Ukrainian armed forces: Initial plan. Successes and failures
Based on the idea of the centrality of the Donbas in the next war, at least half of the Ukrainian army was stretched along the long front line bordering the territories occupied by Russia in the Donbas. Hardened emplacements were put up there. The entire military strategy of Ukraine was built around “plan A:” hold the front line against a massive attack by the Russian army and DNR and LNR troops.
However, the Ukrainian armed forces (VSU) had a “plan B” for a scenario whereby Russian troops invaded through the poorly protected borders with Russia itself and Belarus. Mobile infantry units, armed with powerful anti-tank weapons primarily of US, Ukrainian and Soviet make, were supposed to hold the enemy in the forests and fields, attacking them from the flanks. Eventually, Russian formations were to be stopped on the outskirts of large cities. There, the infantry would rely on the support of artillery and armored vehicles hidden in urban areas.
There was also a “plan C,” based on the use of “territorial defense units” established in the fall of 2021 with veterans of the first Russia-Ukraine war and patriotic activists. They were supposed to cover the segments of the front line where there were no army units, attack enemy columns from the flanks and carry out an underground resistance in occupied territories.
In practice, all the strategies saw both successes and failures. The VSU failed to foresee the breakthrough of the Russian army north of Kyiv through the Chernobyl zone and the breakthrough of the defense at the Crimean isthmus. Because of these breakthroughs, Russian troops were in the northern and northwestern suburbs of Kyiv in two days and managed to occupy a vast swath of territory in the southeast of the country and cross to the right bank of the Dnieper. There they quickly captured the regional capital of Kherson and almost completely cut off the neighboring one of Mykolaiv. They also brought down the defenses on the south of the Donetsk Front. In addition, Russian troops managed to break the VSU defenses in the north of Luhansk Region and completely occupy it over the next four months, despite desperate resistance by Ukrainian troops.
Russian offensive and major miscalculations
Still, the Russian failures in the first period of the war are much more numerous than the above list of episodes where Russian troops were on the advance. The Russian army failed in its adventurous plan to capture two large airfields west of Kyiv, which were planned to be used to land units that would subsequently attack the Ukrainian capital. The helicopter assault force tasked with that mission was completely destroyed. The entire grouping intended to encircle Kyiv was forced to move along two narrow roads through dense forests and swamps. It got cut off to the north and northwest of Kyiv in the cities around Irpin (including Bucha), where it suffered huge losses.
Similarly, large Russian groupings besieged but failed to take the regional capitals Chernihiv (in the north), Kharkiv (in the northeast) and Mykolaiv (in the south). Russian tank columns took huge losses as they advanced and attempted bungled assaults. As a result, just a month after the start of hostilities, it became clear that Russian troops could not provide supplies for their groupings in northern Ukraine. As the spring thaw set in, and facing constant flank attacks, they simply could not supply enough fuel, food and ammunition to the front line. By the end of March, Russia had been forced to withdraw its troops from four northern regions: Zhytomyr, Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy. The VSU also succeeded in pushing Russian troops back from large cities like Kryvyi Rih, Mykolaiv and Kharkiv, thwarting the Russian offensive on the right bank of the Dnieper and driving the enemy out of the suburbs of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
The main reason for Russia’s loss in the first stage and the war as a whole was Moscow’s critical underestimation of the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian army, government and society, as well as the level of weapons and mobility of the VSU. In addition, the adventurous offensive tactics ran into a clear shortage of troops and the inability to ensure supplies in changing conditions.