Key battles in the Ukraine war: From Kyiv’s stand to the Kharkiv counterattack
Russia expected it would quickly seize control of Ukraine at the outset of the invasion, as did many Western observers. But Ukraine fought back with remarkable tenacity and skill, boosted by Western weapons – and the front lines have shifted dramatically since Russian troops moved in on the northern, southern and eastern flanks. FRANCE 24 looks back on some of the decisive battles in the first year of Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II.
One year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the situation looks radically different from the one many observers feared and predicted. As things now stand, the war is in a state of grinding stalemate as Ukraine looks to regain its territory in the south and east – after Kyiv made significant gains in the second half of 2022, in a remarkable set of counteroffensives.
To illuminate the dynamics at play in these key battles, FRANCE 24 spoke to Gustav Gressel, a Russian military specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, and Sim Tack, an analyst at US military consultancy Force Analysis.
When Russia launched its invasion, the consensus amongst analysts was that a quick Russian victory would “depend on it taking control of the skies and then capitalising on it”, Gressel noted. But Moscow failed to achieve aerial mastery and that had “significant consequences for what happened after”.
The Russians followed the first rule in gaining dominance in the skies – using intensive electronic jamming to blind Ukrainian air defences, thereby making it much easier to bomb targets like airbases. But they were “careless in assessing their own bombing, failing to realise that they were causing a lot of damage but little destruction”, Gressel said.
The Russian military was then too hasty – sending in ground troops before the aerial offensive had achieved its objectives. “In order to launch their ground invasion, they had to stop jamming electric devices, because otherwise they’d prevent their own troops from communicating with each other,” Gressel pointed out. And at this moment, the Ukrainian forces were able to recover and regroup their anti-aircraft defences.
The Russian army tried to win big quickly by moving towards the Ukrainian capital on February 24. But this attempt failed as the Ukrainians “rapidly organised an effective defence, even as they were taken by surprise”, Tack said.
Russia’s attempt to seize Hostomel airport on February 24 was symbolic in this regard. “They sent in special forces by helicopter, as well as deploying traditional transport planes, with motorised units then joining them from Belarus,” Gressel explained.
But the Ukrainians pushed back the transport planes – so the troops arriving by helicopter were isolated and vulnerable. “The tanks were fast, but not fast enough to assist these units,” as Gressel put it.
Russia’s failure to cross the Boug River at Voznesensk, northwest of Kherson and Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, “marked the end of its hopes of taking Odesa”, Tack said. Russian forces had already tried unsuccessfully to cross the river at Mykolaiv. So they rushed north as a plan B, hoping to traverse it at a smaller city like Voznesensk.
“Russia tried to copy what the Americans did in Iraq in 2003, sending small units forward to seize targets quickly,” Tack noted. But they lacked the air support US forces benefitted from during that invasion – and that made all the difference for the Ukrainian defenders.
So this Russian strategy ended up backfiring because it “stretched the Russian army and gave Ukrainian troops more time to regroup between the two waves of attacks”, Tack explained.
Ukraine’s second-biggest city, historically Russian-speaking Kharkiv lies just 40 km away from Russia – all factors that made it a prime target for the invasion. Kharkiv is also a “gateway to central Ukraine” from Moscow’s perspective, Tack pointed out.
The Russians tried to seize Kharkiv in one day on February 24. But the Ukrainian defence held out for months before pushing the Russians back, even amid intense Russian air attacks.
“This battle proved that the Russian army finds urban warfare hard, especially in large cities like Kharkiv,” Tack observed. “That said, urban warfare is one of the most complicated forms of combat, and even the US hasn’t come up with easy solutions to the challenges it poses.”
Nevertheless, Russia’s failure to seize Kharkiv remains quite an indictment of its military because it sent “some of its most elite units there”, as Tack pointed out – and the significant losses incurred there mean those units were “not going to be where they were needed” elsewhere on the front as Russia’s struggles intensified later in 2022.
The strategic port city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine was a major Russian target. “Controlling Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a bridge between the Donbas region and its gains in the Kherson region further west,” Tack noted.
But the battle for Mariupol was far more difficult and lengthy than Moscow envisaged. The Russians first occupied the port, then moved to the city centre – needing to defeat one pocket of resistance after another in gruelling combat.
The most famous symbol of Ukraine’s fierce resistance in this merciless battle – a symbol that will doubtless go down as iconic in the history books – was the Azovstal steel factory, where Ukrainian troops continued their doomed, heroic resistance even as the rest of Mariupol had fallen.
And it was in Mariupol that Russia “began its strategy of bombing cities intensively when an infantry strategy was no longer working”, Tack pointed out.
The Donets River is seen as a natural dividing line between northern and southern Ukraine – and in light of this strategic position, the fighting to control it can be seen as the “great battle that decided the course of the war” so far, Tack said.
Russia’s unsuccessful attempts to cross the river – first at Izium in March and then at various other crossing points between Izium and Lyssychansk over the following months – contributed a great deal to the stalemate at the front.
It was at this point that the Russo-Ukrainian War went from being a war of movement to a war of position.
Russia’s repeated failure to cross the Donets therefore underlines “the power of geography”, Tack said. “Even with all the equipment of modern conflict, crossing a river is still a very complex operation, requiring perfect co-ordination,” he noted.
The Russians learned this the hard way – incurring heavy losses of men and matériel during failed river crossing attempts.
The fierce fighting that erupted around the town of Popsana starting in March illustrated once more the Russian army’s modus operandi during the war’s opening stage – using a “spearhead to try and break through enemy lines”, as Gressel described it.
“The Russian military used a lot of artillery to break the lines of defence and open a path for the infantry,” Gressel said.
The Ukrainians found it difficult to counteract against these artillery barrages in Popsana. But at the time the Russian army’s coordination problems meant this breakthrough “didn’t create any major changes to the front line, because the infantry didn’t follow through quickly enough”, Gressel said.
Yet the Russians are still trying to create a major breakthrough in this area, after slowly advancing towards Bakhmut. The battle for Popsana “still defines the dynamics of the war today, because it opened up the route to Bakhmut for the Russians”, Tack noted.
The second wave of ferocious fighting for control of Kharkiv was the “perfect case” of a combatant “eking out an advantage using limited resources”, Gressel said.
Outnumbered and totally reliant on its Western allies for weapons, Ukraine managed to mount a remarkable counteroffensive in Kharkiv region – thus forcing Moscow to “choose between acknowledging they were losing or announcing a military mobilisation”, Gustav said. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared on September 21 a “partial mobilisation” of civilian reservists.
Ukraine made deft use of the art of trickery ahead of this offensive – making it look like they would launch a major attack around Kherson, prompting Russia to redeploy its troops to the south.
Then as soon as the Russian line of defence “started looking stretched around Kharkiv, the Ukrainian army struck there”, Tack concluded.
This article was adapted from the original in French.
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