It has been eight weeks since the Russian government launched a multi-pronged offensive into Ukraine. In the north, the Russian army laid siege to Kyiv for almost a month. The operation rapidly degenerated into an urban battle of attrition favorable to Ukraine, and eventually the Russian government withdrew its troops, conceding defeat in the battle for Kyiv, while preparing a second phase of the war in Donbas. While the fog of war prevents in-depth analysis, two initial lessons stand out from the first phase of the conflict. First, do not rely on the invaded nation’s popular support. The Russian government appeared to build its operation around the assumption that Ukrainian elites and the populace would support the overthrow of their government, or at the very least stand aside. They did not expect heavy resistance from the Ukrainian population. Second, know when to quit. The Russian government accepted a tactical defeat and the political costs associated with it in order to preserve their combat power for a decisive battle under more favorable circumstances. Both lessons seem self-explanatory, but, previously, many governments have hoped an invasion would trigger a regime change and then refused to correct course when popular support failed to materialize.
Initial military operations in the Kyiv area began on the very first day of the invasion with the Russian airborne assault on the Hostomel airport, that put 200-400 paratroopers 15 kilometers outside the Ukrainian capital on Feb. 24. This was a high-risk operation that can only be justified if Russia expected the Ukrainian government to collapse. In addition, a large scale column of about four regiments (15,000 to 20,000 personnel) arrived from Belarus along the west bank of the Dnieper. On the eastern side of the Dnieper two division-sized formations (20,000 – 24,000 personnel) arrived on the north-east side of Kyiv through the Chernihiv and Sumy regions. The Ukrainian government responded by arming the local population and rushing in [regular?] forces from western Ukraine. At the same time, Russian forces successfully attacked out of Crimea aiming to capture bridges over the Dnieper and to attack Ukrainian troops north of Mariupol in the rear, encircling the city.
The rapid growth in Ukraine’s combat power meant that the Russian army didn’t have the forces to successfully attack a city of 2.5 million or even to effectively lay siege to it. At first, the siege of Kyiv still served a military purpose by drawing Ukrainian forces away from Donbas, where units of the Russian army and the separatist republics were having success around Mariupol and Izyum. Once the Russian army had consolidated their defense, protecting the flanks of the Donbas operations in the vicinity of Kherson bridgehead and south of Kryvyi Rih and the city of Zaporizhzhia, even this purpose was lost.
The Russian army found itself in a quandary. The Ukrainian government was still standing, and the Russian forces were drawn into urban battles in the suburbs of Kyiv. These battles naturally favored the Ukrainian side, with its larger reserves of immediately available manpower, familiarity with local terrain and decentralized system of command and control. While many of the Russian troops were elite paratroopers, their high level of training was neutralized by the complex nature of urban terrain. Meanwhile, on the Ukrainian side, even the newly raised Ukrainian Territorial Defense units, with no serious training, were effective in this environment—it does not take much skill to fire a rifle out of a window. The Territorial Defense units assumed defensive tasks, releasing Ukraine’s professional troops for raids and attack operations aimed at the attrition of Russian forces. In addition to losses, the Russian army faced a major logistic challenge: Russian forces rely on railroads for sustainment, but the west bank of the Dnieper has no usable railroad. The east bank of the Dnieper was no better. The two main rail lines required the capture of Chernihiv and Nizhyn, to be usable. Both cities were large urban centers and would take months to clear.
Having failed in its main objective of toppling the government and faced with increased casualties and stiffening resistance, the siege of Kyiv lost strategic value to the Russian army. By March 25, the Russian army has admitted to losing 1,351 soldiers, which includes only those soldiers whose bodies have been recovered. The statement is also carefully worded to exclude non-army losses such as Ministry of Interior (National Guard), regional forces like Chechnya-based national guard units or allied troops from the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republics (LNR), as well as the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia. Together those should add up to 3,000 killed, based on loss ratio provided by Russia. Even those numbers are low, according to NATO, which estimates 7,000 to 10,000 Russian dead, or Ukraine, which places Russian dead above 20,000. From the perspective of the Russian government, these casualties made little sense since the decisive battle for Ukraine was shaping up to be in Donbas, where Ukraine has concentrated its best formations and the terrain, an open grassland (steppe), favors the Russian army. There are few villages and little vegetation to provide cover and concealment. This plays into Russian advantages of air power, drones, artillery and centralized command style. The region offers a battle that could be won without excessive casualties. The operation is also easier logistically due to the large number of railheads close to the front, especially with the capture of the railhead at Izyum. For this battle, the Russian army has amassed 55,000 to 63,000 troops plus 30,000 DNR/LNR soldiers. The force concentration gives them the ability to encircle and destroy all Ukrainian formations in the Donbas, numbering between 40,000 to 60,000 professional troops, forces Ukraine can ill afford to lose.
As a result, the Russian government has made the decision to abandon the siege of Kyiv and move the bulk of its force into the vicinity of Kharkiv and Donbas. It is important to recognize that the Russian retreat was a choice made by Russia and not forced by the Ukrainian army. This is demonstrated by the Ukrainians’ failure to trap and destroy a single company-sized element even when Russians were vulnerable during retreat.
The first lesson drawn from the battle for Kyiv is “never rely on host nations’ popular support when invading a country.” The entire Kyiv axis of advance seemed to be built on premises of the elite and the populace supporting the Russian invasion, or at least not resisting. During the first days of the invasion, the Russian army didn’t even bother to secure towns and villages along its route of advance. When the partisan movement began in the Sumy and Chernihiv provinces, it caught the Russian army by surprise. Failure to prepare support for the Russian army and secure the rear areas may explain why the head of the FSB’s Fifth Service and a Russian National Guard commander may have been arrested. However, the Russians may not have been entirely wrong in their assumption of local support. In the south where the Russian speaking population dominates, the Russian army did not meet any significant resistance, and no evidence of effective partisan movement emerged. The Russian mistake appears to be the assumption that the majority of the eastern and southern Ukrainian population, who speak either Russian or Surzhyk (a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian), would support them. This proved to be wishful thinking.
This mistake appears to be at the root of most Russian problems in Ukraine. The assumption drove the political objective, in turn setting the military objective to have large forces threatening Kyiv on the first or second day of the operation. To achieve this goal, the Russian army had to trade speed for security in unfavorable terrain. There was simply not enough time to conduct proper reconnaissance, establish and secure logistics. The terrain on which the battle was fought was also a result of the assumption and the political objectives. The requirement to besiege Kyiv automatically forced the Russian army to fight in the urban suburbs of Kyiv, placing outnumbered Russian troops at a severe disadvantage. The assumption that the Russian-speaking and Surzhyk-speaking population would support the Russian invasion appears to have doomed the Russian army in the battle for Kyiv, with other mistakes and problems stemming from an operational plan built around the flawed assumption.
To be fair, the Russians aren’t the only ones susceptible to this mistake. The U.S. invasions of Iraq and the Bay of Pigs fiasco were both built around the idea that the local population would support our invasion. It caused major difficulties when this support never materialized. Vitally, in today’s conflict, it seems that at least some Western governments are hoping that sanctions will generate a regime change in Moscow, and end the war on favorable Western terms. Given that polls show Putin’s regime is currently supported by 80% of Russians (though there are caveats), counting on an overthrow of his government may be an even greater mistake.
The second key lesson is to “know when to quit,” a lesson Russian leadership already learned in Afghanistan. When senior leaders make mistakes, they are often loath to admit them. In many cases, the conflict goes on for years, with key decisions kicked down the road, even when all involved know the plan is failing. The Russian government seems to have avoided that mistake. It recognized that Kyiv lost its strategic (but not historic) value when the Ukrainian government did not collapse, and, faced with the dilemma of either reinforcing a costly operation or accepting the defeat and conserving forces, the Russians chose the latter. The decision to accept the political costs of a tactical defeat and reinforce the operation that holds the promise of strategic victory was the best choice to be made under the circumstances, and the one that may pave the way to eventual victory. This was a difficult decision for the political leadership, especially due to attacks from the ”patriotic” Russian blogosphere. The U.S.-Afghan war dragged on for 20 years despite U.S. leaders privately admitting defeat much earlier, and France is still operating in Mali. Admitting defeat and shifting strategy is key to successful leadership, both military and civilian. This is especially important in large-scale conflicts that can consume large amounts of national resources in a short amount of time. Our political leadership should take note and develop processes to measure success and clear decision points at which strategy is either continued, or a new one is sought.
Ukraine won the battle for Kyiv, but the war has just begun. The Russian government’s initial miscalculations about the level of support from the Ukrainian population undermined their plan for a quick, bloodless victory. However, the Russian government has recognized its mistakes, and after accepting a political cost, has now changed course. Most governments make mistakes; few can correct them before they turn into disaster. By changing course early, the Russian government has demonstrated itself to be a dangerous and adaptable enemy. The real challenge for Western governments lays in avoiding the same mistakes and making rapid course adjustments once mistakes become apparent.
U.S. Lt. Col. Alex Vershinin retired after 20 years of service, including eight years as an armor officer with four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and 12 years working as a modeling and simulations officer in NATO and U.S. Army concept development and experimentation. This included a tour with the U.S. Army Sustainment Battle Lab, where he led the experimentation scenario team.