The battle for Kyiv revisited: the litany of mistakes that cost Russia a quick win

Moscow completely misjudged Ukraine, issuing some invading soldiers with parade dress to march down Kyiv’s main street

Six days before Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, a small group of western intelligence officers were briefing on the Russian military plan. On a quiet table, in an unfashionable chain restaurant in London, an astonishing strategy was recounted: a blitzkrieg to surround Kyiv and Ukraine’s other big cities, followed by a “kill list” operation run by Russian FSB intelligence to eliminate Ukraine’s national and local leaders.

Western intelligence was certain of the Kremlin’s intentions. But many of the Russian soldiers about to start the biggest war in Europe since the second world war had no clear idea what was to come. Bored troops, nominally on exercises in Khoyniki, Belarus, 30 miles north of Ukraine, were selling their diesel fuel in the week before the invasion and passing the time by drinking.

Russia had built up troops on the Ukrainian border since March 2021, but it was not until autumn that the US and the UK became sure of Putin’s invasion plan. Soon after, briefings began seeping out to western media. Warnings were passed to Ukraine’s sometimes sceptical leaders of the key part of the plan: a direct attack from Belarus aimed at Kyiv through Chornobyl, still closed off after the 1986 disaster, supported by the seizure of the Hostomel military airbase, north-west of the capital, which would allow Russia to drop in troops and supplies to surround and capture Kyiv.

It is well reported that the CIA director, Bill Burns, met Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in January to warn him of Russian intentions towards Hostomel, which, if held, could be used as a bridgehead to airlift in thousands of troops to take Kyiv. But it is understood that was just one of several of pieces of detailed intelligence passed on by the west, the start of a period of strategic cooperation that helped Ukraine to marshal its defences for the most important battle of the war so far.


At the same time, Russia’s initial plan was so poorly organised and communicated that it proved easy to frustrate. While many troops massing at the border had little of idea of the invasion strategy, others, particularly in more elite units, were told to seize Kyiv within as little as half a day. Soldiers were, in some cases, issued with parade dress so they could march down Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main street, in three days after the attack, in the mistaken belief they were conducting little more than a policing operation against a docile population.

Russia had launched its invasion a day earlier, and control of the capital was everything. As Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister, remembers, many in the west, as well as the Kremlin, thought Ukraine would collapse quickly – “that during 72 hours, Kyiv will fall down”. For all the intelligence help, Ukraine’s forces had been lightly armed by the west, with US Javelin and UK NLAW anti-tank weapons designed for a guerrilla campaign against an occupying force. Russia had more than 150,000 troops in its invasion force, similar to Ukraine’s total army, but a larger supply of tanks, and superior air and missile power to strike targets from the air.

“I saw personally a secret order from Russian commanders to their air assault troops that they have to control the government quarter … during 12 hours,” said Reznikov earlier this month. The order had been retrieved from a dead body, he added, probably the victim of days of fighting at Hostomel.

The strategic airbase, 15 miles north-west of the capital, was captured on 25 February by Russian paratroopers, landing in two dramatic waves of 10 helicopters each. But a lack of air support meant that Ukraine’s nearby ground defences were largely intact, and so were able to prevent hundreds of Russian reinforcements from landing.

Civilians in camouflage in snow
Civilians take part in a Kyiv territorial defence unit training session on 29 January 2022 in Kyiv, in preparation for the invasion. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It was a decisive element in the battle for the city, but it was also close run, not least because Kyiv had kept most of its best forces – 10 brigades of troops – in the east, defending the Donbas. Andrii Antonyshchak, a former MP and colonel of the National Guard of Ukraine, who took part in the battle of Kyiv, said the defence had first to fall to a small deployment of non-combat national guardsmen.

“I also want to emphasise the feat of our Hostomel brigade, 150 people, who were not fighters. There had been a rotation, and those that were combat-ready had been sent to the east,” the commander said. Had the guards and their reinforcements not acted to stop transport planes landing, Antonyshchak added, “the road to Kyiv would have been open”.

Russia was failing to make its military advantages count, showing that it did not understand what it was up against. George Barros, a Russia expert at the US Institute for the Study of War, said: “Russia did not conduct a full-fledged air and missile campaign to destroy Ukrainian command and control elements and to strike concentrations of conventional forces. Their initial air campaign only lasted seven hours when, to be effective, it should have lasted 72 hours.” It focused largely on static military targets, reflecting a lack of real-time intelligence and, Barros says, a belief that “the Ukrainians would not put up much of a fight”.

No concerted attempt was made to bomb the president’s official residence the Mariinsky Palace, or other government buildings in Kyiv. Instead, there were special forces raids aimed at capturing or killing Volodymyr Zelenskiy, similar in approach to the eye-catching and ultimately over-confident assault on Hostomel. Two months later, the president told Time magazine he had been warned that Russian strike teams had parachuted into Kyiv to kill or capture him and his family.

As night fell on the first day of war, gunfights broke out around the government quarter, with Russian forces making two attempts to break in. Assault rifles and bulletproof vests were brought for Zelenskiy and his aides, in chaotic scenes. “It was an absolute madhouse,” Oleksiy Arestovych, one of the president’s highest-profile advisers told the US magazine. “Automatics for everyone.” Memorably, Zelenskiy refused a US offer to leave – “I need ammunition, not a ride” – and as dark fell on 25 February, he released a handheld video confirming he and Ukraine’s leadership were alive. “We’re here,” they said.

Members of the territorial defence forces guard a checkpoint in central Kyiv on 3 March 2022.
Members of the territorial defence forces guard a checkpoint in central Kyiv on 3 March 2022. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Zelenskiy had been criticised for being late to respond to the Russian buildup and western warnings. Ukraine’s military reserves had only been called up the day before the invasion, 23 February. The president was “not responsible enough and attentive enough with the information received from the UK intelligence,” complained one senior Ukrainian MP. But, by contrast, Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president, had simply fled Kabul as a small column of Taliban fighters approached in the summer of 2021. By staying and fighting, Zelenskiy gave Ukraine a point to rally around.

The task of attacking Kyiv fell to Col Gen Alexander Chaiko and forces from Russia’s Eastern Military District, traditionally “the least capable part of the Russian military”, according to Barros. While Russian invaders in the south and east adopted more conventional military battle plans suitable for war fighting, a recently released paper by the Rusi thinktank described the forces bearing down on Kyiv from Belarus marching “in administrative column by road” for speed, expecting to file into an already pacified city.

With Ukraine’s best forces in the east, Russia at one point had an astonishing 12 to 1 advantage in troop numbers north of Kyiv, according to Rusi. But the Russians, whose tanks and trucks were painted with the letter V, could not make weight of numbers count. Meanwhile, the task of the defending the capital fell to three Ukrainian brigades of which two, critically, were artillery at a time when Kyiv’s forces could roughly match Russian heavy guns before its stocks ran out.

Destroyed Russian armoured vehicles line the street of Bucha, west of Kyiv, on 4 March 2022.
Destroyed Russian armoured vehicles line the street of Bucha, west of Kyiv, on 4 March 2022. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Although there was no shortage of publicity – accompanied by videos – of Ukrainians successfully knocking out tanks with Javelins and NLAWs, Rusi’s assessment is now that there were nowhere near enough of these to make a difference on the battlefield. Instead, the heavy guns were decisive. “Despite the prominence of anti-tank guided weapons in the public narrative, Ukraine blunted Russia’s attempt to seize Kyiv using massed fires from two artillery brigades,” the thinktank concludes.

Three days into the war, the most advanced Russian forces were halted between Bucha and Irpin, 13 miles north-west of the capital, leaving behind a trail of twisted, smouldering wreckage, described by one of the first reporters to visit as a “Russian Death Valley”. The invaders were never to advance further. Instead, they were left lined up in a column snaking back to the Belarus border that became 40 miles long, an increasingly easy target for Ukrainian counterattackers, who were able to create bottlenecks by destroying more and more Russian armoured vehicles.

Battered by artillery, ambushed from the ground – and even for a few days bombed from the above by what was left of Ukraine’s small air force – it became clear that the column aimed at Kyiv was sustaining too many losses. Few reinforcements were available, as Russia’s overall invasion was spread out across Ukraine, from Kherson to Kharkiv. It was inevitable the attack on Kyiv would have to be abandoned – and after 35 days it was, meaning that whatever happened next, Ukraine’s existential survival was guaranteed.

The attackers had failed because Putin and the Kremlin had comprehensively misjudged the situation, and their opponents. “The way the Russians designed their campaign and the key planning assumptions they made fundamentally undermined their chances of success on the battlefield,” said Barros. It was not, sadly, the end of the war, but it was the end of the beginning.


Dan Sabbagh and Isobel Koshiw

The GuardianTramp

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