How Ukraine Stopped The Russian Attack On Kyiv: Mobile Missile Teams Striking Fragile Supply Lines

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Soldiers from the Ukrainian army’s 14th Mechanized Brigade with a Stugna-P anti-tank missile.

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Roaming groups of infantry hauling anti-tank missiles, working in the gaps between fortified cities and towns, were the key to Ukraine’s successful defense of its capital Kyiv against Russian invaders in February and March this year.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by Michael Anderson, a U.S. Army infantry officer.

Ukraine’s light infantry operations “first delayed, then disrupted and finally turned back key Russian supporting efforts along critical ground lines of communication,” Anderson wrote for West Point’s Modern War Institute. “This effort, in both Sumy and the adjacent Chernihiv Oblast, denied consolidation, resupply and mass for Russia’s main effort to encircle Kyiv.”

But the same tactics that worked as the Russian army stretched itself out across the highways of northern Ukraine might not work so well where the Russians’ supply lines are shorter. Namely, in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

As the Kremlin began staging the majority of its ground forces for an invasion of Ukraine starting in the spring of 2021, many analysts predicted a swift victory for Moscow. The Russian army is bigger than the Ukrainian army is—and also better-armed, especially with artillery and long-range rockets.

Russian doctrine calls for artillery to pummel enemy strongpoints before tanks and infantry rush forward, isolating enemy troops so the big guns can finish them off. But applying these tactics across the many miles between the Russian staging points and Kyiv, the ultimate objective of the initial stage of Russia’s invasion in late February 2022, required deft logistics.

Russian trains would have to move tons of fuel and ammunition to railheads miles behind the front, at which point trucks would have to haul the supplies to advancing front-line battalions and their supporting artillery.

But the Russian army never had enough trucks. And its logisticians lacked the skill and experience to cope with the stresses of combat. As 125 Russian battalions, each 500 soldiers strong or stronger, barreled into Ukraine on the night of Feb. 23, the logistics brigades struggled to keep up. They were strung out, under-protected, fragile.

And that played directly into the Ukrainians’ hands. Borrowing, and altering, methods from the World War II German Wehrmacht, the Ukrainian army fortified towns and cities between the Russian border and Kyiv in Sumy and Chernihiv Oblasts in the hope of slowing, stopping, then reversing the enemy invasion.

The Russian army in theory knew how to deal with these prickly “hedgehog” strongpoints. The same way the Soviet army did—steadily advance on, surround, cut off and bombard each town and city, in turn. But that methodical, firepower-first approach required robust supply lines.

Which the Russians did not have. Exploiting that weakness, the Ukrainians deployed small teams of infantry riding in armored vehicles or even civilian vehicles and armed with locally-made Stugna-P or U.S.-supplied Javelin anti-tank guided missiles.

The mobile teams targeting isolated Russian tanks, of course. But they also began plucking at Russian supply convoys. “Beyond targeting and separating the infantry from the tanks in isolation, Ukrainian forces also took the fight directly to Russia’s vulnerable truck-based logistics,” Anderson explained.

“The days between March 21 and March 24 represented a particularly high-intensity period of Ukraine’s hedgehog defense and the activity of its mobile light infantry,” Anderson continued. “The combination of determined resistance denying the Russians control over cities and key terrain that Ukrainian forces defended as strongpoints and the roving light forces disrupting the Russian attempts to mass combat power and support any encircling forces was decisive in the fight for Sumy.”

By March 29, the Russian assault on Kyiv was in a state of collapse. The front-line battalions had advanced too far for their increasingly damaged supply lines.

“Russia’s inability to exploit the gaps in the Ukrainian noncontiguous defensive front seems to be largely because of the efforts of the mobile, light infantry forces,” Anderson noted. “The overall effect of this—as well as the defense of Chernihiv, Kharkiv and other areas east of Kyiv—was the disintegration of the Russian offensive operational effort in the first week of April and the abandonment of the Kyiv axis and a complete withdrawal from northeast Ukraine.”

After retreating from Kyiv, leaving behind thousands of dead and a whole army’s worth of wrecked vehicles, the Russians consolidated their battered battalions in the east and, a month later, resumed the attack—targeting a handful of the most vulnerable Ukrainian cities mere miles from the front in Donbas.

Here, the Russians enjoyed greater success, steadily—albeit at great cost—capturing the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk and, by August, advancing to the outskirts of Bakhmut.

The same defensive tactics that worked for the Ukrainian army around Kyiv clearly didn’t work in Donbas—and it’s not hard to see why. Where Kyiv lay 60 miles from the Russian border, Severodonetsk was mere miles from Russian-controlled territory.

The Russians didn’t have to string out long supply lines in order to lay siege to Severodonetsk and other Donbas strongpoints. They never presented their vulnerable logistical flanks to Ukrainian forces.

The Ukrainians have adapted by leveraging their new, longer-range rockets and drones plus teams of saboteurs to strike at Russian supply lines deep inside Russian-held Ukraine … and even inside Russia itself.

In a sense, these deep strikes achieve the same thing those mobile infantry did back in March: they complicate the flow of supplies to Russia’s front-line forces, gradually weakening them. But it remains to be seen whether deep strikes can compel the Russians to pull back from their current positions the way infantry raids did during an earlier phase of the war.

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