Step by step the Ukrainian soldiers advance and position themselves in the woods, their weaponry all too visible from their shoulders. If there was any doubt about whether western arms were getting into the hands of Ukraine’s soliders, footage posted on social media on Thursday dispelled those concerns.
It shows Ukrainian light infantry, some wearing the country’s distinctive yellow armbands, carrying several types of anti-tank weapons, including British NLAWs, and rocket-propelled grenades, as part of what is said to be a counterattack against Russian forces near Kyiv. But while it may appear heroic, it is still not anywhere near a fair fight.
There has been an intense focus on Russia’s strategy, tactics and deployment since the start of the war in Ukraine, but there has been relatively little said about Ukraine’s approach. The footage offered a rare glimpse of what Ukraine can offer in the field: light forces fighting to prevent Russian armor encircling Kyiv.
“Ukrainian operational security is very tight. We know very little about what they’re doing or how, by design,” said Nick Reynolds, a land warfare specialist from the Rusi thinktank. He said the strategy appears two pronged: to hold out in Kyiv and other major cities, and to try hit and run tactics elsewhere.
“They are investing heavily in urban defence, particularly Kyiv, but in rural areas we’ve seen the military use ambush tactics against Russian convoys on roads, which will make it difficult for Russian forces to operate away from the road network without being detected or attacked by irregular forces”.
Since the war began, what the UK and other western countries describe as “defensive weaponry” has been flooding into Ukraine, at least 17,000 anti-tank weapons and about 900 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Arms are airlifted to Rzeszów in south-eastern Poland, now defended by a US Patriot battery, and being taken on by land thereafter, where supply routes to Kyiv at least remain open. And as the footage indicates, at least some Ukrainian forces have no shortage of shoulder-mounted arms for now.
Yet it also shows what Ukraine lacks. It has no real match for Russian artillery, which has been remorselessly targeting Kharkiv and Mariupol in the east with grim consequences for civilians. And while Russian air power has been more absent by day – because, the UK says, the air force is worried about the threat of anti-aircraft missiles – it is able to run bombing missions at night. There were airstrikes overnight on Dnipro and on airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk in the west, which had been relatively peaceful.
Ukraine seems to have no way to combat Russian artillery once it has bedded in and encircled, or nearly encircled, a city. “Offensively going after Russian artillery requires combat power that Ukrainian forces struggle to generate. Ukraine will probably be on the losing side of any traditional artillery duels that it gets into,” Reynolds said.
It is a point not lost on Ukraine’s leadership. Knowing that Nato has repeatedly said no to a no-fly zone, Volodymyr Zelenskiy opted for a different –and broader– plea in his address to British MPs this week. “Please ensure that our Ukrainian skies are safe,” the president said, carefully, referring both to aircraft and artillery. Yet the help required is not forthcoming.
Britain has said it is now willing to supply anti-aircraft missiles and other countries are ready to send resupplies. But the west is not willing to supply heavy guns and tanks – or fighter jets that could help fend off Russian massed forces, after the US said it was not prepared to act as an intermediary and pass on 28 Polish MiG-29s. Such supplies, it is feared, would provoke Russia unnecessarily.
Ukraine’s dominance of social media narrative also makes it easy to ignore Russian successes. In the last 24 hours Russia’s ministry of defense has released footage of Russian armor on the move near Kyiv. Other social media footage shows a captured Javelin anti-tank bazooka and Geneva-convention-breaking images of captured and humiliated Ukrainian prisoners.
It is uncertain how long Kharkiv can hold out for, where 48 schools and a psychiatric hospital are said by local authorities to have been bombed. The situation is worse in Mariupol where 1,200 civilians are already said by the city’s authorities to have been killed and repeated attempts at evacuations have failed amid continuing shelling. “No electricity, water and gas supply. Meaning no means for heating,” warned a Red Cross worker as he described a desperate situation in the city on Thursday.
This week the US estimated that 5,000 to 6,000 Russian troops had been killed and 2,000 to 4,000 Ukrainian troops, plus many more civilians. Another US assessment estimated that both sides had lost 8% to 10% of the military assets that they had committed to the fighting.
Against such a backdrop looms the possibility of a bloody siege of Kyiv. Russian troops have been trying to encircle the city, which may explain why Ukrainian forces have been so keen to counterattack – to stave off the sort of shelling seen in the east. Yet an attempt by Russian forces to build up a force around Brovary, to the east of Kyiv, earlier this week was beaten back, according to the Institute for the Study of Wara US thinktank monitoring the fighting.
Video emerged on Thursday morning showing a Russian column, seemingly underestimating the danger, being attacked on the main E95 road outside Brovary. It was a crucial victory, leaving Russian forces only in control around the north-west and west of the capital, although it has longer-range Iskander and Kalibr missiles that could target Kyiv in numbers if it chose.
However Ukrainian counterattacks appear possible, at least for now, where Russian forces have overextended themselves. Whether they can continue if a city is roughly encircled appears far less less certain. This week Zelenskiy promised to “fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores in the streets”, but in reality Ukraine’s military plan appears to amount to sheer, bloody survival.
“It is quite difficult to see what their strategy is, beyond holding the Russians out of major cities,” said Ben Barry, a land warfare specialist with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In other words, such is the military imbalance that the main hope for Ukraine is that the longer it can hold up, something will emerge to turn the tide.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism