5 key moments that have defined Russia's invasion of Ukraine
How Vladimir Putin's war against his western neighbor became a bloody, yearlong slog for Moscow.
KYIV — A year ago today, Ukraine was under attack from three directions in what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told his French counterpart, who was still not yet convinced that the invasion had begun, was a state of “total war.”
Kyiv, we were confidently told by officials and analysts alike, had at most three days before it fell to Vladimir Putin’s invading army, airborne, special forces and naval troops and Russian tanks, accompanied perhaps by a triumphant Putin himself, moving unimpeded down Khreschatyk, the main thoroughfare of the Ukrainian capital.
“You have only a few hours left” was the assessment of Germany’s finance minister, Christian Lindner, to Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk immediately after the first Russian tanks began rolling across Ukraine’s northern border. In the run-up to the war, the German government had gone to extreme lengths to placate Moscow, even requiring British transport aircraft delivering NLAW antitank rockets to fly a circuitous route in order to avoid overflying German airspace.
Much has changed in a year.
The United States has upgraded its defensive weaponry provisions from antitank missiles to one of its most sophisticated and sensitive pieces of equipment, the PAC-3 Patriot air defense system — arguably the most definitive statement of confidence in long-term Ukrainian survival than any political statement. Washington is now also sending M1A2 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, and Germany is sending its own Leopard-2s or allowing a dozen or so European nations to reexport them.
After months of terrorizing cruise missile and drone attacks on critical infrastructure, meant to freeze and darken Ukrainians into submission, the streets of Kyiv are now quieter than ever. Ukraine’s state energy company Ukrenergo recorded no outages or energy shortages for the week of Feb. 17.
The only Russian tanks visible to passersby are charred skeins of metal on display in front of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral, a living exhibit of successful Ukrainian resistance and humiliating Russian defeat. Instead of Putin, U.S. President Biden made it to Kyiv on Monday, saying at a joint news conference with Zelensky: “This is the largest land war in Europe in three-quarters of a century, and you’re succeeding against all and every expectation except your own.”
Yahoo News was in Kyiv in January 2022, in the weeks preceding Russia’s invasion. The general mood was tense and perplexed but not quite panicked. Almost all in government, military and intelligence roles queried about the likelihood or inevitability of war were skeptical Putin would go through with it because they were confident it would be a catastrophe — for him. Putin “will choke on Ukraine,” said Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s former deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration.
As of this writing, Russia has lost nearly half of its entire stock of tanks, either destroyed or captured on the battlefield. Close to 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or injured, according to the latest U.S. and European estimates. Putin’s original invasion force was around 160,000. More than half the territory Russia conquered in the early days of the war — 2,000 square miles — Ukraine has now retaken.
Ukrainian gains have also come at a steep price.
Western officials estimate that Ukraine has suffered up to 100,000 killed, wounded, or missing in action. After a pitched and symbolically rallying last stand in May, Ukraine lost the port city of Mariupol, a major industrial center on the coast of the Sea of Azov. This seizure of Mariupol and the fall of surrounding territory enabled Russia to gain a valuable “land bridge” to the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which it illegally annexed in 2014.
So far, the war has been devastating to Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure. The Kyiv School of Economics estimates the current damage to be close to $140 billion, a figure bound to increase as the fighting continues. The human costs of the war are even higher.
A common refrain among Ukrainians is that the best of their society is being sacrificed as a matter of sheer survival. Artists, writers, ballet dancers, engineers and businesspeople from across the country have already been sent into battle and lost.
Russia, meanwhile, has mainly mobilized its provincial poor and disenfranchised minorities. Some Russian press estimates claim that as many as 700,000, the majority of whom are comparatively wealthy elites, have evaded conscription by fleeing Russia. Moscow has even resorted to emptying its prisons to make up for its military personnel shortages.
Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, told BBC Radio 4 on Feb. 15, “We now estimate 97% of the Russian army, the whole Russian army, is in Ukraine.” But Russia has still not been able to advance significantly along any frontline for months: Its biggest capture this year was the strategically negligible salt-mine town of Soledar, for which it was thought to have expended an inordinate amount in blood and treasure. More tellingly, Russia recently lost an entire brigade of elite naval infantry fighting forces near Vuhledar, in addition to dozens of pieces of heavy armor.
One Western diplomat, privy to confidential briefings by Ukraine’s general staff, has told Yahoo News that Kyiv believes Russia is sustaining as many as “40,000 casualties per month” — a staggering figure, albeit one Yahoo News cannot independently verify. Though a Western consensus does suggest that, due to the absence of proper Russian medical care on the battlefield, many if not most of Russia’s critically wounded die.
How did this happen? And how did so many Western officials and military analysts get the course of this war wrong? Below are five events that telegraphed Russia’s manifold problems in tactics, techniques and procedures, not to mention the core competency and will of its invading troops, and foretold Ukraine’s capacity for beating the odds.
The Battle of Kyiv
Russian failure to capture Kyiv was the first indication that things were not going Putin’s way.
The plan was relatively simple. Russian troops would punch through disorganized, unprepared and poorly motivated Ukrainian defenders, quickly secure Hostomel Airport on the outskirts of Kyiv with a daring airborne assault and use that as a springboard to take key points in the Ukrainian capital. Zelensky’s shell-shocked administration would either have to flee the city in terror or risk having its leadership captured.
Although the Russians were initially able to secure Hostomel Airport, a determined Ukrainian counterattack and the resultant battle meant the Russians weren’t able to use the runway to fly in reinforcements for their push into Kyiv. An unknown number of huge Russian IL-76 strategic airlifters, en route to Hostomel with paratrooper reinforcements, were forced to turn around and fly back to Russia.
With the arrival of armored reinforcements from their bases in Belarus, the Russians were eventually able to secure the airport on Feb. 25, but by then it was too late. The initial “shock” of the Russian invasion had subsided, and Ukrainian defenders quickly realized there was no need to be in awe of the modernized Russian army. Whatever its potential strengths on paper, it was unable to fight the war Moscow thought it could, against the enemy Moscow thought it was facing. Back in 2014, Putin boasted of the Russian army being capable of taking Kyiv in “two weeks.”
At the time, his assessment was probably correct. But the Ukrainian army of 2014 was a long, long way away from the Ukrainian army Russia faced in 2022, a far larger force and battle-hardened from years of fighting in the East; approximately 1 percent of Ukraine’s total population of 43.7 million had seen some form of combat against pro-Russian forces since 2014. Also, Ukraine’s military was increasingly led by more capable commanders, many trained by the United States and its NATO allies, who had wisely abandoned the top-down, centralized model of command and control inherited from the Soviet era.
In the end, the Russians barely even entered Ukraine’s capital. The troops were largely confined to the suburbs of the city — Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka — where they took out their frustrations on civilians, targets that couldn’t fight back. When Russian troops were forced to withdraw under Ukrainian fire in April 2022, they left the evidence of their crimes behind them.
The sinking of the Moskva
In many ways, the Moskva (“Moscow”) — the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, stationed in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol — was emblematic of the Russian army that marched into Ukraine in 2022. The Slava-class cruiser was a Soviet-era relic that had been superficially but ineffectively modernized, with large amounts of the budget designated for upgrading the ship apparently being lost to corruption.
On paper, however, it was still a formidable opponent. The ship was designed to attack and destroy NATO carrier groups during the Cold War, with its huge P-700 Granit missiles, each weighing 7 tons, flying at twice the speed of sound and capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Absent any Ukrainian carriers in the Black Sea — the largest Ukrainian warship, the Krivak-class frigate Hetman Sahaidachny, was scuttled by her crew at the start of the invasion — the Moskva’s most significant weapons system was 64 long-range S-300F surface-to-air missiles onboard. These systems were the one realm in which the Soviets — and later the Russians — were genuine technological world leaders, owing to their well-grounded fears of superior NATO airpower.
In theory, the Moskva’s S-300F would enable the Russian navy to project a bubble of air defense coverage 150 km around the ship. No other Russian ship in the Black Sea Fleet had air defenses with anything close to this range, and the closure of the Bosphorus Strait by Turkey on March 1, 2022, removed the ability to simply replace the ship with one of her sisters.
The way the Moskva met her end is also arguably metaphoric of the Russian approach to the overall war. She was around 80 nautical miles off the coast of Ukraine on April 14 when she was hit by two Neptune anti-ship missiles — missiles of native Ukrainian manufacture. An analysis of pictures of her smoking, sinking hulk showed that her air defense radar systems were in the “standby” position either through simple overconfidence or the poor training of the crew.
After the ship was sunk by the Ukrainian missiles, the Kremlin simply lied about her fate, claiming she was lost after a fire broke out in an onboard magazine. The loss of her antiair capability was not something that could be hand-waved away, however, leaving the rest of the Black Sea Fleet vulnerable without its protective shield of missile coverage.
Without the Moskva, the threat of a Russian amphibious landing near Odesa — long a fear of the Ukrainian military — vanished. The Russians were forced to abandon their position on Zmiinyi (“Snake”) Island, now hopelessly vulnerable to Ukrainian airpower. For the rest of the war, the Russian Black Sea Fleet would largely remain in port, only leaving to fire cruise missiles at Ukrainian targets hundreds of miles away.
Though even the fleet’s home base would have to change following a surprise attack on Saky air base in southern Crimea in August, an attack that liquidated more than half of the fleet’s naval aviation group, according to one Western official. How the Ukrainians managed to strike deep behind enemy lines in occupied Crimea — around 140 miles from the closest Ukrainian-held territory at the time — remains a mystery, although Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said it was “a series of successful missile strikes.”
That sortie caused a mass exodus of Russian tourists from Crimea and fear of what it foretold of Ukraine’s hitherto undeclared long-range missile capabilities caused most of the Black Sea Fleet to relocate from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk, in mainland Russia, 253 nautical miles away.
The Kharkiv counteroffensive
As the war progressed into summer, the Russians retreated from central and northern Ukraine. Putin seemed to be refocusing his efforts on what was notionally the original target of his “special military operation,” Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. Fighting had been largely static for months, with neither side making much progress. Much was written about the “primacy of defense,” and the death of maneuver warfare, with many analogies being made with the attritional trench warfare of World War I.
Again, the Ukrainians rubbished the conventional wisdom.
After announcing a long anticipated offensive in Kherson Oblast, in the southeast of the country, the Ukrainian military secretly began building up strength behind the frontline around Kharkiv, in the northeast. Kherson was the most obvious target for the Ukrainian counteroffensive because the Russians were situated on the “wrong” side of the Dnipro river (the right bank), with all their logistics having to cross one of three key bridges from Russian held territory on the east bank. These bridges were now in range of Western-supplied Ukrainian artillery, in particular the U.S. M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).
But the Kherson offensive was, if not entirely a feint, more of a fixing action, designed to tie down the best Russian units that had been moved to that area of the front to withstand the forecasted Ukrainian push. Ceaseless Ukrainian publicity surrounding the imminent launch of their southern offensive was in effect just advertising a trap they hoped the witless Russian bear would stumble into. And stumble it did. Russian lines around Kharkiv were denuded of Russia’s best troops as part of the effort to reinforce Kherson.
When the secretly assembled Ukrainian strike forces around Kharkiv launched their attack, using speed and shock to their advantage, they pushed through sparsely defended Russian positions, routing the occupiers and moving at speed up to, and then beyond, the Oskil River, a waterway that flows north to south in Kharkiv Oblast and that should have acted as natural defensive barrier for the Russians.
The cities of Izium and Lyman, strategically key locations that Russia had bled for months to capture, were retaken by Ukraine within six days, along with nearly 1,000 square miles of other territory. The Ukrainian military had once again done what nobody else thought was possible, as much through adept psychological warfare as through fire and steel. To add insult to injury, the Russians also had to retreat from Kherson two months later, following months of corrosive Ukrainian artillery attacks on their right bank positions. This withdrawal, to the left bank of the Dnipro, was largely well planned and organized, with little of the chaos of the Kharkiv rout.
Russian mobilization and its discontents
After the debacle at Kharkiv, it had become increasingly clear to the Kremlin that the Russian army that marched into Ukraine on Feb. 24 simply didn’t have enough troops to even defend Russia’s current gains, let alone take large-scale offensive operations. Putin had gambled on a quick collapse of the Ukrainian government and conventional military, and with it, Ukrainians’ will to resist. (There is credible evidence that he was also badly misled by his own intelligence services as to Ukrainians’ amenability to Russian occupation.)
If Putin’s initial assumption had been true, the small size of the Russian invasion force, organized around battalion tactical groups that supposedly utilized mechanization and heavy artillery support to make up for manpower deficiencies, would have been perfectly adequate. Virtually none of his assumptions about Ukraine panned out.
Putin therefore needed a huge expansion of his army in order to stand any chance at even holding Russia’s currently occupied areas of Ukraine. The “partial mobilization” he announced on Sept. 21 was Russia’s answer to this personnel shortage, though it was implemented with as much competency and skill as the war itself. Hundreds of thousands of Russian civilians were conscripted, leading far more than that number to flee Russia by any available means. Mobilization centers were set alight, protesters were imprisoned and those who did turn up for service were given substandard basic training, armed in many cases with antique weaponry, and dispatched to the front.
Mobilization undoubtedly provided the Russians with additional soldiers to fill trenches. But it hardly constituted a sufficient regeneration of well-trained and well-equipped troops. A disproportionate number of these “mobiks” were nonethnic Russians: Chechens, Dagestanis, Circassians from the Caucasus or Buryats or other Mongolic minorities from the Far East. A villager from Irkutsk with a rusty Kalashnikov did not overnight become a soldier; he became a villager with a Kalashnikov.
Mobiks proved capable of holding a defensive position, if adequately supported, but were incapable of doing much more. They weren’t even close to being able to carry out combined arms warfare, operating alongside tanks, artillery and airpower that would be required for offensive operations.
Other easy fixes for losses have been subject to diminishing returns. The infamous Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary army that is now a U.S.-designated transnational criminal organization, has lost 80% of some of its assault units, according to Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense, Hanna Maliar. Wagner mercenaries managed to secure some advances, such as in the salt-mine town of Soledar, but at the cost of horrific casualties.
The White House calculates that 90% of 30,000 Wagner casualties have been convicts recruited to serve as cannon fodder in Donbas. Unsurprisingly, once word of these losses trickled back into Russian prisons, Wagner found it increasingly difficult to get more criminals to sign up.
For weeks, Ukraine has been warning of a large-scale and dire new Russian offensive, fielding as many as half a million soldiers. U.S. and European officials also signaled to Western media that a second assault on Kyiv may be in the offing, this one with significant Russian airpower.
Now that forecast has given way to anticlimactic assessments.
The offensive, in fact, appears to have been underway for weeks. Rather than a blitzkrieg from multiple fronts, Russia has funneled recently mobilized troops into existing campaigns in Donbas, albeit to no discernible effect outside of more losses. Wallace, the U.K. defense secretary, told the Financial Times that Russia’s forces were advancing, if at all, in “meters not kilometers.”
Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, meanwhile, has gone from taking vainglorious selfies on the battlefield and daring Zelensky to a dogfight in the skies of Donbas to pleading for ammunition and sapper shovels from the Russian Ministry of Defense for his battered cadre of criminals and other guns for hire.
The ‘annexation’ of Ukraine
On Sept. 30, Russia announced the “annexation” of four regions of Ukraine — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia — none of which it completely controlled at the time, and one of which, Kherson, it has further lost control over. Quite apart from undermining Putin’s original purpose for war, the “de-Nazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine and the protection of supposedly imperiled Russian-speakers in Donbas, the announcement was as clear-cut a statement that this was always designed as a war of conquest.
Indeed, on the eve of what he euphemistically termed a “special military operation,” Putin had only acceded to the independence of Russian-occupied areas in Donetsk and Luhansk, the so-called “peoples’ republics” that had been installed already for eight years. Now, six months on, he signaled his intention to absorb them fully into the Russian Federation.
The annexations were preceded by coercive and illegitimate referendums of the local populations, the outcomes of which were predetermined to be in favor of incorporation with Russia. In liberated Kherson, residents told Yahoo News how election officials accompanied by heavily armed Russian soldiers brought ballot boxes to their doors and watched them cast their vote.
No country, except for North Korea, has recognized the takeover of these regions. Nor has it diminished Ukraine’s resolve to recapture them. Just over a month after the annexation announcement by Russia, Ukraine liberated the city of Kherson on Nov. 11. Russian forces blew up the Antonovsky Bridge as they retreated across the Dnipro, a reliable indication they had no plans to return anytime soon.
None of this has had any bearing on Kyiv’s own war plans. If anything, it’s made Ukrainian officials more hawkish and confident in their ability to push the Russians back not only beyond Feb. 24 borders, but from territory taken in 2014-2015.
Ukrainian troops are fighting for “every inch” of their internationally recognized borders of Ukraine. In the past week they have pounded Russian positions in Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol. Yesterday, Ukraine’s southern command declared Mariupol, once thought to be out of the range of HIMARS and multiple-launch rocket systems, “no longer completely unreachable.”
The Pentagon, once reluctant to see the war taken to Crimea for fear of how it might provoke Putin into a dangerous retaliation, perhaps using weapons of mass destruction, is now reportedly more bullish. The New York Times reported in January that “the Biden administration is considering what would be one of its boldest moves yet, helping Ukraine to attack the peninsula,” as a way of strengthening Kyiv’s negotiating position with Moscow.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian hackers took control of two Russian radio stations in Crimea. After playing the Ukrainian national anthem, a brief address from Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov was aired.
“Ukraine is taking back all of its occupied territories,” he said. “The Donbas and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea will be coming home forever. … Stay tuned. We’re coming to you.”