Putin Is Waging a Halfway War and It’s Showing – Russian Paras at Kiev Airport Under Counter-Attack by Artillery, Tanks, and a Brigade of Infantry

At first, Ukrainians claimed to have already taken back the airport at Gostomel, but soon corrected themselves. The runway was still in Russian hands but the Ukrainian side was counterattacking:

Not a great situation for the Russian paras. They were ferried in by about 30 transport helicopters, so that is just a battalion-worth of light infantry.

The air assault group took significant losses coming in, losing at least 3 helicopters. 2 Ka-52 attack and one Mi-8 transport. Possibly a couple more transports on top of that.

That may have been worth it, if their capture of the runway was followed up by something big. Like a landing by a series of transport aircraft bringing in the mechanized airborne.

But you don’t send huge transport aircraft into a zone as brimming with anti-aircraft fire as Kiev is.

So instead, the battalion took the airfield in the morning then received no reinforcements the whole rest of the day.

Instead, come the afternoon, evening and night, the battalion-sized force found itself under repeated counterattack by numerically superior forces backed by rocket artillery and later joined by armor.

The paras were backed by attack helicopters and Su-24 strike aircraft while taking the airport, but there is no indication that they received air support later in the day.

The saving grace is perhaps that they’re being counterattacked by “National Guard” infantry (4th Rapid Reaction Brigade) which is the Ukrainian equivalent of the Rosgvardia paramilitary police.

So they have the better training, but they are outnumbered and outgunned. Probably don’t have huge stocks of ammo either, not to mention food.

Those armor columns coming down from Belarus through Chernobyl better hurry up, or the paras at the airfield could yet find be overrun or routed into the surrounding fields and forests.

Is it possible to take a look at this situation and conclude that Russian military planners have covered themselves in glory with this one? 

At the moment, I don’t think so. Perhaps there was some value in taking the focus of Ukrainian leadership away from the front-line and pinning it on the capital.

But if that diversion comes at the price of a battalion of elite infantry being wiped out or routed, it will be a high price to pay.

Whatever the final outcome, this will go down in history as a very brazen, high-risk move. Almost an “exploratory” move to see what would happen, and to test Ukrainian resolve and ability to react.

Well, so far the Ukrainians have passed the test just fine. They are fighting, they are not just melting away. They are what’s called combat effective (not to be confused with combat efficient).

It’s unclear which unit the paras are from. The 31st VDV,  the 11th VDV, the 45th Spetsnaz VDV, or a mix.

During the fighting for the runway, a Ukrainian MiG-29 in the area suffered a misfire with a projectile hitting a civilian home:

Putin wasn’t kidding when he said he was launching a “special military operation”. Relative to what the Russian military brought to the border this is not yet all-out war.

I would say about 30,000 Russian troops have crossed over into Ukraine so far. A small portion of the force assembled.

Moreover, the Russians are (so far) waging the war in a way that keeps civilian losses to a minimum and even trying to minimally disrupt civilian life.

The Russian operation could have opened with strikes against power plants and the electric grid (both bombed by US in Yugoslavia) that left civilians in shock and without power, and with ballistic and cruise missile strikes on Ukrainian army barracks.

Instead, the Russian enterprise is so far conducted in a way that limits not just Ukrainian civilian, but even Ukrainian military losses. The Russians have barely used their artillery.

It’s as if so far Putin is trying to conduct less a war, and more a 1968-style policing action.

Kiev’s approach has been just the opposite, to distribute weapons to civilians. To ask them to “make Molotov cocktails” and to film and publish Russian troop movements.

It’s a competition. Kiev is trying to induct the populace into a people’s war and give Moscow the kind of war it does not want. And Moscow is doing everything it can from its side to not have that happen but to instead wage a minimally disruptive regime-change.

Russia wants the populace passive, Ukraine wants it as mobilized as possible. Thus there is good reason for Russia to refrain from using all the firepower it has, but it has made the life of its troops more difficult.

This economy-of-force approach is actually typical of how Russia operates. It will try something limited and small-scale first then escalate into something bigger when that hits a wall and so on.

There are good reasons to do it the Russian way, but there is also good reason not to. Certainly on the negative side is that it means asking a lot of their troops.

The brazen helicopter assault on Gostromel Airport was the most dramatic example of this, but really all Russian troops that have been committed are being asked to do brazen stuff with not much cover.

Small units of 800 men are being told to drive along a road 50 kilometers into the enemy’s rear and to go around major cities.

It has been less Ogarkov and more Tukhachevsky. Less the long-range fires apocalypse of non-contact warfare and more the deep battle of columns racing for the rear and fighting fights that are very much contact, sometimes after driving into an ambush or running into Ukrainians head-on.

The troops themselves have done rather well actually, but of course there is a limit to how far 30K troops can go.

I leave you with commentary by two other observers. You don’t have to take their word as gospel, but something worth considering.

Michael Kofman (perhaps the number one authority on the Russian military outside of Russia):

Some very early impressions of the last two days. It’s an operation with maximalist war aims, and Moscow’s thinking on this war seems to have been colored by war optimism. It looked as though Russian forces were expecting a quicker Ukrainian military collapse and easier gains.

Early campaign to knock out Ukrainian air defenses and air force had mixed results, Russian aerospace forces aren’t particularly practiced at suppresion or destruction of air defenses. Most of the strikes in the opening phase were via cruise missiles. Ukrainian air force still has some aircraft up.

A brazen heliborne assault to take Hostomel airport with a small airborne element was a puzzling move. I doubt the goal was to land more airborne at a contested airport easily covered by artillery and MLRS. Likely they expected to hold out for ground reinforcements.

So far we’ve seen only a fraction of the Russian force arrayed for the operation. Unclear if Russian forces reached initial objectives, but best estimate is they expected more rapid gains and less resistance.

Russian forces seem to be avoiding use of massed fires, except maybe around Kharkiv, focusing on trying to make a speedy advance. Expect they will revert to much larger use of fires when frustrated. Not seeing much in the way of cyber and less electronic warfare effects than many anticipated.

Russian forces are mainly sticking to the road network (as in 2014-2015). Early advances made by recon troops, but driving along roads left support units open to ambushes. Already signs of urban warfare and firefights in cities.

There has been heavy fighting around Kharkiv and in Sumy. Russian forces tried to advance past Okhtyrka, and it looks like they’re attempting to go around Kharkiv. There is also an advance west of Sumy to Konotop. This is a very incomplete picture.

Russian forces entered from Belarus and went through Chernobyl exclusion zone to Dymer. Early signs of fighting on outskirts of Kyiv in Obolonskyi distict today. They’re clearly going for the capital.

Main breakout appears to be in the south from Crimea. Russian forces pushed to Kherson, and Melitopol. There’s sustained fighting for Kherson still and around Antonovsky bridge. Some early signs they may have entered Mykolaiv, but probably just a recon element.

Russian forces retain significant quantitative and qualitative superiority. Ukrainian forces have demonstrated resolve and resilience. Russian conventional overmatch, such as it is, may not translate into attaining their maximalist political aims. This is just the opening of the war.

We should take care making assumptions on how this war will progress based on the opening 24-48 hours. The Russian military clearly tried something. I think it at best yielded mixed results for them. They will adjust.

What’s clear is that is that if Moscow had hopes of quick and easy gains, they were terribly optimistic.

My main concern is that over time the Russian military may revert to heavy use of firepower, and this will result in immense destruction, and large civilian casualties.

Andrei Zhukov (a random Twitterer but to an extent he is on to something):

Russia is bombing fuel and ammunition depots, but the Russian army does not bomb the places where Ukrainian armored vehicles and personnel gather. Why? Because they still hope that their fairy tales about friendship, peace and the international will work.

Due to the fact that the night of February 24 did not strike the barracks of the AFU, the Russian army is now suffering losses

Russian troops are moving quickly in small columns from one city to another, without even getting a foothold in it and not clearing it from the partisans. The logistics support that goes after them comes under fire from the Ukrainian army.

The Russian army currently does not control a single city – they just drive by, leaving the cities in the rear. The Ukrainian military calmly enter these cities and try to strike, so it was in Sumy.

Russian planes are not at work – they simply do not bomb the columns of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, still hoping for desertion and the transition to the Russian side. Again, THIS DOES NOT WORK, a tolerant attitude towards the Ukrainian military has led to losses, prisoners.

For example. Rosgvardia and OMON are going together with the military to “take Kiev”(!). Internal troops should follow the military AFTER the army destroys the Ukrainian army in a given sector. This did not happen. They just go ahead into Kiev blindly.

The Ukrainian army will still be destroyed, but the Russian army is suffering unjustified losses that could have been avoided

Not bad for 30K troops and 48 hours — would have been further along if more of the assembled forces and fires were committed from the onset

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