Through the fog of war: the first month of the Russian invasion

Published 25 March 2022 / By Volodymyr Artiukh

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Russia’s invasion in Ukraine has been immediately designated as a historical event, at least the end of the post-Soviet condition. Although it is too early to speculate about the post-war settlement, it is clear the war itself has interrupted the chain of causality leading to its start. After the first Russian missiles hit Ukraine’s cities in early morning February 24, it has been the logic of the military operation that determined many other developments, including diplomacy, political and humanitarian situation. It is important to keep in mind that the war creates its own field of causality as we study the flows of migration, the way people adapt to the deteriorating living conditions, the way identities are reshaped and sovereignty contested.

I will briefly sketch the logic of this military conflict that has already entered its third week paying close attention to the way how the balance of forces changed on the battlefields. I will also outline how this shifting relations of military forces shaped the way how people moved or stayed, and how the ideological and political landscape evolved.

Leaving aside (geo-)political and ideological determinants of this war, which I outlined in another place, I find it important to remind that Russia's military planners have been preparing for a past war. They relied on several assumptions which they gained from previous military operations in Ukraine, but also in Georgia and Syria. One of these assumptions was the support of the local population and the minimal resistance from Ukraine's armed forces. It goes back to Russia's annexation of Crimea in spring 2014 and several incursions into Donbass in summer 2014 and winter 2015. The take-over of Crimea was almost bloodless, and it included mass defection of Ukrainian soldiers and sailors, as well as cooperation of the local administration. The direct incursions of Russian troops in Donbass were supported by local separatist armed forces and led to a swift and painful defeat of Ukrainian armed forces. This underlies the next assumption: a fast and overwhelming use of force will lead to immediate political concessions, as it happened in Ukraine in 2014-2015 and in Georgia in 2008. Then Ukraine signed the Minsk accords and Georgia withdrew its troops from Ossetia and Abkhazia amid a weak response from the West. Finally, Russian planners relied on Russia's experience in Syria that involved heavy reliance on private military companies, air superiority, and the use special forces.

The first phase of the invasion, which started on February 24 and lasted for a week, was based on these assumptions. The missile strikes against military targets in Kyiv and other cities were meant to undermine the morale of Ukraine’s army and population. They did not fully destroy either Ukraine's air capabilities or counter-air defences. A significant land troop advance only happened in the southern area adjacent to Crimea. Russia’s land advances in line with the pincer movement towards Kyiv were limited, while forward units of paratroopers, saboteur groups and reconnaissance missions that were quickly eliminated. A similar tactic of small unit incursions in Kharkiv also lead to their destruction. There was almost no significant advance on the frontline in Donbas, where, according to the Russian calculations, the most battle-ready elements of Ukraine's armed forces were concentration. The separatist statelets in Donbass have been used as a political bait for the Kyiv government since 2014. Now they are used as a military bait aimed at immobilizing the bulk of Ukraine's army until it is encircled in the latter stages of the operation. This explained the heavy shelling and bombardment of the separatist-held areas of Donbas, which have not stopped despite Russia’s declared goal of preventing civilian deaths in Donbas. An attempt to establish a land bridge between Russia-controlled Donbas and Crimea would lead to the blockade of the city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea within a week.

The above assumptions have all been proven wrong. According to the US intelligence, supposedly leaked documents from the Russian side, and independent expert assessment, this first phase should have ended with a siege of Kyiv and a surrender of Ukraine's government within a matter of three to five days. This did not happen since Ukraine’s population proved not to be cooperative with the invasion forces, Ukraine’s government did not flee, and the army mounted considerable resistance. Russia’s land troop advance has slowed down and Russia’s air force did not gain complete air dominance. They managed to establish control over the roads on the key lines of advances while bypassing cities and towns. This led to complications with logistics along the drawn-out military columns that became vulnerable to attacks from the air, from mobile units of Ukraine's army, from the territorial defence forces, and the local population that remained largely uncooperative. The Kyiv government remained in place and did not show willingness to surrender and give significant concessions.

The failure of a blitzkrieg led to the second phase of Russia’s invasion with heavier reliance on artillery, air and missile strikes. The second phase can be dated March 2 with a missile strike on the centre of Kharkiv and a renewed bombing of Kyiv. If the first phase was characterized by missile and air strikes with a small number of civilian casualties, avoidance of direct confrontation of land troops with civilians, the second phase revealed a more heavy-handed approach. Civilian infrastructure has been targeted, including fuel storage facilities, administrative buildings, schools and hospitals. Russian land troops started blocking the cities and towns on the lines of advance. Russian forces tried to establish some forms of occupation administration in the blocked cities and towns, mostly in the south of Ukraine and in Donbas. They had a mixed success there: only two mayors fully cooperated, while most of the occupied cities saw an awkward coexistence between the occupying troops and the defiant population.

Throughout the second phase of the invasion, Russia has committed all of its troops pre-stationed at the border with Ukraine. However, the limited number of the troops, which count from 150,000 to 190,000, the problems with supply lines, and the relatively successful defence of Ukraine's armed forces created significant challenges for the continuation of the Russian invasion. Russian troops were not able to achieve significant operational gains, Ukrainian army went into counter-offensive in several directions. The three weeks of the second phase of Russa’s invasion led to a stalemate along the whole line of contact. Several rounds of negotiations between the Ukrainian and Russian sides revolved around humanitarian issues, such as local cease-fires and humanitarian corridors in the blocked cities. The progress in the political part of negotiations is unclear and will most likely depends on the situation in the battlefield. So far neither side feels pressed to make significant concessions.

Both sides use the relative pause in fighting for mobilizing resources and regrouping forces. The next phase will probably involve more firepower on the Russia side and sending additional troops, including possible Syrian volunteers and Belarusian troops. There are speculations about the possible future use of unconventional weapons in Ukraine, such as chemical weapon and tactical nuclear weapon. The main targets remain the capital city and the second largest city Kharkiv. However, there are indications that the Russian army lacks resources for a siege of these cities and therefore the next operational goal would be encircling Ukraine’s troops in Donbas from the north-east and the south-east.

The second phase of the Russian invasion led to almost a thousand civilians deaths and over 1500 injuries (according to UN estimates; the actual number of civilian casualties is significantly higher), fuel and food shortages, destruction of residential areas, water and heat supply in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kyiv and many other towns in their vicinity, as well as in the areas adjacent to the frontline in Donbas. Several settlements have been completely erased. Every tenth Ukrainian reports that their house or apartment has been damaged and 9% of the population say that their house was destroyed. This caused a significant internal displacement on the individual basis and in an organized manner. This is happening amidst uncertainty regarding the enforcement of ceasefire along ‘green corridors’ and traffic disruption because of the proliferation of block posts.

According to the recent poll (March 19), one fifth of Ukrainians left their place of residence for the durations of war. The main direction of internal displacement is the west of Ukraine, the secondary and/or intermediary destination being relatively safe areas in central Ukraine. According to the latest data, half of Kyiv's population, around two million left the capital city. Tens of thousands leave Kharkiv, Sumy, Mariupol, and Donbass along evacuation roots to the nearest safe areas in Ukraine. The overall number of internally displaced people is over 6.5 million (15% of the total population). Regular evacuation trains transport people to the Western border. The number of people fleeing Ukraine exceeded three and a half million, including more than a hundred thousand third country nationals.

Useful resources for tracking the military, political and humanitarian situation during the Russia-Ukraine war


This blog is part of the forum: Making sense of the war in Ukraine