Twenty-three days have passed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. A look at the map of operations under way in the invasion would quickly suggest that the invading forces are trying to encircle the capital city of Kyiv from the northwest, west and the east of the country.
This, along with the bombing operations Russian troops are carrying out elsewhere in the country, would appear to be in line with their stated aim of “demilitarising” Ukraine. Some also argue that Russians would want to create a regime that would be favourable to the Russian axis — a conjuncture that has not been available to Moscow since former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country and exiled to Russia following widespread protests against his regime in 2014.
One of Eastern Europe’s oldest cities, Kyiv gained prominence as the capital city of the Kievan Rus, the first Eastern Slavic state in 9th century AD, but after being destroyed during the Mongol invasions, it lost its importance becoming a provincial capital of territories that were under the control of Lithuania, later Poland and Russia in the 17th century. Under Russian thrall and later industrial revolution in the 19th century, the city became first a trade centre and by 1900, a significant industrial centre. Kyiv was later the capital of Soviet Ukraine and a centre of major industrialisation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city steadily remodelled and evolved itself as a centre to high-tech industries and higher education centres, contributing significantly to Ukraine’s overall GDP.
Kyiv is not only Ukraine’s capital city, but is among the regions in the country with the highest net support for Ukraine joining the European Union as opposed to an alliance with Russia. For example, during the Euromaidan protests in November 2013 against Yanukovych’s regime, which had chosen suddenly not to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement that had been voted for, overwhelmingly, by Ukraine’s Parliament, polls showed that the highest support for the protests were in Kyiv (75%) as opposed to a near 50-50 split for and against the protests in the country overall.
Since 2014, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the escalating conflict and later stalemate in Donbas, and other economic pressures only indicated Russia’s attempts at restoring control over Ukraine and weaning away from the EU/NATO axis. These had, even before the invasion, only made Kyiv harden its line on agreeing to political concessions to Russia and prevented a lasting peace between the neighbours. Some experts had cautioned that Russia would indeed utilise the means of an invasion to achieve its strategic aims in Ukraine and to seek effective control over Kyiv and that has indeed to come to pass.
However, as things stand, reports from the country have shown that the Russian invasion has been stalled on the Kyiv front and the northwest, even though Moscow says its “special military operation” is going ahead as per plan. The Washington DC-based Institute of Study of War, in its March 18 update, said “Russia did not conduct any offensive operations northwest or northeast of Kyiv” and that its efforts to “encircle or seize Kyiv remain stalemated as of March 18”.
Clearly fierce counter-attacks from the Ukrainians have lent a heavy toll on the Russian forces, especially behind Russian lines. Ukraine has also managed a campaign on the psy-ops front to portray that the Russian morale is flagging and that the invading forces are now increasingly using repression in the areas under its control, even as it has so far failed to capture major cities, except Kherson in the south.
This is quite true of the Kyiv offensive. Since February 24 when Russian Armed Forces entered the Kyiv oblast (province) that surrounds and does not include the capital city of Kyiv, it took 10 days for them to capture towns such as Bucha, Hostomel and Vorzel.
But later, Ukrainian defence forces managed to inflict heavy losses on Russian tank units, broke off their main Kyiv convoy, and repulsed further attacks. By March 16, the Ukrainian government claimed that they had launched counter-offensives to repel more forces approaching Kyiv even as fresh fighting broke out in the captured towns of Bucha and Hostomel and the embattled town of Irpin.
In an authored article published by British think tank, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), experts summarised thus about the Kyiv offensive: “The advance of Russian forces from the First Guards Tank Army and Second Combined Arms Army through an axis running past Sumy has proceeded on a narrow front with an extended vulnerable line of communications.
Russian forces advancing from the north including from Belarus to both encircle Kyiv from the west and conduct a secondary offensive against Chernihiv have, similarly, stalled.”
But analysts tracking the war, including those from RUSI, aver that the Russian invasion is making incremental progress in the eastern part of Ukraine. Russia is poised to take the embattled city of Mariupol in the Donetsk region (adding to Kherson) in addition to making incremental territorial gains in the Luhansk region as well.
RUSI’s experts go on to suggest that, if seen in terms of how the Russian forces are engaging from the south from Crimea, from the north bypassing Kharkiv and from the south West, the Ukrainian regular army forces that remain near Donetsk and Luhansk look “increasingly precarious”.
This lends to RUSI’s experts’ view that Russia will be successful in emasculating Ukraine’s military forces substantially while annexing the breakaway regions of the east under its control — a blow therefore to the Ukraine’s government in Kyiv. The experts suggest that Ukraine’s defence forces will have to potentially take the painful decision of abandoning the defence of Donetsk and Luhansk and instead utilise its “major geographical advantage — interior lines of operation” to concentrate attacks on Russian forces while largely defending the western parts of the country.
Meanwhile, diplomatic parleys between Ukraine and Russian negotiators have proceeded without much headway. Ukraine has acknowledged that it will not join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and has sought security guarantees but Russia continues to make maximalist demands related to the “demilitarisation” of Ukraine and the de jure recognition of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics (which were recognised by Russia before the invasion started) as independent and the Crimean peninsula as Russian territory. RUSI’s view that the Russian objective could be to de facto capture the regions in the east while demilitarising Ukraine’s defence forces and emasculating it is borne out in these demands made by Russian negotiators. Both sides continue to hold talks and have signalled that a compromise is possible. But they also accuse each other of stalling progress in negotiations.
The official toll of the invasion, according to the UN human rights office, was 816 Ukrainian civilians, including those in the Donbas region, but the office also went on to say that these are deaths it could verify and these figures vastly understated the actual death toll. An estimated 3.32 million refugees have fled Ukraine to escape the invasion, indicating a high humanitarian toll of an invasion by Vladimir Putin’s Russia that has clearly violated the UN Charter and breaks several international laws.
The success of the Ukraine defence forces to thus far stalling the Kyiv offensive has given some respite to a beleaguered regime but militarily, the Russians still retain the advantage in the middle-game of its invasion. How the Volodymyr Zelenskyy-led regime in the capital city will assess its response will determine the endgame to the invasion.