The front of the war in Ukraine has changed a lot over the past year. We went from an invasion supposed to allow the Russians to quickly take kyiv to a long conflict, resembling trench warfare. Behind this change in appearance, several great battles which marked this first year of a bloody conflict in the heart of Europe.
On February 24, 2022, the Russian army stormed kyiv with the intention of putting an end to it quickly. A year later, the conflict has bogged down and Ukraine – supported militarily by the West – has even managed to retake some of the territory conquered by Russia at the start of the war.
The Russian failure to achieve its initial goals did not happen overnight. France 24 asked two military experts – Gustav Gressel, a specialist in Russian military issues at the Berlin-based European Council on International Relations, and Sim Tack, a military analyst for Forces Analysis, a conflict monitoring company – for their opinion on the main battles that brought the opposing forces to the current situation.
At the start of the conflict, observers believed that “the probability of a rapid victory for Russia would depend on its control of the air and the way in which it managed to exploit it”, recalls Gustav Gressel.
But Moscow failed to impose itself in the sky, a failure with “significant consequences on the rest of the conflict”, affirms the German expert.
The Russians had, however, followed the first rule for obtaining dominance from the air: using intensive electronic jamming to blind Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses in order to facilitate the bombardment of targets such as air bases or defensive devices. But “they were negligent in following up the bombardments and did not realize that they had certainly done a lot of damage, but little destruction”, notes Gustav Gressel.
The Russians were then in too much of a hurry: they sent the troops on the ground when the air campaign was not yet complete. “To allow the ground invasion, they had to stop jamming the electrical devices so as not to prevent their troops from communicating with each other”, underlines Gustav Gressel. Result: the Ukrainian forces were able to recover and reorganize their anti-aircraft defenses.
The Russian army sought to overtake its adversary by moving towards the Ukrainian capital on 24 February.
The failure of this strategy demonstrated “the Ukrainians’ ability to organize an effective defense quickly, even when taken by surprise”, assures Sim Tack.
Symbol of this battle of kyiv, the Russian effort to take the airport of Antonov (or Hostomel) from February 24. “They sent special forces by helicopter which were to be joined by traditional transport planes, then supported by Russian motorized units which came from Belarus”, details Gustav Gressel.
But the Ukrainians managed to repel the transport planes, leaving the troops who had arrived by helicopter isolated. “The tanks were fast, but not fast enough to reach these units in time,” says Gustav Gressel.
Russia’s failure to cross the southern Bug River at Voznessensk, northwest of Kherson and Mykolaiv, to head south “marked the end of Russian hopes of taking Odessa”, says Sim Tack.
The Russian forces had already tried, in vain, to cross this river at Mykolaiv. So they rushed north in hopes of getting there in a smaller and perhaps less well-defended city like Voznessensk.
“Russia tried to copy the approach adopted in 2003 by American forces in Iraq: send small units forward to quickly take the targeted territories,” notes Sim Tack. But they did not have the same air support as the Americans, which greatly facilitated the Ukrainian defense. “This Russian strategy mainly resulted in stretching the Russian army, thus giving Ukrainian troops more time to organize themselves between two waves of assault”, explains Sim Tack.
About forty kilometers from the border with Russia, the city of Kharkiv represents a very important lock to be broken for Moscow. “It is an essential city to take for quick access to large areas of central Ukraine,” says Sim Tack.
This is why the Russians tried to capture it as early as February 24. But, here again, the Ukrainian defense held firm, for months and despite an intense campaign of Russian aerial bombardments.
“This battle proved that the Russian army has a hard time in urban environments, especially in big cities like Kharkiv. In their defense, it is one of the most complicated combat environments and even the United States does not haven’t found a silver bullet for city battles,” said Sim Tack.
The Russian failure is all the more striking as Moscow had dispatched to Kharkiv “some of its elite units which would henceforth be lacking elsewhere on the front”, affirms Sim Tack.
The port city of Mariupol, south of Donetsk, was a prime prize for Russia. “Its control allowed Russia to create continuity between the Donbass region and the Kherson region which was occupied,” notes Sim Tack.
The battle for Mariupol took much longer than Moscow expected. The Russians started by occupying the port, then they went up towards the city center and then had to destroy the pockets of resistance one after the other.
Symbol of this merciless fight: the siege of the Azovstal factory where the last Ukrainian fighters had entrenched themselves. A final act of this battle followed by the whole world.
“It was in Mariupol that Russia began its strategy of intensive bombardment of cities when an infantry offensive was not enough”, explains Sim Tack.
The clashes for control of the Donets River are “the great battle that defined the course of the war”, assures Sim Tack. They were an important natural line of defense between northern Ukraine and areas further south.
Unsuccessful attempts to cross the river, whether at Izium during the month of March, then at various other crossing points between this city, located south of Kharkiv, and Lyssytchansk, have greatly contributed to the stagnation of the forehead.
It was from this moment that the Ukrainian conflict took on more the appearance of a war of position rather than movement.
These repeated failures of the Russians also recalled “the strength of geography. Even with the equipment specific to a modern conflict, crossing a river remains a very complex operation, requiring perfect coordination”, underlines Sim Tack. The Russians learned this the hard way and lost a significant number of men and equipment in these attempted crossings.
The violent clashes that began around the town of Popasna in March illustrate the modus operandi of the Russian army after the first wave of major maneuvers at the start of the war. “It’s typical of the spearhead strategy to break through opposing defenses,” sums up Gustav Gressel.
To advance, “the Russian artillery provides considerable firepower in order to break the lines of defense and clear the way for the infantry”, explains the German expert.
At Popasna, the Ukrainians had difficulty countering this strategy, but the coordination problems of the Russian army “meant that this breakthrough did not materialize in a significant change of the front line, because the infantry did not follow quickly enough”, adds Gustav Gressel.
This battle “still defines the dynamics of the war today because it opened the way to Bakhmout for the Russians”, specifies Sim Tack.
“It is a perfect illustration of optimal use of limited resources to gain an advantage,” notes Gustav Gressel.
Ukraine, outnumbered and almost 100% dependent on military equipment supplied by the West, managed to mount a counter-offensive around Kharkiv which resulted in putting Moscow “in the very delicate position of having to choose between recognizing that the war was lost or deciding on a military mobilization”, summarizes Gustav Gressel. On September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin thus announced the partial mobilization of civilian reservists.
kyiv began by pretending that a major operation was being prepared around Kherson, pushing Russia to reassign some of its troops there. As soon as the Russian defense line “was thus found to be too stretched, the Ukrainian army struck at the level of Kharkiv”, notes Sim Tack.
Source: France 24