On February 21, Vladimir Putin signed decrees recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, located in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Three days later, on February 24, the President of Russia shook the world by ordering what few, including experts, imagined: a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Putin took many by surprise even though American intelligence had warned, for months, that Russia was preparing an invasion. That understatement against the Russian regime now left Ukraine up against the wall, facing aggression from the world’s second-largest military power and seeing how “its NATO allies” are unable to intervene directly to prevent a nuclear escalation of the conflict.
Despite the Russian military superiority, Ukraine, for the time being, is resisting and not giving up. This resistance, which bets on heroics and communication warfare (an indispensable weapon in this war), caused the West to at least wake up from its lethargy; for what most people expected was that Russia would conquer its objectives quickly, with a “blitzkrieg” that would end with the seizure of Kyiv and the main geostrategic cities of Ukraine. This did not happen. In fact, a month into the invasion, Ukraine holds its capital, Kharkiv, and continues to incredibly resist in besieged Mariupol where thousands are reported to have been killed by bombs and gunfire.
So far, the war figures are stark: 3,500,000 refugees; over 847 civilians killed according to the UN (the figure may be considerably higher), including 121 dead children; and over 167 wounded. On the official casualties of the armies, there is not much information yet, but a pro-Russian newspaper published a report that almost 10,000 Russian troops have been killed in action. It was later removed.
How did the attacks start and what was Ukraine’s response?
“Denazify and demilitarize” Ukraine, were the words used by Putin in his speech to Russian national television to kick off the invasion. Two words of great weight and with apparent clear objectives: to completely take over Ukraine and to put in place a Russian-friendly government in Kyiv.
To this end, Russian troops launched a coordinated offensive from four fronts: the north with Kyiv as the route, the northeast with Kharkiv as the objective, the south from Crimea, and the east from the Donbas. The Russian forces totaled approximately 190,000 troops according to initial estimates by Western intelligence agencies.
The Russian offensive began with a series of strategic and coordinated bombings around the country. Anti-aircraft sirens quickly sounded in the capital, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. At the same time as the Russians began their long-range shelling, Russian motorized forces began a rapid movement on all fronts supported by airborne units.
The Russians concentrated their attacks initially on the capital of Kyiv and Kharkiv, both close to the Belarusian and Russian borders, respectively. In Kyiv, there was concern about what was a rapid Russian advance in the early days of the invasion, with reports of clashes between Russians and Ukrainians a few kilometers from the city center and with an airborne assault aimed at the Hostomel airport on the outskirts of the capital. It was in these first confusing days that the United States offered an evacuation to Zelensky, who declined the offer, devoting himself to directing the defense of the Ukrainian capital.
However, Ukrainian troops defeated the initial Russian advance on their capital. The initial assault towards Hostomel airport was repulsed by Ukrainian forces, delaying the Russian advance towards the capital, while Zelensky’s decision to stay in Kyiv prevented a potential collapse of the Ukrainian government and army. Russian forces remain in the northwest of the city and there is currently strong fighting in the suburb of Irpin, while the Russian advance up the eastern bank of the Dnieper from Belarus was repulsed by the Ukrainians.
On the northeastern front, the Russians fiercely shelled the cities of Kharkiv and Sumy, located just a few kilometers from the Russian border. Despite this, the cities have remained under firm Ukrainian control, so the Russian army seems to have decided to surround the cities and continue its offensive towards Kyiv, with the aim of joining with the northern front and encircling the capital. Likewise, the city of Chernihiv, in the northeast, is also close to the border and has been under a state of siege since the beginning of the Russian attack.
For Andrei Serbin Pont, a defense and security analyst, Russia achieved an important advance in the first days that was undermined because it “encountered more resistance than expected, logistical problems and also certain operational limitations in general.” The expert explained that the Russians made some miscalculations based on “underestimating the opponent and overestimating their own capabilities.”
“In Kyiv, for example, today we see Ukrainian counter-offensives that are pushing and pushing the Russians away from the capital. Kharkiv, which was calculated to be taken relatively quickly because it was a ground offensive from the border that was very close, also managed to resist a lot. Mariupol, which is key because it allows Russia to connect the Donbas area with the azure coast of the Azov Sea and Crimea (…) has been resisting despite the fact that it is increasingly difficult for that resistance to be maintained,” Serbin Pont told El American.
Likewise, for the expert, Ukraine certainly exceeded expectations in terms of its defense, being very smart in leveraging its resources.
“Ukraine has been very adept in different ways, in how it deployed initially to avoid massive loss of its conventional assets; drawing heavily on territorial forces, special forces,” Serbin Pont said. “They have ambushed the Russians, they have employed a lot of this anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry (…) and today we are seeing that they are trying to come back with some conventional means such as tanks and artillery conducting counter-offensives. They have been quite effective.”
The beginning of sanctions
Initially, the West did not react to the war. Tepid statements came instantly, but actions against Russia did not. However, the strong Ukrainian defense, which prevented a quick Russian victory, together with a powerful speech by Zelensky, who exposed Western countries for their passivity, led the United States and the European powers to apply a battery of sanctions against Moscow.
One of the most important sanctions was disconnecting several Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system, however, the strength of this sanction is questionable as Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, is not affected, nor is Gazprombank, owned by the state gas company Gazprom. This is because Europe remains highly dependent on gas and energy supplied by Russia.
Another harsh sanction was the freezing of the Russian Central Bank’s assets in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Likewise, Russian oligarchs linked to the Kremlin throughout Europe were also sanctioned and had their assets frozen.
Other measures against Russia, although not governmental, are coming from the private commercial and cultural-sports fields. Hundreds of companies left Russia, in retaliation for the war. At the same time, Russian federations or national teams are being boycotted in the main sports institutions of the world.
Still, for Ukraine, it is not enough. Zelensky continues to call for a no-fly zone, but the West refuses, as imposing it would run a great risk of directly confronting NATO planes with Russian planes, which would be tantamount to an escalation of the conflict.
The harsh attacks on the south, Mariupol and civilian infrastructure
The southern front is where the Russians made the biggest gains, with Putin’s forces reaching the outskirts of the port city of Kherson and the town of Melitopol in the first three days of the invasion. Both towns fell after days of heavy fighting. Subsequently, Russian forces from the south moved towards Mariupol, in order to link up with separatist troops in the Donbas, where the Ukrainian army remains in the east, preventing it from reinforcing other battlefronts.
The city of Mariupol was quickly surrounded by Russian forces and a fierce and cruel siege destroyed it. Although the Ukrainian forces in the city are surrounded and with little chance of being rescued, the fighting continues to this day, costing the Russians time, blood and material.
Mariupol is, to this day, the city that suffered the most from this war, with incessant shelling and clashes between the two armies and more than 2,000 people killed according to the count of the Ukrainian authorities. In the port city, connectivity and communications were cut off from almost the beginning of the invasion, leaving it isolated and without information. Food, water, and medicines quickly began to disappear due to the Russian blockade. Attacks on civilian infrastructure were recurrent.
One of the most notorious attacks was against the mother and child hospital in Mariupol, which provoked strong international outrage against the Russian army. Two AP journalists, Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, the only international journalists in the city until before they fled, covered the shelling of the hospital and independently confirmed the attack.
The Mariupol Theater was another of the sites bombed by Russia that generated international condemnation. The site, destroyed by bombs, housed approximately 1,300 refugees. Fortunately, most survived the attack due to a basement that serves as a shelter.
Throughout Ukraine, residences and civilian areas have suffered much damage.
What to expect for this second month of invasion?
Although Russian troops have advanced geographically on all fronts, it is clear that their initial plans for a withering advance and a quick overthrow of the Zelensky government did not come to fruition. The initial assault on Kyiv failed, forcing the Russians to employ a more systematic attack on the capital and relying on the success of the northeastern front to threaten Kyiv from the east.
For expert Serbin Pont, Russia enters the second month of invasion presenting “enormous attrition.”
“Russia is starting to try to weaponize its own fortifications, we are probably at a stage where there are no strong advances on either side. That we start to see more static fronts and that is in the framework of new attempts to negotiate with new offensives or counter-offensives at some points to pressure or strengthen in the context of those negotiations,” the analyst told El American.
The expert explained that while the course of the war is very variant, Ukraine also does not have much weighty power to launch major counter-offensives due to the loss of its resources. Therefore, it is likely to see fewer and fewer major Russian offensives or Ukrainian counterattacks. However, if key cities, such as Mariupol and Mykolaiv, are taken, it is possible to see a Russian attack on the city of Odessa.