The Assault on Kiev – part 1 of the discussion on the First Phase of the War

I am going to briefly discuss the first phase of this war in the quiet period before second phase begins in earnest (the Battle for the Donbas?). There are major problems with analyzing a war while it is still going on and without access to documents, archives, unit records, interviews of commanders, participants and so forth. And, of course, for a proper analysis, you need to collect that data from both sides. The amount of time I have spent studying the war in Ukraine in 2022 is a very small fraction of the amount of time I have spent studying the Battle of Kursk in 1943. So, this is very tentative and preliminary.

That said, there is no shortage of opinions and analysis provided in newspapers, TV shows, blog posts and on twitter. You kind of have to know that some of this going to be dead wrong. How they confidently reach some of those far-ranging conclusions with the limited data they have is a talent that I do not have. For example, we do not know what Russian losses are. We do not know whether Russian or Ukraine has the favorable exchange ratio. There is a strong argument that Russian has gotten the worse of the exchange, but is it 1.5-to-1, 3-to-1 or 7-to-1 as some estimates would lead you to conclude? It is all very nebulous.

But let us discuss what we have seen here in the first phase (this will probably turn into multiple posts over several days). 

First, the Russian initial plan appears to be optimistic and under-resourced. It does appear that they sent forward brigade-size groups, that otherwise had limited support, to seize major objectives like Kiev and Kherson. Supposedly the Russian Army had deployed around 150,000 troops around Ukraine. According to the reports I heard, only about 60,000 initially went in. This is kind of absurd. If you have 150,000 troops, why not use all 150,000 troops? This led to a single prog assault that came out of Belarus that attacked the areas to the north and northwest of Kiev. This led to a brigade-size group seizing Kherson…. and that was it. They really didn’t take too much else, except in the south. Let’s discuss the Kiev operation first. 

The attack on Kiev was poorly conceived: The initial assault consisted of an airmobile assault to take Hostomel/Antonov airport. This was a clever opening maneuver and posed significant Russian forces and a good resupply point just to NNW of Kiev. Not sure of the size of the initial force, battalion- or brigade-sized. It nicely shows what can be done with airmobile forces (helicopter bound) in an environment when you control the air.  

What has missing after than was a massive reinforcement effort. Not sure why. Several reasons perhaps:

  1. Ukrainian resistance in the area was significant. On the second day of the attack, they retook parts or all of the airport. 
  2. They were no Russian forces slated for the follow-up?
  3. There was not the transport capability available to support this? 

These last two points mystifies me. If Russia had control of a large airbase, why was there not significant reinforcements and huge amounts of supplies shipped in? One could envision a scenario when they take the airbase on day 1, fly in massive reinforcements on day 2, and then launch a reinforced assault towards Kiev on day 3. This is not what happened. Instead, they ended up fighting for control of the airbase on day 2, and then it appeared that they waited for their reinforcements to come down from Belarus. On top of that, if appears they had not real plans to resupply and were struggling with shortages after a few days. By the time they started moving forward again, Ukraine certainly had time to shift forces, reinforce the defense, and prepare for the assault.  

Update: According to a recent newspaper report, U.S. Intel provided help that allowed Ukraine to shoot down a Russian transport plane carrying hundreds of troops to Hostomel Airport. See: Ukraine shot down Russian plane with help from US intel: Report.

This attack quickly bogged down in the face of determined Ukrainian resistance. While lots of people talk about urban warfare, they never got that far; instead they were occupying airfields, villages, and parts of the suburbs of Kiev. As of 18 March, the Kiev city administration was reporting their losses at 162 soldiers killed, 648 wounded (a 4-to-1 wounded-to-killed ratio) and 60 civilians killed and 241 wounded (a 4.02-to-1 wounded-to-killed ratio). This is not a lot of casualties for a defending force estimated to be over 18,000 that had started on 24 February.

On the other hand, as it was a helicopter assault on Hostomel, why didn’t Ukraine have effective anti-aircraft defense of the area? It was an obvious route, and they knew that Russian had moved 20,000 or more troops into Belarus. They probably had detailed orders of battle, based upon U.S. intelligence. It was pretty obvious which way they were going. Was the Ukranian air defense degraded and destroyed by the Russians on the first day of the war (I have no reports on this) or was it not properly placed?

Anyhow, what developed after that became a comedy of errors on the part of Russia. They ended up with a force of one or two brigades NNW of Kiev, unable to move forward, facing a determined defense, and not properly supported logistically. Meanwhile, what appeared to be their less experienced and less prepared forces were advancing around Chernigov and Sumy and bypassing Konotop to send a tank column into Brovary, to the NE of Kiev, that made for a great video on youtube (1:18): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4g68MmLrGvM

This force got trashed. Now, the Russians were enveloping Kiev on three sides, but, lacked the force to attack Kiev and lacked the force to complete the encirclement, or hold it closed. According to the Pentagon, Russian committed around 1/3rd of its forces to taking the capital. This consisted of about 20 BTGs (Battalion Tactical Groups) to the north and NW of Kiev and another 20 BTGs near Chernigov. 

I stopped here: Next is the fight over Kherson. 

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
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Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
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His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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8 Comments

  1. One striking aspect of the assault on Hostomel was how poorly the Spetsnaz forces seem to have performed given their reputation as an elite formation. While one can attribute much of the failure of Russia’s initial offensive to disparities in motivation, morale and tactics, the apparent ease with which the Spetsnaz were repulsed is remarkable.

    I also find myself wondering – given your list of potential sources on the conflict – how different the documentation of this (and other twenty-first century conflicts) will be from that of the Second World War, which draws upon military narratives for much of its analysis. Even if military archivists accompanied the Russian invasion, one assumes that what they record will be informed by the overarching anti-fascist paradigm that the Russian Federation seeks to propagate and the Ukrainian military is understandably more concerned with survival at this point.

    • WWII (1939-1945) is the last war where there is two-sided unit records available for both sides. There are a number of wars since then where one-sided data is available: for example Korea War and Vietnam War. The Vietnam War records are awful, and was the basis for our raising the issue of records keeping with the U.S. Army command. That produced a response and corrective action at the time, but we were never funded to conduct a follow-up survey of the issue.

      Most major wars do not have unit records and other such data for either side. This includes all the Arab-Israeli Wars, all the Indian-Pakistani War, the Iran-Iraq War, Croatia and Bosnia, Georgia 2008, Nagorno-Karabakh 2020, Ukraine 2014+, etc. Needless to say, you take your chances when trying to understand and analyze those wars.

      This is a major part of the reason The Dupuy Institute when studying subjects like capture rates, urban warfare, and so forth, start with World War II data. We then move forward into post-WWII data from there, but we prefer to start with a solid foundation. This is discussed in some depth in War by Numbers.

      Do you trust the reliable but older data from WWII, or the more recent but guesstimated data from post-WWII conflicts? We tend to try to assemble data on both.

      Just to take a look at the problem with Ukraine, Russia is claiming 23,367 Ukrainian soldiers killed while Zelensky is saying 2,500-3,000. These types of inflated claims are not unusual. On the other hand, Ukraine is claiming 20,800 Russian and DPR soldiers killed. I do see “analysts” taking these figures at face value.

      Anyhow, not sure if I answered your question.

  2. You did, in large measure. So there are no Chinese records from Korea, at least to which military historians have had access? I’m surprised to hear that the Indian and Israeli militaries – at least – have no traditional of regimental history, but I’ll take your word for it.

    The blog is most enlightening and I’m glad to have stumbled across it.

    Do you attribute the failures of Russian special forces to the wider shortcomings of modernization of the Russian armed forces that have been on display in recent weeks?

    • We tried to get access to the Chinese records back in the late 1980s, and then Tiananmen Square happened, and that effort halted.

      I have never tried to access Pakistani and Indian records. There are overall casualty figures released for the various Arab-Israeli War, but not detailed loss reports that would allow you develop unit-by-unit comparisons. Don’t know what exists in regimental histories, if anything.

      Glad you found us. We have been around since 1962.

      I do not know the details and the nature of the “failings” of Russian special forces, and what they did well and what they did poorly. I don’t think the primary issue would be equipment modernization.

  3. C.A.L: “If you have 150,000 troops, why not use all 150,000 troops?”
    -Not enough logistics to support them outside of Belarus and Russia, plus simple traffic jams.

    C.A.L: “If Russia had control of a large airbase, why was there not significant reinforcements and huge amounts of supplies shipped in?… Was the Ukranian air defense degraded and destroyed by the Russians on the first day of the war (I have no reports on this) or was it not properly placed? ”
    -I seem to remember reading somewhere (I forget where) that the Ukrainians weren’t in strength at Hostomel/Antonov Airport, so the Russians had operational surprise. The original assault also probably had the advantage of tactical surprise (minor, in equation terms?). Russian attempts to reinforce and resupply ran into air defenses which were no longer surprised after the first day.

    I thought of Market Garden, but I’m hardly the only one.

    C.A.L: “Meanwhile, what appeared to be their less experienced and less prepared forces were advancing around Chernigov and Sumy and bypassing Konotop to send a tank column into Brovary, to the NE of Kiev, that made for a great video on youtube (1:18): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4g68MmLrGvM
    -Hmmm… What was the Azov Regiment doing that far north?

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