The Russian soldier turned the steering wheel to the right, digging furrows in the embankment as the truck staggered over a field straddling the M06 highway near Kiev. He charged a few tens of meters, desperate to escape the Ukrainian forces who ambushed his armored column a few kilometers away when he ran into another unit.
“We learned they were going down this road, our intelligence groups told us,” said Vasil, a 57-year-old Ukrainian tank operator sitting at a picnic table in the bushes by the side of the highway. A few yards away was his tank; it, too, was obscured by the trees, like a large beast with its turret pointed towards the road.
“They were more than us. We used everything we had.
The corpse of the driver and the burnt carcass of the overturned Russian truck seemed to prove that enough was enough.
The recent skirmish was one of the many surprises of this invasion, which is now entering its third week: the Ukrainian army, outmanned and outgunned by orders of magnitude, has somehow been able not only to survive , but to get bogged down and score palpable blows against his opponent. , even as Russian forces have extended their reach to the east and south.
Rather than a lightning-fast assault of tank columns and swarms of helicopters intended to overrun Kiev in days, the Russian assault – Europe’s largest ground war since 1945 – was more marked by what Ukrainian observers and soldiers consider it a lack of coordination, with Russian armor often moving into areas with little infantry support or protection from above.
“It’s screwed up. They come with very big columns, 30, 40, in line and they attack us. Yes, they use planes, artillery, but we are smart and we know the terrain well; they are panicked so we arrest them,” said Vladimir Korotya, deputy administrator of Bucha, a town northwest of Kiev, who has since become a commander in the fight against Russian forces.
“Russian soldiers fight well, but their tactics are inexplicable.”
Vasil, when asked about his unit’s clashes, criticized the Russians as “uncoordinated”.
“They’re in a country that’s not theirs, and they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.
Observers have attributed Russia’s poor performance – Kiev is still standing and the second largest city, Kharkiv, has yet to fall – so far to a lack of morale, faulty intelligence and what seems to be logistical problems that sometimes bordered on the comic. Videos on social media show Russian troops surrendering because they got lost or having their vehicles towed by Ukrainian farmers on tractors when they ran out of gas.
“The Russians had huge logistical problems. They have exhausted most of their first and second line of ammunition,” Jack Watling, an expert with the Royal United Services Institute, said in an interview with the BBC on Tuesday. “And as a result, we actually saw a real lull in their operational tempo over the weekend as they tried to reset.”
This also extended to air operations. While the Ukrainian Air Force is still flying, not to mention Western nations delivering hundreds, if not thousands, of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to Ukrainian troops, Russia has been unable or has chosen not to fully deploy its air power. On Wednesday, an intelligence update from the UK Ministry of Defense said that Ukraine’s air defenses appear to have “achieved considerable success against the Russians’ modern combat aircraft”.
“Initially, they assumed they would establish air superiority immediately. They didn’t, and so they were taking very heavy casualties,” Watling said, adding that although the Russians had “a depth of planes, they are currently suffering unsustainable losses”.
“The question is whether the Ukrainians can continue to inflict this rate of loss,” he said.
In the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, the forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin have had more success. They entered parts of the disputed Donbass region in eastern Ukraine; using a powerful combination of land, sea and air units, they are now besieging Mariupol and other cities on the Ukrainian Black Sea coast. But even there, the offensive has yet to reach the country’s largest and most important port, Odessa.
That the sheer numbers and destructive power of the Russian war machine could eventually overwhelm Ukrainian troops is beyond doubt: Russia has more than four times as many troops, more than six times as many armored vehicles and tanks, and nearly 10 times more planes and helicopters. It may be part of Moscow’s strategy not to fully assemble its arsenal or spend too much of its ammunition on a conflict that could drag on and possibly draw in other nations. But some intelligence officials suggest Moscow will become more aggressive.
“Our analysts believe that Putin is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks and instead could worsen, essentially doubling,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told US lawmakers on Tuesday.
Experts also warn that information from the battlefield does not paint the full picture.
“There’s a lot of noise in the information environment,” said Marta Kepe, principal defense analyst at Rand Corp. She added that while there have been instances of shelling and shelling of urban areas by Russian forces before, ground fighting between armies has been less common. , and there is little information about what the Ukrainian army is doing. US officials say 2,000 to 4,000 Russian troops have been killed since the invasion began on February 24.
Part of the reason for this, said retired Major John Spencer, who chairs the urban warfare studies department at the Madison Policy Forum, is that the Ukrainian military does not conduct large-scale military engagements.
“It wouldn’t make sense for the Ukrainian military to go military to military against the Russians. To be in the open, especially if you’re not more technologically advanced, is suicide,” he said. Instead, Ukrainian forces relied on a combination of guerrilla tactics.
“They know where to hide; they can set up ambushes, they can get out of dense urban terrain, out, back out,” he said.
But Russia has yet to unleash the full might of its military might, especially when trying to dislodge Ukrainian forces from major cities. This was the strategy in Syria, when Russia, together with its allies in the Syrian government, waged a devastating campaign to subdue the rebels in the city of Aleppo. Spencer cited the example of Chechnya, where Russian forces began their offensive with 3,000 artillery shells a day before increasing to 30,000.
“This is the level of bombardment that a city like Kyiv should be prepared to endure without giving up,” he said.
Even if Russia succeeds in asserting its advantages and imposing itself in Kiev and installing a pro-Moscow government, it seems certain that it will face a brutal insurgency, not only in the capital but throughout the country.
The seeds of it The resistance is already visible. Russian-occupied towns such as Kherson in the south erupted in protests against Russian rule. In Novopskov, in the Donbass, protests stalled only because Russian troops reportedly shot dead a number of protesters earlier this week.
Then there is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: his insistence on staying in the capital – going so far as to post videos showing him walking through his office in Kyiv – and his rousing speeches on social media have lifted the morale of the fighters, which even its most vocal critics recognize. .
More importantly, the large number of cadres in the general population allowed the military to outsource the guarding of territory—not to mention intelligence on enemy movements—to reservists. Western governments also have a pipeline of weapons ready to be redirected to an insurgency.
“The only reason the army has survived is because it has gone from what it was before the invasion to millions – albeit untrained – of civilians taking part in the military campaign,” he said. said Spencer.
“It’s not really as normal as people might think. They added to the combat power of the Ukrainian army.