Russians at the Gates of Kiev
Too far to go back, too far to go forward
Everything is going according to plan and is on schedule. At the same time, Kiev has yet to be either taken or encircled, and 2 weeks have passed without measurable gains in that direction. So then was the plan to tie up one-half of the invasion force in the Kiev operation and not have it achieve a strategic objective for 26 days?
In that case, it was a bad plan.
Nobody crafts a plan that says “we’re going to drive very close to the enemy capital and then we’re just going to kind of sit there”. You don’t stop until you’ve crowned your tactical success in advancing 200 miles with the strategic success of covering the last stretch and at least isolating the enemy capital. Not if it’s up to you.
And if there was never any urgency to meeting strategic objectives in the Kiev area, then why was there such a mad rush to reach it in the early days? Paratroopers were landed at an airport on its outskirts just 6 hours into the campaign, and the Russians force advancing from the east looked more like a racing team than a battle formation. It was in such a hurry that it accepted all the trade-offs of bypassing cities and enemy concentrations, leaving behind areas of resistance, and advancing deep with small company-sized forces. It sacrificed so much for speed, why? Because it was so eager to reach the part of the plan that said “and then we’re just going to kind of camp out on Kiev outskirts, not doing much of anything”?
Actually, when you consider what was asked of them the Russian troops did rather well. Take the force west of the river tasked with encircling Kiev from the west. Of the major arteries leading out of Kiev they cut the highway leading northwest in the initial advance, and the highway going west to Zhitomir after they got reinforcements (the famous convoy that was actually only 5km long). Only the southwest and south remain.
They have accomplished this as a small force of perhaps 17 battalion tactical groups that thanks to the huge lake behind the Kiev hydroelectric dam is not in contact with the rest of the Russian army (except through Belarus). A small force that to its left faces a heavily defended city of 3.5 million and to its right faces the entire right-bank Ukraine on its own.
As it tries to move southwest to cut the highway to Bila Tserkva it has to at the same time:
a) cut through the enemy in front of it,
b) defend its flank facing the city, and
c) and defend its western flank to the entire rest of Ukraine.
This as a force of 17 reinforced battalions against which the Ukrainians can theoretically position as many units from western and central Ukraine as they please.
Yeah, I would say that these (likely outnumbered) Russian troops are doing rather well considering. And that the slow progress in encircling Kiev isn’t because the Kremlin has suddenly decided that encircling Kiev quickly isn’t important after all, but because it’s not an easy thing to accomplish, and the NW Kiev guys are already doing the best you could possibly expect of well under 20,000 soldiers.
On the other side of the river, the Russian forces have similarly taken highways leading northeast and east, while the southeastern one still remains to be taken.
The Russian force to the east of Kiev is at least twice, if not three times, as large as the one to the west of the city, but having advanced 200 miles as the crow flies it also has a 200-mile flank to cover.
It also has substantial forces tied up in containing cities and towns that were bypassed and cordoned off during the advance but were not captured.
In all likelihood, the decision to not attempt to take Chernigov and Sumy, the two largest cities in their rear was a wise one. Each contains over 250,000 people and city battles are incredibly manpower-intensive, protracted, and costly to armies and civilians alike.
However, I will profess myself ignorant as to why the takeover of small towns like Konotop, Mena, and Nizhyn has not been attempted. I single out these three in particular because they sit on important railway lines.
One reason the Russian advance in the south has been doing better is that it is able to utilize captured railways, dramatically easing supply. Russian trains have been observed in Kherson, Melitopol, Starobelsk and Volnovakha.
By contrast, the supply in the north is still entirely dependent on trucks. This with the problem of Ukrainians sallying out of their towns to interdict them still not completely solved. As an artillery army, the Russian military is very supply-hungry. Artillery and especially rocket artillery demand great volumes of ammunition.
The Russian approach to supply has always been rail-based. Trucks are meant to transport material in the final stage from the rail yard to the frontline, but ideally these rail yards are not located over 300 kilometers away.
If they were able to wrestle control of Konotop (80,000) and Nizhyn (70,000) the Russians would be able to get supplies by rail from Russia to as near Kiev as they deemed it safe. Meanwhile, if they took Nizhyn and Mena (10,000) they would gain the full control of a secondary, roundabout line from Belarus.
The longer these towns stay in Ukrainian hands, the more time the defenders have to sabotage the rail. Russia has 30,000 Railway Troops devoted to just running and fixing railways (that’s how important rail is to Russian military), but with that kind of time given to the enemy even these might be hard-pressed to return the rail to service quickly.
It is this Kiev operation that occupied the central stage in the Russian plan and took the lion’s share of the resources. Even so, nearly 4 weeks into the campaign it has yet to meet a goal of strategic significance. It hasn’t taken Kiev, it hasn’t encircled it, it hasn’t even yet sorted out its supply lines.
Moreover, for the last two weeks in particular its progress has been glacial or non-existent.
And yet it cannot be said that it is far from reaching some of these objectives either. Wrestling control of the railway and completing the encirclement of Kiev on the east side of the river seems doable with just the tiniest of reinforcements. The great majority of the work has already been done. Just the last final stretch of cutting one more highway and taking three more small towns remains.
And yet, currently, it probably doesn’t make sense to reinforce the Kiev push because the southern theater is more promising.
Albeit treated as a sideshow in planning it is the southern front that now looks closer to meeting an objective of grand significance, namely the encirclement of Ukrainian forces in the Donbass. If there are any reinforcements it makes the most sense to send them there.
Underresourced as it has been, the progress of the Donbass front has been steady but non-spectacular. 5 to 10 kilometers a day. Usually heavily aided by forces of the Donetsk Republic.
Ukrainian defeat in the Donbass is inevitable but there is the chance that if the Russian pincers are too slow or too shallow that relatively few opposing units will be caught. They may retreat and live to fight another day.
This would make strengthening the push here with reinforcements critical.
But it isn’t at all clear that Kremlin feels the same urgency. Are reinforcements being generated and sent? Perhaps they are, we saw some evidence of that before TikTok went dark in Russia. But at the same time, Putin is telling the public that conscripts and reservists aren’t going to Ukraine, which if it is actually followed, will hamper giving the military what it needs.
In a way, Russia is a victim of its almost-success.
The Kiev operation that probably should have never been the central part of the campaign failed to trigger a quick collapse of the Ukrainian state, but it did capture a staggering amount of territory and has encircled Kiev from three sides.
It doesn’t appear to be able to finish the job on its own, but it is so close that you don’t want to weaken it and lose ground there even as the southern operation looks much more promising and is crying out for reinforcements. In a way it would have actually been better for Russia if the troops in the Kiev operation had not achieved as much and were now available to ensure the Donbass operation is quick and deep and decisive.
As it is, there is some risk of Russia having two near-successes. Two undertakings that can’t get past that last hump in time. Two objectively impressive efforts that don’t hit the truly big payoff for the lack of just a little more.