25% of Russia's nearly 125 BTGs deployed against Ukraine were rendered combat ineffective.
That includes many of Russia's best-trained units, such as those of the Tamanskaya and Kantemirovskaya divisions, as well as many VDV airborne and naval infantry units, thrown into the very depths of hell in Ukraine.
By late March, according to NATO estimates, Russia had already had some 40,000 casualties, including between 7,000 and 15,000 killed in action. That's the worst Russian death toll within such a short period of time since World War II.
In late May, the U.S. estimated that Russia had lost nearly 1,000 tanks, over 350 artillery pieces, 30 jets, and 50 helicopters — also unprecedented figures.
The Kremlin's inadequate megalomania and lies spreading up to the highest offices quickly stripped Russia of much of its war power in the very beginning.
In fact, the blitz was already derailed by late February, as soon as it became clear that if Russia wanted a piece of Ukraine, it would have to fight a long hard war.
Phase two: The Battle of Donbas
Having failed at taking Kyiv, Russia also momentarily forgot about the "de-Nazification" and "demilitarization" of Ukraine.
It declared a new goal that, of course, had always been the actual one from the very beginning — its so-called "liberation" of Donbas.
In phase two, Russia learned some lessons. And following a brief lull, it created a much stronger concentration of military power against Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
The Battle of Donbas was unleashed by mid-April.
No more brazen tank rushes, Russia said, switching to the methodical destruction of everything that stood in its way with its massive artillery power.
Popasna, Sievierodonetsk, Rubizhne, Lysychansk, and many other cities and towns of Donbas were turned into heaps of concrete so that Russian infantry could advance by just another several hundred meters.
During the battle's peak, in May and June, Russia had concentrated nearly 65% of its military power.
Despite its supremacy, Russia also had to downsize its objectives again.
The battle started as a Russian attempt to surround the whole Ukrainian military group of some 75,000 troops in Donbas, with two strikes coming from Izium in the north and Zaporizhia Oblast in the south to meet up and cut the whole region of the rest of Ukraine.
This plan has failed due to stiff resistance on both edges.
Russia's main effort was reduced to spending some three months surrounding and seizing what was left of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, the last cities of Luhansk Oblast still under Ukrainian control until July.
Still outnumbered and outgunned, Ukraine resorted to exhausting Russian forces in grueling close combat for as long as possible and then rapidly retreating to new frontiers.
Ukraine lost the ruined twin cities but avoided a defeat and took up yet another defensive line in Donetsk Oblast father west, between the towns of Siversk, Bakhmut, and Avdiivka.
Nearly two and a half months later, Russia likely remains so exhausted that it has not demonstrated any genuinely significant breakthrough in Donbas or elsewhere.
That's except for minor incremental gains in areas close to Bakhmut, Avdiivka, or in Pisky, ensured by Wagner mercenaries or collaborationists facilitated by overwhelming artillery power.
After over four months of the battle, Russia has not seized the region’s main fortresses, such as Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, or Avdiivka.
In all cases, Russian forces pushing Ukrainians out of those areas rather than defeating them do not develop their tactical gains into operative, more significant, and long-lasting successes.
"This phenomenon helps explain the extremely slow rate of Russian advances in the east," the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a U.S.-based think tank, said on Aug. 21.
"And it strongly suggests that the Russians will be unable to take much more ground in the coming months unless the situation develops in unforeseen ways. Russian forces will likely remain unable to commit enough resources to any offensive operation to regain the momentum necessary for significant territorial advances."
And that goes with the fact that six months in, Russia is employing almost all of its conventional capabilities against Ukraine, having deployed units from as far as the Sakhalin Island, 7,000 kilometers away from Ukraine.
According to Ukraine's defense minister Oleksiy Reznikov, Russia currently employs some 115 BTGs, including 105 BTGs involved in combat, a vague mixture of Russian regular units, hordes of forcibly mobilized conscripts of Donbas, and mercenaries.
But according to the ISW, Russia needs to generate and commit additional assault groups, equipment, and morale to resume even the seen limited territorial advances yielding small tactical gains.
Russia does make its way through Ukrainian defenses with its strong artillery. But it now falls short of strong and motivated assault troops.
It is now training the so-called 3rd Army Corps of up to 15,000 troops, as well as a number of shadowy "volunteer battalions" — in reality, just yesterday's civilians from all walks of life motivated by nothing but easy money.
They are unlikely to become a high-quality military force.
The situation went as far as the Wagner Group recruiting violent convicts from all across Russia, with the army's master, the Kremlin oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhyn personally visiting prison facilities to employ more cannon fodder.
Phase three: Battle of attrition?
The Battle of Donbas also saw one of the war's most tragic and crucial moments that went on behind the scenes.
By June, after just three months of the full-scale war, Ukraine had effectively run out of old Soviet artillery munitions.
Ukrainian guns went largely silent. But thanks to Western aid, Ukraine managed to rapidly substitute much of its artillery corps with NATO-standard 155- and 105-millimeter pieces, partiover 100 M777 systems, and get back in the game, although still no match with Russia's supremacy.
In many ways, this fearful and luckily short gap deserves to be called a miracle of this war. Without it, Ukraine would have been doomed to gradually wither under Russian guns.
And here comes another critical factor — the technological advantage of Western weaponry.
A smaller Soviet army stands no chance against a big Soviet army. So what comes in front is the power of quality over quantity, the essence of how new weaponry helps Ukraine derail Russia's war.
Thanks to a Bayraktar TB2 drone and a couple of anti-ship missiles, Russia lost the Black Sea Fleet pride, flagship missile cruiser Moskva, possibly Russia's worst humiliation in this war.
The acquisition of Harpoon anti-ship missiles made the Russian Black Sea Fleet stay away from Ukrainian shores.
Devastating Ukrainian strikes made Russians withdraw from Snake Island on June 30 and thus clear off the northwestern Black Sea. And thus the threat of a Russian landing operation in Transnistria was eliminated, Odesa ended up being safer, and Ukraine paved the way for re-opening grain shipments, which was a Ukrainian diplomatic victory.
Kamikaze drones operated by Ukraine's special operations forces (or possibly AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles launched from newly-adapted Ukrainian MiG-29 fighters) targeted Russia's strategic airfield Saki in Crimea, stripping it of half of its naval air power in the region.
Up to this day, Russia's Air and Space Force still does not enjoy air supremacy — thanks to stationary Ukrainian defenses, but also to scores of Western-provided MANPADs in so many Ukrainian hands.
Just a handful of M142 HIMARS systems, the main holy grail of this war, equipped with M30/M31 GMLRS rockets destroyed dozens of large and small Russian fuel and munitions dumps, wreaking havoc in Russian logistics.
A handful of HIMARS systems also endangered Russia's position in Kherson, precipitating a widely discussed Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The 1000-kilometer front line, meanwhile, is seeing almost no significant chances in the last few weeks.
According to Ukraine's top general Valeriy Zaluzhniy, close to 9,000 Ukrainian service members have paid with their lives for stabilizing the front since Feb. 24.
At the same time, Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), an online investigations project, estimates Russian irreparable losses at 20,000-25,0000 dead, including some 10,000 Russian-led militants and mercenaries.
The Battle of Donbas is not formally over, but the war's focus has already shifted to the south, where Ukrainian strikes have made Russian positions increasingly fragile.
Now Russia withdraws large parts of its forces from Donbas to reinforce its defenses in Kherson and elsewhere in the south, including Berdyansk — the key transportation point and the airfield.
The war's phase three is expected to be marked by a successful Ukrainian major counter-offensive before wintertime. But as time goes by, it never comes.
The answer is likely the lack of weapons at hand right now.
Over the last six months, Ukraine has had nearly 1 million in ranks, including some 700,000 now serving with the Armed Forces. Some 30%-35% of them, based on typical military structure, are actual fighting troops, the rest being in charge of support and maintenance.
According to estimates by monitors, including the Conflict Intelligence Team, the boosted Ukrainian manpower currently lacks weapons and equipment for large operations to break through the possible stalemate.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, in his Aug. 23 statement, has already predicted a "hard winter" and "a war of attrition.”
The growing stalemate threat prompted a group of 20 distinguished national security experts, including retired military generals and ambassadors, to call on the U.S. administration to "arm Ukraine now before it's too late."
"Dragging out the conflict through so-called strategic pauses will do nothing but allow Putin to regroup, recover and inflict more damage in Ukraine and beyond," the op-ed published by The Hill on Aug. 17 says.
"With the necessary weapons and economic aid, Ukraine can defeat Russia."
And just six months ago, this war started with Russian paratroopers landing within arm's reach to the very heart of Kyiv.
Note from the author:
Hello! My name is Illia Ponomarenko, the guy who wrote this piece for you.
I hope you found it useful and interesting. I work day and night to bring you quality stories from Ukraine, where Russia is waging the biggest war in Europe since WWII. My little homeland, Donbas, is now the site of the worst fighting. We are helping to keep the world informed about Russian aggression. But I also need help from every one of you — to support Ukrainian wartime journalism by donating to the Kyiv Independent and becoming our patron. Together, we can help bring peace to Ukraine.