David Axe Forbes Staff
I write about ships, planes, tanks, drones, missiles and satellites.Follow
Dec 26, 2022
The Russian army’s plan, in the early hours of its wider invasion of Ukraine back in February, was to roll straight from Belarus and southern Russia into northern Ukraine and capture Kyiv, 100 miles from the borders, by simultaneously attacking from the east and west.
It didn’t work. Worse for the Russians, their failed assault on Kyiv cost them so many people and so much equipment and ammunition that it took months to recover—months the Ukrainians used to train new troops and re-arm with donated Western weaponry.
The popular conception is that Ukrainian soldiers firing American Javelin anti-tank missiles almost single-handedly defeated the Russians around Kyiv.
But that conception is wrong. “Despite the prominence of anti-tank guided weapons in the public narrative, Ukraine blunted Russia’s attempt to seize Kyiv using massed fires from two artillery brigades,” Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds revealed incredible new details in a study for the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Ukrainian troops were thin on the ground around Kyiv in those first dangerous days. Just one active maneuver unit, the 72nd Mechanized Brigade, defended the city alongside special operations forces and hastily-recruited local territorials. All told, there may have been around 20,000 Ukrainian infantry of all stripes in and around Kyiv as three Russian field armies—each with tens of thousands of troops—closed in.
But those two Ukrainian artillery brigades—the 44th Artillery Brigade plus another unit—lent massive firepower to the infantry. The 44th Artillery Brigade alone possessed scores of 2A65 and 2S7 tracked howitzers and 2A36 towed howitzers. There may have been a couple hundred big guns and rocket-launchers in and around Kyiv in late February.
And they’d had time to prepare. Gunners dug in and sighted their tubes on the likeliest approaches.
While the Russian field armies possessed hundreds of guns and launchers of their own, these weapons had to fight on the move along the clogged highways that impatient Russian commanders had chosen as their routes into Kyiv. Overall, the Russian army had twice as many artillery pieces as the Ukrainian army did. Locally, in and around Kyiv, the Ukrainians had the advantage.
The decisive impact Ukrainian artillery would have on the month-long battle for Kyiv was apparent in the first few days. On the first morning of the wider war, Feb. 24, Russian airborne battalions helicoptered into Hostomel airport on the western edge of Kyiv. The idea was for the paratroopers to seize the airport so transport planes could haul in additional forces, creating a lodgement to speed the Russian encirclement of Kyiv.
But Ukrainian border guards put up stiff resistance at the airport, buying time for the 44th Artillery Brigade and its sister unit to aim their guns at Russian positions on the tarmac and in airport buildings and hangars. “The Russian [paratroopers] came under heavy artillery fire and were subsequently cleared from the airfield by a mechanized counterattack,” Zabrodskyi, Watling, Danylyuk and Reynolds wrote.
The same dynamic played out on a larger scale northeast and northwest of Kyiv over the next few weeks, as the Russian field armies neared the city. Ukrainian infantry fired anti-tank missiles at tanks and BMP fighting vehicles at the vanguard of the Russian formations. The flaming wreckage blocked traffic—and that’s when the Ukrainian artillery opened fire.
“Javelins fired from up to a mile away with precision accuracy, completely destroying the first tanks or BMPs, could stall the whole column,” analyst Dan Rice wrote in Small Wars Journal. “Then pre-sighted artillery claimed the majority of Russian casualties. For several days the 40-mile armored column north of Kyiv was stalled after sustaining massive casualties.”
This “canalizing” approach to artillery fires wasn’t some innovation. But Ukrainian commanders, many of whom had trained alongside their NATO counterparts, in recent years really had refined the tactic. “Ukrainian defense plans aimed at using maneuver forces to fix and canalize attackers to enable their destruction by concentrated artillery fire,” Zabrodskyi, Watling, Danylyuk and Reynolds wrote.
The Ukrainians deployed spotters and drones to locate Russian forces for the big guns and launchers. But the front was a dangerous place for forward-observers, and Russia’s intensive electronic-warfare often jammed drones’ signals.
More than once, Ukrainian civilians did the job, instead—calling in the location of Russian battalions. “Russian units would arrive in towns and begin to try to engage with the civilian population to understand where they were,” Zabrodskyi, Watling, Danylyuk and Reynolds explained. “Their position would be reported and the Russian unit would be engaged with artillery.”
One Ukrainian farmer in Moschun, a village adjacent to Hostomel just two miles north of Kyiv, helped turn the tide of the battle when, in mid-March, he called in what Rice described as “a heavy concentration of tanks.”
“The Ukrainian armed forces sent up drones but could not identify any enemy due to the thick forest cover,” Rice recalled. “They fired artillery into the forest and a massive secondary explosion confirmed their fears. A large unit from the Russian army was there.”
Now exposed, the Russians had no choice but to attack. But after weeks of ceaseless and accurate bombardment by Ukrainian guns, Russian battalions were losing cohesion. The momentum was shifting—to the Ukrainian army. A unit led by Maj. Dmytro Zaretsky counterattacked into Bucha, just south of Hostomel and Moschun.
The Ukrainians under Zaretsky repeated the same effective tactic as before, firing Javelin missiles at the first and last vehicles in a Russian column in order to trap the rest. Russian jamming had disabled Zaretsky’s radios, so he used the social-media app WhatsApp to call in artillery, according to Rice.
By late March, Ukrainian counterattacks were squeezing the Russian field armies into ever-smaller corridors leading into Kyiv. “Ukrainian forces had effectively screened the flanks of the Russian force, which was in any case concentrated in too narrow an area for the number of troops pushed forward,” the RUSI analysts wrote.
“This unfavorable battlefield geometry made it impossible for the Russians to build up significant momentum, as they came under sustained and intense artillery fire throughout the month.”
On March 29, the Kremlin ordered its forces around Kyiv to retreat. While the entire Ukrainian military—not to mention the civilian population of Kyiv—worked together to win the battle, it was the artillery that contributed most. By doing most of the killing.
Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website or some of my other work here. Send me a secure tip.
I’m a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina.
The above article and the previous one about Ukraine’s 1st Tank Brigade, are by David Axe; a good friend of Ukraine and an important recorder of great and significant historical achievements of the ZSU of the year.
I hope Mr Axe will be able to report the final victory of Ukraine very, very soon.
A happy new year to all.
But not to the putinazi regime or the occupier savages still polluting Ukrainian air with their foul, shit-smelling breath.
“I hope Mr Axe will be able to report the final victory of Ukraine very, very soon.”
He will. And every other journalist across the globe will jump on that bandwagon when the time comes.