Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine targets key cities, decapitating central government in Kyiv
The massive military operation is striking in its complexity, the culmination of large-scale planning and exercises going back years, said Jim Townsend, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. under the Obama administration.
The unification of air power, naval operations and ground combat – known in military parlance as “combined arms” – is a seismic step beyond Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia in 2008 when, Townsend said, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s various military components struggled, comparatively, to complement each other.
“You’re seeing a coordinated effort from multiple axes into Ukraine…a competent Russian conventional military deploying in a way we’ve never seen before,” Townsend said.
The Russian military has launched more than 160 missiles at Ukraine, according to initial Pentagon assessments – which US officials suggested was a conservative estimate. Most were short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, a senior defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. The Russians also used a barrage of cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and sea-launched missiles, the official said.
About 75 fixed-wing bombers also played a role in destroying Ukrainian military sites and air defenses, US officials said. Among the targets were troop barracks, ammunition warehouses and nearly 10 airfields.
The Russians “have every intention of decapitating the government and installing their own method of governance,” the senior defense official said.
The heaviest fighting so far appears to be taking place around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, about 40 kilometers from the Russian border. A strategic air base is located nearby. Early Thursday, Pentagon officials also observed that “the Russians are beginning to launch ground incursions” from positions in Belarus and appear to be “moving towards Kyiv,” the senior defense official said.
So far, Russian gains have been most apparent through Crimea, where Putin’s troops moved north to capture territory near Kherson, a vital port linking the Black Sea and the Dnieper. Russian troops advanced about 40 miles there, according to a initial assessment released Thursday by the American Institute for the Study of War. A Russian concentration in this part of Ukraine could aim to stifle its economic engine, which depends on the port of Odessa to ship much of the world’s wheat.
Helicopters and aerial assaults were used by Russia to secure a cargo airport outside Kiev, as part of an apparent strategy to isolate the capital from the western part of the country, but the raid was complicated by strong Ukrainian resistance, according to the Institute for the Study of War Evaluation. The western part of Ukraine is home to the strongest anti-Russian sentiment and the few viable land crossings to Poland and Romania, where thousands of American troops have been deployed in recent weeks as a bulwark against any Russian action directed against the NATO partners.
Ukrainian officials said late Thursday that their forces had regained control of Antonov airport, about 15 miles outside Kiev, preventing Russian airborne reinforcements from landing there. Other reports said a shootout was in progress.
Social media was flooded Thursday with images of airstrikes, fighter sorties and helicopter attacks. Russian tanks and armored vehicles appear to have met with some resistance, notably at Glukhov, near Ukraine’s northeastern border. A ‘column’ of T-72 tanks was destroyed by US-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles, according to a Ukrainian government statement on social media that showed a burning Russian tank. Officials did not provide further evidence of what happened.
Russian forces also had early successes in northern Ukraine, which is the shortest route to Kiev from positions in Belarus, where tens of thousands of troops took part in joint training exercises at the start. of the month. Troops have seized the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the border, sparking concern of an environmental disaster – and invalidating some analysts’ predictions that the swampy, forested area would impede heavy armored vehicles.
It appears another push of movement east of Chernobyl and across the Dnieper River was intended to put Kiev in a stranglehold, but Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from Chernihiv, according to initial assessments by the Institute for the study of war. Chernihiv lies just south of Ukraine’s common border with Belarus and Russia, with a highway leading directly to the capital.
Analysts and US defense officials have generally said Russian moves so far have been aimed at expanding the war, although some experts have said the next steps are not so clear.
Ian Brzezinski, a former Pentagon official overseeing Europe and NATO policy, said that so far “Putin’s operations do not indicate that he has determined what he wants to do and what he considers a successful and satisfactory result”.
“It’s testing the waters, in a very, very brutal way,” said Brzezinski, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The ferocity and efficiency with which the Ukrainians fight and the strength with which the West reacts could determine the endgame that Putin pursues, he said, and the next 24 hours could reveal bigger clues about the magnitude of his plan.
Brzezinski noted that Putin is unlikely to be able to hold a country the size of Ukraine “unless the Ukrainian people crumble and give up – and that’s where he could make a serious calculation error”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday weapons would be provided to anyone willing to defend the country, which could presage a shift to unconventional tactics and ambush-type operations to level the playing field against more advanced Russian forces.
“Be ready to support Ukraine in the squares of our cities,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter.