Ukraine Update: Reliving the 36-day Battle of Kyiv

Ukraine Update: Reliving the 36-day Battle of Kyiv

The Washington Post has an in-depth, excellent story on the Battle of Kyiv, as told from the perspectives of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, his top advisors, the military brass, down to men in the trenches. The detail is spectacular, giving us new insight into the battle we were tracking 2-3 times a day for 36 days. Here is the president’s office, hours after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion:

Inside the government complex in central Kyiv, the head of Zelensky’s administration, Andriy Yermak, looked down at his ringing cellphone. It was the Kremlin.

The former entertainment lawyer, a permanent fixture at Zelensky’s side, at first couldn’t bring himself to pick up, he said. The phone rang once, then again. He answered. He heard the gravelly voice of Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin deputy chief of staff, who was born in Ukraine but had long ago entered Putin’s inner circle. Kozak said it was time for the Ukrainians to surrender.

Yermak swore at Kozak and hung up.

We needed an exact quote there. Wouldn’t it be cool if it was something like “Russian orc, go fuck yourself”? 

In the first 24-48 hours, we kept hearing “Western assessments” that Russia would be in Kyiv in days. Remember? It’s the reason the U.S. tried to evacuate Zelenskyy that first night. Turns out, there was a reason for that pessimism. 

The Ukrainians largely kept their preparations to themselves. A senior U.S. defense official said Washington knew more about Russia’s plan to invade than about Ukraine’s plan for defense, fueling doubts about how Kyiv would fare.

The Ukrainian military kept its plans close to its vest, leading the Pentagon (or CIA, whoever took the lead here) to believe that maybe there was no plan. The story speculates that Ukraine’s military was wary of conveying its battle plans to Washington while their civilian leadership was downplaying the chance of an invasion. 

As an aside—it was just last week that Zelenskyy faced the first flurry of war-time criticism for refusing to heed Washington’s warnings that Russia had set its invasion plans in motion. That criticism was tamped down, because it does little good at the moment. But expect a real firestorm after the war. Zelenskyy’s refusal to deploy the army, set up defensive lines further north away from Kyiv, and order a civilian evacuation from the country’s east cost thousands of lives. Kherson would still be in Ukrainian hands had they simply blown the same bridge (Antonovsky) that HIMARS is currently pounding. Along with the costly defense of Severodonetsk, these are Zelenskyy’s most costly mistakes to date.

Anyway, back to the story. 

The Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters in the group took the lead, opening fire on their target below — Antonov Airport, a cargo and testing facility with a major runway. Putin’s chosen bridgehead for his assault on Kyiv was the very airport CIA Director William J. Burns, during a Jan. 12 visit to Kyiv, had warned the Ukrainians that Russia would try to seize.

Turns out, Russia had recruited spies at Hostomel, getting information on the location of the base’s air defenses. Russia took those defenses out. Meanwhile, the base’s troops had been sent to the Donbas. Ukraine was convinced any war would be focused on the nation’s east, as it was clear that whatever troops Russia had to the city’s north in Belarus, were never going to be enough to conquer it. The small Ukrainian force left behind at Hostomel, mostly draftees, rallied in their fight against Russia’s elite airborne VDV forces after bringing down an invader’s attack helicopter with a shoulder-fired anti-air missile, though they were eventually forced to retreat. 

The airport would fall, but Ukrainian artillery rendered it useless for aircraft. Russia wouldn’t be using it to resupply its assault on Kyiv, forcing them to rely on those long supply lines we quickly learned were not Russia’s particular strong suit. 

That story is interesting, but even more so, just note how good our intelligence was. The CIA knew exactly what Russia planned, and British intelligence backed them up. Problem was, all of the mainland European intelligence services were telling Zelenskyy the opposite: that Russia wasn’t going to pull the trigger. The head of French intelligence was fired over that disastrous failure. American intelligence might struggle in places like Afghanistan, but they’ve got Russia dead to rights. 

There was much discussion early in the war about how much Russian soldiers knew as they invaded Ukraine. Many claimed they had no idea what was going on, that they were told they were going on exercises and so on. But this … suggests otherwise, after Russian soldiers entered a bunker full of civilians: 

The first Russian soldier who walked in had blond hair and dark eyes with giant pupils, she recalled. “Why are you looking at me like I’m a fascist?” Maas recalled him saying. “I’m not a fascist. It’s your Ukrainian soldiers who are fascists.”

Back to Zelenskyy, we get a look inside the presidential bunker at the start of the invasion: 

The head of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, had laid out the situation for the president. “The simple issue is that all of our partners are telling us it will be very hard for us, that we have almost zero chances to succeed,” Danilov told him.

“We will not receive much support in the first days, because they will look at how we are able to defend the country,” he continued. “Maybe they don’t want a large amount of weapons to get in the hands of the Russians.”

That was some clear-eyed realism. It wasn’t just about losing a large number of weapons to the Russians. The U.S. and NATO had just suffered a humiliating frantic retreat from Kabul in Afghanistan as the national army dissolved in days without American support. No one was willing to engage in a reprise without ensuring any investment would have a chance at success. 

Ukraine already had the weapons it needed to last a few days—artillery and Javelins (the very Javelins that Donald Trump tried to leverage to blackmail Zelenskyy into declaring a bogus investigation into Hunter Biden). The question was whether the Ukrainian army could withstand the shock and awe of the Russian assault. 

Interestingly, in the debate over whether Zelenskyy should accept the American’s offer to evacuate (supported by many in his government, including his security detail), there was an assumption that Russia would target Ukrainian government buildings. To this day, it still hasn’t done so. Even Russia state TV is apoplectic about it. No one has fully explained why Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has been so rigidly opposed to bombing the seat of the Ukrainian government. There’s a story there, we just don’t have it. 

We all know Oleksiy Arestovych, the presidential advisor who does a regular podcast. We quote him a lot in these updates. A few weeks ago there was a whole “he’s not really a presidential advisor” argument making its way through Twitter. I dug in, felt confident that he was indeed one, and we could keep calling him that. Well, he was there with Zelenskyy the first day of the invasion. 

As the day went on, Arestovych became convinced the Ukrainian military would not be able to defend the capital and told the president as much. “People who understood military things went up to him and said, ‘We’re not going to hold,’ ” Arestovych said.

Zelensky eventually erupted. He was staying.

“This is the last time I am going to hear this,” Arestovych recalled him saying. “I don’t want to hear it again.”

Remember all those pictures of ordinary Ukrainians rushing to buy or be issued rifles, as they prepared for a desperate defense of Kyiv? Turns out, giving untrained people guns—even in a war—is a bad idea. The program led to friendly fire incidents. 

You can read for yourself the story. It is comprehensive, a long read, but also a mere outline of those 36 days of hell. The battle for Chernihiv gets a couple of paragraphs, yet the impossible defense of the city, just 20 miles from Russia, contributed to Russia’s failure. Russia didn’t need logistical prowess to capture the city, and yet it was unable to do so. That story has yet to be fully told. 

Towards the end, the article suggests that the long Russian line from the Sumy area to eastern Kyiv was a single attack. It wasn’t. It was a more sustained effort, which gave Ukrainian partisans the ability to feast on those 200+ kilometer-long supply lines. Remember this map? 

March 29, 2022

(Looking at the map and talking about Sumy, it’s a wonder that Russia was never able to take it, as well as Kharkiv. Russia couldn’t blame logistics for those failures.) 


Yesterday, the Antonovsky bridge was pummeled again. Despite Ukrainian efforts, Russian forces in the Kherson region appear to have plenty of artillery to halt any Ukrainian advances. They’ve even attempted some offensive tactical maneuvers. Sure, they were unsuccessful, but an army worried about resupply isn’t jumping out of its trenches for an attack. 

The attack took place in daylight hours, marking both a possible change in tactics, and also the first time we’ve seen video of a HIMARS barrage.

#Херсон, Антоновский мост, 26/08/22

— Necro Mancer (@666_mancer) August 26, 2022

I shouldn’t be so absolute—It’s the first time I’ve seen video of a HIMARS barrage. There might be stuff out there I’ve missed. You can see Russian air defense try to take out the incoming rockets with flak shells—exploding them in the air hoping a rocket randomly flies into the debris cloud to knock it out of commission. 

About 9 hours ago (12:00 UTC), a Planet satellite imaged #antonovskybridge in #Kherson. Damage continues to be limited to a single span on the southern side. The section hasn’t fallen, but damage is visible and no vehicles are visible on the bridge. Pontoon is still operating.

— Tim Ehrhart (@ArtisanalAPT) August 26, 2022

This is a reminder of how accurate HIMARS is—all rockets landed on target. It’s also a reminder that bridges are designed to stay intact, and millions of dollars of rockets have yet to collapse a single span. Russia patches these up and eventually gets trucks back on them. (And trucks are most important for supply purposes.) This attack, however, is coming seemingly close to collapsing that span:

Closeup of HIMARS damage on the Antonovsky Bridge

Look at those holes! Russia is also building a pontoon bridge literally next to the main one. However … the pontoon bridge is far more vulnerable to HIMAR rockets. Once the bridge goes, and that seems likely at this point, that pontoon bridge won’t last long. 

Saturday, Aug 27, 2022 · 5:55:19 PM +00:00

Mark Sumner

Ukraine says that Russia has only 45% of its missiles left in stock The depletion of Russia’s Iskander missiles is especially acute, as it only has 20% of its stocks remaining, and Kalibr missile stocks have also dwindled. This mirrors warnings from Western intelligence agencies

— Samuel Ramani (@SamRamani2) August 27, 2022

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