Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Since the initial attack, pain, destruction and bloodshed has been caused, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions more displaced from their homes. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
According to research by the think tank RUSI, when Vladimir Putin began his invasion, he expected to take control of Ukraine within 10 days. So what went wrong? Why did his plan fail? And how close did he come to succeeding?
We answer these questions in our below YouTube video. Visit our War in Ukraine page to watch more videos from our Ukraine series.
Russian invasion of Ukraine: How Putin lost in 10 days
It’s been over a year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A year of pain, destruction and bloodshed, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions more displaced from their homes. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
According to research by the think tank RUSI, when Vladimir Putin began his invasion, he expected to take control of Ukraine within ten days. So what went wrong? Why did his plan fail? And how close did he come to succeeding?
Well, to find out, we first need to take a closer look at Putin's plan.
The Russian invasion plan was based on a number of assumptions. Russia's President Vladimir Putin believed that Ukraine and Russia were 'one people'. And that, freed of their supposedly Nazi leader in Volodymyr Zelensky, the apathetic people of Ukraine would willingly align with Russia. Essentially, he did not believe that they would put up a fight.
So, instead of a conventional invasion led by the military, Putin planned for what he termed a Special Military Operation led by the Russian Security Services or the FSB. To avoid Western sanctions, they planned to complete the operation as quickly as possible, using infiltrated groups to neutralise Zelensky and the Ukrainian political leadership, before setting up a more friendly regime.
Conventional military forces were only a supporting element of the operation. They were to fix the majority of the Ukrainian army in the Donbas, while advancing quickly on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. They wanted to give the impression of a rapid envelopment and help facilitate that collapse of Ukrainian political power. After 10 days, the conventional forces would switch to an administrative role, supporting the FSB in controlling the Ukrainian population.
Ed Arnold: "The issue with a special service making the plan and not the military is that you actually miss a lot of the key professional military interjectors needed to make a coherent military plan. What's also come to the fore now, and is very obvious is that there was no plan B. As soon as their plan A failed, they just could not switch to a plan B because they didn't have one."
Ukraine's military on the other hand was fully prepared for the invasion. While they were a substandard force, in 2014 when the War in Ukraine began, a top to bottom review meant that by 2022, the Ukrainians had become an effective fighting force. With Western assistance, they modernised their artillery, becoming Europe's 2nd largest artillery force after Russia. They overhauled their air defence, with better targeting and more mobile SAMs, and in January 2022, they created a new territorial defence force.
Ed Arnold: "They'd been fighting in the Donbass since the operation in 2014 and they cycled units through. So actually there was a lot of experience within the wider professional Ukrainian military. It was very key in the first 3 to 5 to 10 days to be able to hold back Russian forces to allow these newly mobilised recruits to be equipped and to be put into defensive areas where they could actually have an effect."
Until then, Ukraine only had limited professional forces to hold the line. Russia had been building its forces of the border since March 2021, so Ukraine was very aware that something was coming, but they were still wrongfooted by the Russian attack.
Believing that the terrain was too difficult and that Russia did not have enough forces to encircle Kyiv - Ukraine expected the main Russian thrust to come through the Donbas and positioned most of its forces there. Only when it became clear that Kyiv was the main Russian target some 7 hours before the invasion, were Ukrainian forces ordered to redeploy. As such, they would have to meet the Russian invasion without prepared defensive positions. Achieving surprise like this was a key objective of the Russian plan, however it came at a cost.
Ed Arnold: "The Russians were so concerned about the plan getting out and Ukraine being able to prepare, that they actually didn't tell their soldiers. If you don't tell soldiers what they're about to do, they can't achieve their objective. There were actually some soldiers who thought they were there on an exercise. They didn't actually even believe that there was a military operation taking place.
So that inability to allow your soldiers to prepare for what you are going to do means that they just there's no chance that they're going to be able to carry out their task."
While the Russian army had surprised the Ukrainian army at an operational level, the Russian soldiers were completely unprepared at a tactical level and faced Ukrainian soldiers who were psychologically ready for the fight. The question was, could Ukraine last long enough to mobilise its reserves and garner much needed western support.
On February 24th, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began. In a televised speech Putin announced his Special Military Operation and immediately afterwards, Russian aircraft and missiles struck a raft of targets throughout Ukraine and successfully disrupted Ukrainian command and control. However, Ukraine's ammunition, aircraft and air defences had been successfully dispersed before the attack and were largely untouched. They would be able to recover.
Soon afterwards, Russian land forces began to make their way into Ukrainian territory. The most successful attacks came in the south, where Russia had air superiority and faced little to no Ukrainian artillery. There was success too in the Donbas, where Russian forces pinned down most of the Ukrainian army, preventing their redeployment. But in the northeast, it was a different story.
Initial assaults on Sumy and Kharkiv failed with heavy casualties, forcing the Russians to bypass the cities. And at Hostomel, a crucial part of the Russian plan went disastrously wrong.
Two waves of 10 helicopters flew low along the Dnipro River to capture the vital airport just north of Kyiv. The airborne forces successfully took Hostomel but came under sustained Ukrainian artillery fire and were forced out by a counterattack.
Ed Arnold: "Well, the Russian plan really relied on taking Hostomel so that they could bring in heavier transport aircraft from mechanized forces and get into Kyiv much quicker. And when that was no longer an option, they had to move on a land move south from Belarus, and they created this 40-mile-long convoy, which effectively became static because it got bogged down in some of the terrain, it ran out of fuel, ran out of food, ran out of batteries even. And actually, became a target for Ukrainian special forces on the ground."
Still, the Russian advances posed a grave threat. In the north, they made good progress on either of the Dnipro against very few Ukrainian forces, reaching the outskirts of Kyiv on the second day. The Ukrainians reacted quickly, committing their special forces in the north, and creating new reserve battalions in Kyiv. But despite those efforts Russian forces still outnumbered them 12:1 in the northern sector. However, the Russians struggled to leverage this advantage.
They were not supported adequately by air defences and had been told to assume that nearby aircraft were friendly. This allowed the Ukrainians to attack the Russian columns with aircraft and TB2 Bayraktar drones, causing mayhem and destruction.
Meanwhile, the Russian troops on the ground were not prepared for a fight. Most units simply had instructions to drive to specific locations by specific times and often arrived in towns without their weapons loaded. The results were disastrous.
Ed Arnold: "They didn't have the mapping or they didn't actually know where they were going, they were moving in administrative columns. So, they were not moving tactically, because they just didn't expect the level of resistance. And because they were going on roads they were very, very vulnerable to anti-tank ambushes, which was something specifically that the Ukrainians were trained on by UK forces at the platoon level to be able to achieve. A lot of the columns were actually knocked out in situ and it stalled the entire Russian advance."
By the end of the 3rd day, the invasion had come to a halt. The FSB’s attempt to decapitate the Ukrainian regime had failed, and Zelensky, still holed up in Kyiv, had rallied the Western world to his side with military aid and sanctions. As a result, the Russians had to change their strategy. Now, they planned to utilise their advantage in air power and artillery to destroy the Ukrainian army – increasingly putting civilians in the firing line. A new phase of the war was about to begin.
After an operational pause for the remainder of February, the Russians resumed their attacks in March. The Russian air force redoubled their efforts and gradually shut the Ukrainian air force out of the sky. However, as Ukrainian air defences recovered, they were themselves forced to the periphery of the conflict.
On the ground, there was continued success in the south, where Russian forces took Kherson and encircled Mariupol ready for an assault. And in the east, Russian forces began shelling Kharkiv, but their attacks were repulsed once again.
On the main front in the north, the Russians resumed their offensive to take Kyiv, bringing up heavier units from the Belarussian border. They attempted to encircle the city, cutting it off from east and west, but the Ukrainians were well prepared.
Ed Arnold: "If you can't encircle a city of that size you can't then move to assault and take the city. And actually what seems to be critical was 2 artillery brigades to the north. They'd assessed where the Russian units were most likely to advance on. And they created these quite large killing areas on those main routes. And then that was complemented by a lot of special forces operations around the flanks and particularly to the west in Hostomel and Bucha which again prevented Kyiv from being encircled."
The forces on the west bank of the Dnipro were too heavy concentrated in a narrow front and struggled to bring new units forward. Meanwhile, the forces coming in from the east were dissipated over a huge area and succumbed to ambushes on open roads. Having only planned to fight for 10 days, the Russians simply didn't have the logistics in place to support a full-scale conventional war. By the middle of March, the Russians had essentially come to a halt.
Their only success came in the city of Mariupol. Although the Ukrainian defenders held out until May, the capture of the city demonstrated what Russia could have achieved with proper encirclements, air superiority, massed artillery fire and troops mentally prepared for urban warfare. The battle had huge consequences for the civilian population of the city where thousands are suspected to have died. But it also demonstrates the fundamental flaw at the heart of the Russian invasion plan.
Ed Arnold: "I mean, the Russians poorly planned and poorly executed the operation, but actually they had the sufficient mass to pull off some of their political objectives. I think it was a far closer run thing in those initial 3 to 5 days than we perhaps give the Russians credit for at this time. But ultimately speaking, as soon as their plan A was obviously not going to work, they just didn't have the ability to switch to a plan B because they just had not even considered it, which is ultimately a weakness of the Russian planning process."
Russia’s political goals were to install a favourable government with a quick strike. But the Ukrainians defended so strongly that Russia was forced into a conventional war that they had not prepared for. And while they adjusted, Ukraine had time to mobilise its reserves and garner much needed western support.
Over a year later, the two sides are still fighting. Russia has been forced to conscript hundreds of thousands of new soldiers just to stay in the fight, while Ukrainian society remains fully mobilised and motivated against them.
Whatever happens next, it seems that Russia has already squandered its best chance of victory. Those initial political objectives of a quick victory could not be farther from reach.