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Has Russia’s invasion stalled? Meduza tackles one of the biggest questions in Ukraine as the war enters its third week

Source: Meduza
Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / EPA / Scanpix / LETA
In this essay, our editors attempt to assess the military situation in Ukraine based on the available data. This article was originally published in Russian on March 9, 2022. Meduza opposes the war and demands the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. 

In recent days (approximately from the 10th to 14th day of the war), the Russian incursion into the depths of Ukraine has stalled. The columns of advancing Russian battle groups are no longer moving any more than 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) a day. Meanwhile, the army continues to incur losses from Ukrainian counterattacks against the groups at the front as well as ambushes at the rear guard. Ukraine’s successes are documented and posted online by journalists and regular citizens with cellphones. 

However, this does not mean that the invasion has come to a halt. According to the same Ukrainian photos and videos, geolocation shows that Russian troops have made significant advances toward their intended targets. This is true in many key areas on the several fronts that were formed since the beginning of the invasion:

  • Kyiv is essentially blocked from three sides. Masses of Russian troops have blocked the road leading west out of Kyiv in the direction of Zhytomyr and are moving south along the outskirts with an obvious objective of cutting off the city from all contact with the Western part of the country. The incursion continues despite constant pressure on both flanks from the directions of Kyiv and Zhytomyr. The Russian Army continues to incur losses here (per the posted videos which can been seen on our interactive map), but the Ukrainian Army cannot stop their advance completely. 
  • Russian troops moving from Chernihiv and the Sumy region have approached the eastern and northeastern outskirts of Kyiv, Brovary, and the Boryspil Airport, and have fortified their positions there. Ukrainian active combat units in the rear guard attempting to divert Russian forces in Chernihiv (which is practically surrounded) have not been able to impede their advance. Equipment losses have also failed to stop these troops. 
  • In the south, in the Zaporizhzhia region, the Ukrainian Army is attempting to close the breach that formed after its units were routed in the Azov Sea, while Russian troops are collecting abandoned Ukrainian equipment from their hastily evacuated military bases. Having joined forces with a group from the Donbas, Russian forces in the Zaporizhzhia region are moving north through the cities of Polohy and Hulyaipole. Their objective is probably to cut off all or part of the most powerful Ukrainian forces, which, before Russia’s full-scale invasion, had been concentrated on maintaining the Ukrainian military’s “line of contact” and resisting the forces of the self-proclaimed Donbas “republics.”
  • Russian combat groups from around the cities of Balakiya and Izyum are probably aiming to converge with the Russian group in Zaporizhzhia, moving south from Kharkiv. Izyum saw a number of battles in recent days, part of the city has been destroyed, but the true situation on the ground is unclear. If the city (an important transportation hub) is taken, Russia’s troops will be able to start moving toward the south or southwest. 
  • In the Donbas itself, Russian forces have already “kettled” Ukrainian troops around Mariupol and Volnovakha and are forming another “kettle” around Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk. In the past two days, Russian and “LNR” troops have taken these cities along with the large group of Ukrainian troops within them, which had been moving toward Luhansk prior to the invasion, from the north (from the direction of Russia) and from the south (from the direction of the “LNR”). 
  • Around Kharkiv, Okhtyrka, and Sumy, the armies are exchanging fire and raids. The Russian Air Force is regularly bombing these cities but has not been able to make any significant gains on the ground. It’s possible that the Russian Army is not planning on any further advancement into these areas, with other directions — west of Sumy and south of Kharkiv — being higher priorities. 
  • Finally, in a separate area unrelated to other directions, around Mykolayiv and in southwest Ukraine, Russian troops have incurred losses while attempting to make a quick break in the direction of Odesa. There is a video from early March with burnt-out artillery positions, damaged tanks, and damaged armored combat vehicles around Voznesensk, where there was a battle for the river crossing across the South Bug, near Bashtanka. Since then, the Russian Army has been massing forces in this area, as well as expanding the area under its control on the right bank of the Dnipro. The city of Mykolayiv is blockaded from the north and the east and under artillery fire. 

How do we know all this? 

All modern-day wars take place under the “surveillance” of volunteers who gather and filter photos and videos, tossing out fakes and doubles. Their lists are completely transparent: the evidence of each loss can be verified by anyone. One of these lists, compiled by a group of authors who’ve “done the counts” on all recent wars, including Syria, Iraq, Libya, Karabakh, and the Donbas, can be found here

The events of the past few days on our interactive map 

You can also look at more traditional versions of this map that clearly mark which side controls what territories. The map also correlates well with data from open sources (photos, videos, and messages from Ukrainian municipal authorities on the situations in their territories). 

Overall, the open sources create a rather contradictory picture. On the one hand, according to the video and photo documentation, the Russian Army is suffering nonstop defeats and incurring huge losses, first and foremost, in terms of equipment. On the other hand, the losses and defeats are taking place deeper and deeper into Ukrainian territory, ever closer to possible key targets in this phase of the war. 

However, these two facts only appear to contradict one another. We must remember that these open sources provide only an incomplete picture, even with universal access to cellphones, cameras, and social networks. The warring sides also have fundamentally different political goals, tactics, and strategies. Therefore, the way they approach and present military matters is radically different. 

The important thing to understand here

As a rule, after a battle, one of the sides controls the battlefield (or has access to it), while the other does not. The former will probably be interested in showing the world its opponents’ losses rather than its own. However, in the case of Ukraine, the people documenting the losses have access to the entire territory of the country regardless of the position of the fronts because the majority of them are civilians. 

One of the sides may be more eager to gather documentation of losses than the other. In the case of the war in Ukraine, this is clearly the case since Russian troops are forbidden from taking photos or videos for social media. The exception has been Chechnya, whose National Guard troops are actively broadcasting their actions. Additionally, information about Ukrainian losses is usually reported by pro-government Russian journalists who are only allowed into a small handful of active combat zones. The majority of known Ukrainian losses in equipment and ammunition are documented in the Donbas, north of Kyiv (where the Chechen units are located), and, in recent days, in the Kherson region. Previously, a small portion of Ukrainian losses had been reported by Ukrainian civilians who confused lost Ukrainian equipment for Russian hardware. 

The Ukrainian government is conducting a campaign to publicize Russian losses and clearly considers this one of its most important instruments of warfare directed at Russian citizens. If Russians are “sensitized” to the losses, goes the logic, this may cause political pressure on the Kremlin. 

For its part, the Kremlin wants to keep Russian citizens away from any unofficial information and simply blocks or shuts down these media channels at home. 

Open sources tell us a lot about the problems, losses, and misfortunes incurred by the Russian Army but very little about what is going on with the Ukrainian side, which has lost several areas and entire regions in the south and in the Donbas. Fragmentary information in Western media outlets paints a picture of heavy losses and terrible problems on the Ukrainian side. 

A New York Times article published on March 6, based on interviews with Ukrainian officers, speaks of serious defeats and heavy combat sustained by the Ukrainian Army’s surrounded 59th Brigade in the south of the country during the first days of the war. According to its commanders, the brigade was attacked by Russian forces five times its size and was constantly under aerial assault (which it had nothing to defend itself from, since a significant portion of antiaircraft defenses had been recalled to Kyiv on the eve of the war). As a result, they were surrounded on the left bank of the Dnipro, where they incurred heavy losses of tanks and artillery. Then, what remained of the brigade managed to cross the river into Kherson. They were forced to leave the city under a new threat of siege, which would have meant total destruction for the remaining units. Now, what remains of the brigade is attempting to hold back the Russian incursion into Kherson alongside other units who have arrived from elsewhere. 

The details of combat in another area of the southern front, in Melitopol and Berdyansk, have yet to be released. However, pro-government Russian journalists were allowed to photograph the captured Ukrainian artillery battalion base with its abandoned equipment and supplies. 

Obviously, both sides are incurring heavy casualties. The Ukrainian ones increase when its active army units are surrounded. Encircling or creating the threat of encircling subdivisions or entire divisions seems to have become the Russian military’s primary objective in this phase of the war. The purpose of this is apparently to destroy a significant part of the Ukrainian Army as an organizing force in the Donbas, on the left bank of the Dnipro, and in Kyiv. In the past several days, the Russian Army has surrounded Mariupol and Chernihiv, and has clearly been preparing to continue its operations aimed at surrounding other areas. 

Regardless, this does not mean that the war is going according to the Russian Joint Staff’s plan. The objectives and pace of the operations outlined in this plan are unknown to the public, but things are clearly not going the way they were planned, judging by the changes in how military operations are being conducted, as well as the apparent problems and losses we have observed from open sources. 

  • Clearly, the Russian Army has run into unanticipated logistical problems: in various areas, the supply lines have been severely damaged, which affects the units at the front. 
  • Frontline units are also experiencing problems with reconnaissance. Based on the data from open sources (namely, videos showing damaged and abandoned equipment), reconnaissance is being conducted by small groups that are dispersed in various directions, traveling with a handful of tanks and armored vehicles that are then damaged by the enemy’s artillery fire, anti-tank weapons, and counterattack tanks. 
  • Russian artillery — at least the units around Kharkov and Mykolayiv — have experienced palpable losses from Ukrainian artillery. This speaks to the fact that these units are not universally superior in terms of reconnaissance, targeting, and fire power. At the same time, before the invasion, it was believed that one of the Russian Army’s biggest advantages was precisely its artillery. In the north and west of Kyiv, and in the Donbas, it seems that the Russian Army does indeed have this advantage. 
  • The Russian command seems to have decided against deploying heliborne assaults behind enemy lines. The risks for the troops in the air and on the ground appear to be greater than the advantages that may be gained from taking targets deep behind enemy lines. 
  • Deep incursions down roads with advancing troops are no longer being attempted. The closer the Russian Army has gotten to its targets, the greater the resistance it has faced, alongside increasing difficulty in providing supplies and reinforcements. This is precisely why the invasion has slowed down so much. Each operation now seems to demand that the Army first mass its forces, whether they’re blockading cities and towns in the rear or at the front. 

The Ukrainian Army’s strategy is driven by defending large cities with operations based in more or less the same locations as before the war. Around the cities falling along the path of the Russian invasion, they are conducting shelling with their artillery and anti-tank missiles. The troops regularly counterattack using mobile combat units with tanks (this was the case around Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and Mykolayiv). All of this is forcing the Russian troops to seek out new pathways for their advance and their supply lines, and waste their energy on blockading cities and, in the future, potentially, on storming them. This slows down (and, in places, even halts) the Russian invasion. However, the overall strategy and military situation for the Ukrainian Army continues to deteriorate

At the same time, despite expectations to the contrary, two weeks into the war, the battle for the airspace continues. Here, just as it had before the war, the Russian Army has the advantage, but the Ukrainian Army and antiaircraft defenses, despite what Putin has said about them, still exist and are even capable of operating, albeit in a limited capacity. Maintaining battle-ready Ukrainian antiaircraft systems (capable at least of defensive use) has so far meant that the more Russia has tried to deploy its aerial forces, the greater its losses. 

The inability to gain total supremacy in the air while being significantly richer in resources is probably related to Russia’s problems with organizing reconnaissance. Moscow finds itself in this situation despite the fact that the Ukrainian military has experienced no fewer problems with its Air Force and air defenses (including some losses likely caused by friendly fire).

Translation by Bela Shayevich

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