Russia lost the Battle of kyiv with its rushed assault on a Ukrainian airport
Days after the withdrawal of Russian forces from kyiv, the northern outskirts of the Ukrainian capital is littered with the charred remains of blown up and derelict Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and other equipment.
The debris is brutal testimony to an assault that aimed to overthrow the Ukrainian government, but which turned into a humiliating blunder for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s failure to take the capital resulted in a series of errors of judgment and strategic errors: the emphasis on vulnerable armored columns, the inadequate use of air power, a plan of attack that overloaded the supply lines and, above all, a blatant miscalculation by the Ukrainians. ability and determination to resist.
But experts say there is one place, more than anywhere else, where Putin’s vision of a whirlwind victory has failed: Antonov Airport.
This sprawling cargo airport and military base 24 km northwest of downtown kyiv was meant to be the main staging ground and logistics center for a decisive Russian push into the heart of the capital.
The Ukrainian government was supposed to fall and President Volodymyr Zelensky was to be killed, captured, or forced into exile. Experts said Putin was likely planning to install a puppet leader.
The idea was that a hasty collapse of the central government would trigger deep disarray in the Ukrainian units fighting in the east and south, eventually leading to a broad surrender.
“They had to get into central kyiv as quickly as possible and raise the Russian flag over a government building,” said John Spencer, a retired US Army major who now chairs war studies. at the Madison Policy Forum think tank in New York. . “At that time, you won the war. Yes, you can unleash the greatest insurgency in history. But you won the war.
He said capturing the airport was “essential” to Russian strategy. Antonov has a long runway, ideal for flying supplies and troops on heavy transport planes.
“You need airfields to bring in the force, to bring in tanks, engineers, the necessary armor,” Spencer said.
Unlike the United States in its assault on Baghdad in 2003, Russia immediately launched its assault on the ground, without first pounding military bases, command and control structures and other strategic sites from the air. There was no shock or awe. This decision continues to confuse more than one.
“We were all expecting Russia to do several days of airstrikes, precision missile strikes, that sort of thing – ‘softening up’, so to speak,” said NAC analyst Dmitry Gorenburg, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. “But then they launched a ground operation rather than waiting a few days. I don’t know why they were in such a rush.
Russia spent a lot of air power in their assault on the airfield.
On the morning of February 24 – the first day of what Putin called his “special operation” – low-flying Russian Mi-8 assault helicopters appeared over the airport and began firing rockets . Plumes of smoke rose from the airfield. Russian paratroopers transported by helicopter quickly redirected civilian traffic outside the airport gates.
By all accounts, attempting to seize the air base at the very start of the war made a lot of sense, helping to complete a possible pincer movement on the capital with motorized columns nearby.
“The initial idea was that cargo planes with paratroopers and vehicles would land here and it should have been an entry point to Kyiv,” Denys Monastyrsky, Ukraine’s Internal Security Minister, told reporters. friday.
Once the airfield is secured, Russia “could start sending a lot more troops and start manning checkpoints in the middle of kyiv,” said Jonathan Eyal, associate director of the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “If you think about it, if they had been successful, I think the war could have gone very differently.”
A day after the initial attack, Major General Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, announced that Moscow had sent 200 helicopters to take control of the airfield.
In fact, authorities here said fighting at the airport continued for days and Ukrainian forces shot down several helicopters, even as Moscow carried wave after wave of paratroopers.
Weeks of fierce fighting have turned the airport into a dystopian post-battle debris field, littered with spent ammunition, rockets, Russian ration boxes, gas masks and burnt and tattered uniforms.
The most remarkable monument of the fighting is the shattered carcass of an Antonov An-225.
The six-engined juggernaut, long the largest aircraft in the world, is known in Ukrainian as Mriya, or Dream, and was a source of intense national pride. No more.
The plane appears to have been gouged out by a giant can opener, its fuselage sheared into a blackened jumble of wire and metal, the Ukrainian colors yellow and blue still visible outside the cockpit.
Russia eventually secured the airfield, but its forces remained under constant fire, according to Ukrainian officials.
Russia has never been able to land large transport planes to reinforce the beleaguered forces here and elsewhere in the Kyiv region. Rather than advancing towards the heart of the capital, the Russian troops at the air base fought for their survival.
“It was a turning point,” Eyal said.
With Zelensky and the Ukrainian government still in power, the Russian attack columns – lacking supplies and advance reinforcements – became bogged down in the capital’s dense northern suburbs.
Ukrainian troops have used Western-supplied Javelin man-portable anti-tank systems and Turkish-supplied drones to clear Russian armour, much of it now rusting in the capital’s suburbs.
Somehow, Moscow had not anticipated the effect of the sophisticated equipment and training Ukrainian forces had received from the West in recent years. Experts said Russia’s multi-pronged attack on multiple fronts was clearly under-equipped against a well-armed adversary.
“They tried to do too much,” Gorenburg said. “If they had focused on one goal, like taking kyiv, maybe they would have done better.”
Putin may have more success as his troops shift their efforts east, where pro-Russian separatists have been battling for years. But Russia’s withdrawal here has also bolstered Ukrainian confidence in its troops’ ability to repel, if not defeat, its colossal adversary.
Such a notion would undoubtedly draw derision from Putin. The Russian leader has long questioned Ukraine’s status as an independent state, publicly declaring its territory and people an extension of historic Russia.
Some say it was Putin’s distorted view of Ukraine that may have led him to misjudge what it would take to win this war – and ignore the idea that Ukrainians would resist. firmly against the Russian assault.
“I think the bottom line, the essence of the story, is that Mr. Putin believed the nonsense he was spouting, that Ukraine is a fake state hijacked by a small clique – and the moment you put your finger on it, the whole thing would come crashing down like a house of cards, with the Ukrainian president fleeing,” Eyal said. “Everything else followed that original mistake.
On the streets of kyiv, where the retreat was greeted with relief and pride, many agree: Putin underestimated the will of the people to stand up to Russian force.
“I can’t get into Putin’s head, but I think, yes, he really expected to take kyiv in three days,” said Vitalii Hemych, 28, a restaurant owner. “But our nation is now united. This is the main reason why his plan failed.
Special Envoy Ilona Shubovych in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, contributed to this report.