After initiating military operations in neighbouring Ukraine on the morning of February 24, widely varying claims regarding the success of Russian forces in the first 72 hours have been made. Ukraine’s territory remains the largest in Europe by landmass by a considerable margin, 169 percent the size of Germany, with wide expanses separating Russian forces from the stronghold of the country’s government in Kiev and even further west bordering Poland where pro-Western sentiment is particularly strong. The country was the only one in Europe other than Belarus to deploy heavyweight fighter aircraft, namely the Su-27 and Su-24, and fielded a large standing army of approximately 200,000 personnel supplemented a further 100,000 paramilitaries and 900,000 reservists, as well as a not insignificant ballistic missile arsenal and by far the largest tank force in Europe at an estimated 850 vehicles. While Ukrainian government sources and Western media outlets have widely propagated claims that the Russian Military is failing in Ukraine, however, including at times for the latter with clear fabrications such as the ‘Ghost of Kiev’ fighter ace, Russian progress in the first 72 hours of operations has been very considerable particularly when compared to other campaigns against similarly large countries elsewhere in the world.
It was notable that the Russian campaign was not preceded by several weeks, or even years, of air strikes as was the case for the Western interventions against Iraq or Yugoslavia, which was likely a result of both greater confidence in the ability to achieve with air power in a shorter time as well as confidence in the ability of ground forces to counter Ukrainian forces that were relatively in tact. This can be attributed not only to the strength of Russian forces and their precision strike capabilities, which were previously extensively tested supporting counterinsurgency efforts in Syria, but also the weakness of Ukrainian forces belied by their strength in numbers. Ukraine’s military inventories have seen negligible improvements since they were inherited from the Soviet Union, and in the case of tank units have actually become considerably worse with superior models being kept in storage due to their higher operational costs or else exported leaving it reliant on the most obsolete frontline tanks on the European continent – T-64B and T-72A tanks from the early-mid 1970s. The situation in aviation is little better, with the country’s relatively small fleet of MiG-29, Su-27 and Su-24 jets being overwhelming outmatched and technologically three decades behind their Russian counterparts, while its air defence network built around the 1980s S-300PS/PT and BuK-M1 systems suffers the same issues. The underwhelming capabilities of Ukrainian forces have forced them to rely on U.S.-supplied Stinger surface to air missiles, and more significantly Javelin anti-tank missiles with ‘fire and forget’ capabilities, to asymmetrically challenge Russian forces with infantry formations. Losses among Ukrainian units, and its combat aircraft and air defences in particular, have been heavy, while available information indicates Russian Military and Ukrainian civilian casualties both remain low.
It is particularly notable that Russian forces deployed to Ukraine have not reflected an elite force as would normally be the case for the vanguard of an assault, with the country having yet to hit hard with elite units either in order to keep these in reserve to deter intervention by other Western powers, or to save them incase negotiations in Belarus fail to initiate a quick push on Kiev and gain victories faster. A notable example is that Russian forces have deployed only T-72B3 tanks, a widely used model with very comfortable superiority over Ukrainian units but far from an elite unit in Russian service. Elite units deploying T-90M or T-80U tanks have not been seen operating in the theatre, but this could quickly change should Russia seek to accelerate operations. While Ukrainian forces in retreat, and particularly its more hardline Azov Battalion units which Russian and some Western sources have reported have strong Neo Nazi ties, have adopted a scorched earth policy destroying infrastructure as they withdraw, Russian forces have been acknowledged even by Western sources to be going to considerable lengths to avoid damage to civilian targets or infrastructure. This is expected to both reduce public opposition to their presence, as well as ensure that Ukraine remains more viable as an economy after the war should a Russian-aligned government be installed.
Had Russian forces not taken such precautions, which particularly in cities can be extremely costly and time consuming, their advance would likely have bene much faster. Despite these factors, Russian forces have advanced very quickly in the first 72 hours of operations reaching the suburbs of Kiev within 48 hours and making a complete capture of the country, other than possibly the border regions with Poland where pro-Western elements will likely be concentrated and well supplied, highly plausible within 10 days. While significant increases in Western aid and arms shipments, some of which took place within the initial 72 hour window, are intended to prolong this, their ability to do so remains in question. Also in question is Russia’s willingness to escalate and deploy more capable assets, ranging from TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems to BMPT-90 vehicles and Iskander ballistic missiles, as the country appears to be much more in control of the situation than it was in its last similar conflict with a post-Soviet state in 2008 when it appeared to be caught off guard and deployed every conventional asset it had against Georgia. Russia’s ability to make strong gains despite not committing its best to the front remains a considerable achievement, and the possibility remains that higher end Russian capabilities will be brought to the front in the near future potentially once conflict in Ukraine’s western regions near its Polish borders begins.