Ukraine Conflict: A Review of the First Week
Speaker 1: Welcome to The World Of Intelligence, a podcast for you to discover the latest analysis of global military and security trends within the open source defense intelligence community. Now onto the episode.
Huw Williams: Hello and welcome. My name is Huw Williams. I'm head of EMEA news here at Janes, and today I have the pleasure of introducing our webinar and we're going to try and show you how the events have unfolded over the last week or so in Ukraine, and provide some insight and analysis. To do this, I'm joined today by Tom Bullock, our senior OSINT analyst, James Rands, C4ISR manager, and Amil Kaplasky, senior analyst. Now, Tom, you've been covering and following the events over the last week in quite some detail and the buildup of the last couple of months. Can you provide us with a bit of an overview of the last week and what's happened?
Tom Bullock: Sure. So Russian military intervention began in Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday the 24th, with what appears to be a mix of air and cruise missile strikes against strategic Ukrainian targets. So that's things like air fields, radar sites, air defense sites, ammunition storage depots, and a naval base in the Black Sea. The efficacy of these strikes is mixed. Doesn't appear that Russia managed to totally eradicate things like Ukraine's air force, or it's air defense network. Sometimes it appears they've hit redundant radar sites, for example, or aircraft that were in storage. The strikes didn't go on for as long as we expected either, almost immediately after the strikes were completed as the sun was coming up, Russian special forces began attacking border checkpoints in the north from Belarus and Russia, north east from Belgorod in Russia, and then in the south from Crimea. Russians successes were fairly high on first day, of course they've manage to push with Ukrainians caught off balance to getting to the edges of cities, such as Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv in the north. And then in the south, coming from Crimea, they managed to secure a crossing over the Dnieper River, which they capitalized on flooding additional brigades over the river, and then managing to almost encircle Kherson on the first day. Since then things have slowed down a lot. Russian fighting has been very bogged down around the cities in the north. Russian forces has also entered from Belarus around Chernobyl, heading towards Kyiv from the north west. Again, these areas are bogged down, lots of heavy fighting, lots of losing of equipment, Russian forces. Only real successes since the main breaks on day one have been to capitulate Kherson, which happened on the evening of the 2nd of March, and then to effectively encircle Mariupol on the Black Sea coast as well. Ration forces seems to have been plagued by a variety of issues as they've advanced from troop morale, to logistics, which are slowing down on and resulting in equipment being abandoned and some fairly significant losses of new and modern equipment.
Huw Williams: Great. Thanks Tom. Amil, perhaps you can address how this has played out compared to what we would've expected in the doctrine.
Amael Kotlarski: I think we would expect probably a slower advance, with a more methodological advance throughout Ukraine based on Russian doctrine of favoring mass artillery fires to cover essentially in advance of their mobile elements, which was the battalion tactical groups, that's the Russian army's basic maneuver element. Instead, the Russians seem to have tried and capitalized on these surprise attacks. Going very fast, going quite far into Ukrainian territory and potentially trying to capture key locations, or key strategic targets very quickly and very early on, potentially within the first 24 and 48 hours. And, as Tom said, they actually got close to a number of strategic targets. However, they made the classic mistake of going perhaps too far and too fast, which left a lot of the elements ahead of the main forces, ahead of the logistics. And oftentimes what appeared to be even on the first day without any proper artillery support, which is unusual for the Russians, which gave the Ukrainian army room to maneuver. They moved down fairly predictable avenues of attack, sticking mainly to main service roads. The Ukrainians knew where were likely going to be coming from, and allowing Ukrainians to stage a number of fairly close range ambushes against unsupported Russian armor, or infantry without artillery support or proper ISL support. Things that Ukrainians in theory should not have been able to do at the level they have managed to do so had the Russians stuck with their doctrine. But the other side of coin of that is the Russians would've been a lot slower had they applied that method. Now it seems that it hasn't quite worked out. We saw again, heli- born operations in near Kyiv for example, where it was quite clear that the idea of capturing the Hostomel Airport to potentially either link up with the ground element or provide a landing area for further air units to be delivered at that airport and put pressure on the capital within day one. It makes sense in a certain way, but of course, what happened almost predictably is without any form of direct support and lightly armed, paratroopers delivered by helicopter were quickly swept off the airport by Ukrainian light mechanized forces and apparently special forces as well, reinforcement. So it was a gamble in the early days. It doesn't seem to have paid off. In some cases, they probably almost got there, but not quite enough. And perhaps they also underestimated the level of Ukrainian resistance. Their logistics seemed, and then James is going to go further into that, but it would appear to being, I mentioned around the idea of a quick operation, which means that as things dragged on they found themselves short of food, water, fuel, ammunition, potentially as well for their artillery units. And therefore are having to basically resupply them in a way they perhaps didn't anticipate.
Huw Williams: So, James, perhaps you can touch on some of the problems they've had, notably round logistics.
James Rands: Yeah. But I think the issue starts with some of their planning assumptions. I think to some degree they believed their own hype. So particularly the VDV, the paratroopers, were assumed to be, I think, far more competent and capable than they actually were. When they landed at the airfield, what we understand what was supposed to then happen was that the heli-born troops would seize the airhead and then paratroopers actually dropping by parachute would reinforce them in large numbers, so that counter attack wasn't possible. And it looks like they couldn't actually coordinate between the army and air force to actually pull that all together correctly. And the VDV were not quite the supermen that they were assumed to be. The Ukrainian inaudible infantry were able to repulse this elite formation. I think it's fair to say that the Russians have seriously underestimated the capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces. However, sheer mass and being the attacker, they get to choose where they attack. Whereas the defender has to spread themselves across everywhere where there might be access. So the Russians ought been able to overwhelm them in detail where they chose the fight. I think one of the biggest failures was that they had assumed that the civilian population would either be welcoming in some cases, or at least acquiesce. Quite clearly, we've not seen that happen. There's been fierce resistance from poorly armed civilians, a wide distribution of 18,000 rifles distributed in the first couple of days, I think in Kyiv alone. And I'm told 80, 000 Ukrainian diaspora have come back home to fight. So the spirit of the defenders is much greater than the Russians anticipated. And those factors really meant that this rather grandiose plan for a coup domain with, we think amphibious landings in the south, although that's still very hazy.
Tom Bullock: So it looks like there were indicators of some small amphibious landings to help capture Berdiansk, which is a town between Crimea and Mariupol. We picked up video footage showing Russian VTRs in the configuration that in case they've been used for amphibious landings recently, but not in vast numbers.
Huw Williams: So is this resistance, unexpected resistance on the Russians, if the perception of what would happen has led to the issues with logistics and morale, is that what that's come from? And they've overstretched themselves?
James Rands: Yeah, so I think it looks like they had any idea that they would win this fight within 24 to 48 hours with those elite forces, and columns moving very quickly probably to drive straight into the center of city, seize the center of the city, arrest government officials, and then declare success. Raise the Russian flag over the town. And then the bulk of the forces, if they were required at all could just roll in slower time, disarm the Ukrainian army units, or go back to barracks. It doesn't look like the Russians had actually planned for the bulk of their forces to actually be engaged in a really active fight. So we've seen a video of ration packs that are seven years out of date. We've had plenty of accounts of vehicles breaking down, lack of fuel, lack of water. The out of date rations are one issue, but it's a bigger issue to than not being resupplied at all seven days into the op. We've seen a video of Russian troops looting supermarkets. And yes, they're stealing inaudible goods and money, but most of what they're taking is food, which indicates that there is a real problem there.
Amael Kotlarski: Lack of night fighting capabilities is slowing them down at night, means they can't stage major ops. The Ukrainians don't have great night fighting capabilities as well. But they're defenders, that it gives them time to regroup. Whereas the Russians tend to have to pause at night. So yeah, it's giving them a little bit more of an advantage with that.
Tom Bullock: And it seems quite telling that the logistical issues are appearing well front, as opposed to just one, which means it's not just one area that's getting bogged down or traffic jams. You have fuel shortages on the north east. And then I was just looking at some images today that show inaudible around the town, basically had to abandon four BMPs because they ran out of fuel.
James Rands: It's also that comms front. We know that they're communicating in clear, so not encrypted. We know that there are some Russian units that are using civilian radios that they bought privately. But it's not just that they didn't have adequate kit, it's that they really hadn't planned for this operation. So the equipment hadn't been distributed by the looks of it, or everyone who's going to need it. And it all smacks of the assumption that first strike would actually just cut the head off the snake and the rest of it would be easy. And I think that's been compounded by their reaction to the initial failure. Which seems to be plan A is this superbly maneuverist approach, which had it worked, would've been in history books for many centuries to come. And then that just reinforced that failure by throwing everything across the border, without any really clear plan of what they were going to do with it. I suspect that at this point in time, one of the problems for that big convoy to the north is that as they figure out what plan C is, a lot of the kit and equipment may be in entirely the wrong part of the column. It wouldn't surprise me if engineering or artillery assets were way back and needed to be brought forward. And with a traffic jam that big, that could actually take days.
Huw Williams: A slight segue from that. There's lots to talk about Russian EW capabilities, communications jamming, that kind of thing. Are we seeing that played out or is that something that's not being witnessed yet on either side?
Amael Kotlarski: I think there's an assumption that we would see a lot more localized sort of GSM jamming, or at least degrade degrading. I think the word jamming is often used overly, to think that basically they can shut down every single signal coming in and out of a particular area. Whereas in reality, it's a lot more complicated and you're more degrading the ability to have coherent signals and constant signals. So you're forcing the enemy to slow down in a way. But we are certainly not seeing that. And clearly if they're using civvy radios, there's a fear of jamming themselves or disrupting their own communications, which is a huge issue.
Tom Bullock: It does look like there is some very localized jamming around certain towns. So lots of reports, hard to discern what is just caused by other elements of the war. But there are consistent reports in towns that Russians are attacking local inaudible too that Internet's going down, cell phone services being cut off temporarily and then coming back, which could be caused by jamming as well, or a coincidence.
Amael Kotlarski: That makes certain amount of sense is it's a lot harder to jam or these significantly degrade signals in a particular area when things are moving so quickly. Once the Russians taken seas territory, where they can actually start targeting ground stations, et cetera, which aren't going anywhere and therefore they have more time to locate assets to that. But certainly, plenty of Ukrainian's ignorance have been having no problem using their cell phones to take pictures, live stream stuff without any seeming issue.
Tom Bullock: And the interesting thing is the equipment is there, but it just doesn't seem like it's being used on a wide scale. We've seen the electronic warfare equipment go over the border and pretty much every front, but it just doesn't it's being used.
Amael Kotlarski: Well, actually, that highlights as well a wider trend of a lot of the specialist equipment is there, the air defense systems are there, the EW systems are there, and then they're not seemingly being deployed or being caught out whilst on the move or not being actively deployed. The number of videos that Ukrainians have released of bug systems being targeted by the very drones they're meant to shoot down. Ukrainian civilians capturing Tor- M2s, which is allegedly the cream with a crop of Russian air defense systems being abandoned on the side of the road. And seemingly either were abandoned because of lack of fuel or call out of position and the crews fled because the fear of getting killed. So clearly stuff isn't in the right place at the right time, and Ukrainians are really capitalizing on that as much as they can.
Huw Williams: How much of this is the challenge of the geography and the environment they're operating in? Are they moving a lot quicker in the south because of the kind of the land down there versus the situation in the north?
Tom Bullock: It's definitely possible. The weather's significantly worse than the north. There's a lot more snow and a lot colder. So it does appear that the Russians are being forced to stick to the roads, and that is causing those traffic jams. It's also causing them to have to split up their BTGs into smaller elements so they can advance simultaneously along roads, which means that you might have your tanks advancing down one road, whereas mechanized inventory are advancing down another, and they're unable to support each other, which leads to the ambushes that Amil mentioned.
Amael Kotlarski: And it's predictable. So it's a predictable avenue of entry. In theory, Ukraine is perfect mechanized warfare country. It's one of the flattest areas in Europe, partly why Russia has always feared invasion from the west is because there isn't much geography to stop a natural invader on Russia's western flank, which has always been Ukraine and the plains of the Prokhorovka and that extend into Russia. Obviously it's not always that simple, but theoretically the geography itself should have enabled quite easily. The south is a bit different because it involves some potentially inaudible warfare, which has its own set of challenges. But certainly the land operation should have been in Russia's favor in terms of getting masses of armor through. But they chose to go very fast. Which means they, as Tom said, prioritized MSRs. But if you've got to do that and avoid traffic jams, you've got to split up your forces, which means they can't support each other. And therefore it defeats the point of the combined arms unit operating as one, which is what they trained for and they're equipped for.
Huw Williams: We've talked about the land campaign mostly here. What about the air battle.? We're not seeing lots of videos of aircraft operations or air strikes and have they achieved any kind of air superiority that you think they would, the Russians?
Tom Bullock: So it doesn't appear the Russians have managed to achieved total air superiority. They seem to be slightly reticent to deploy their aircraft. It's not to say they're not doing, there's a helicopter base in south Eastern Belarus, which has been used to target things in Kyiv and sporadic raid over the border in eastern Kyiv and then into Chernihiv. But yeah, you're not seeing sorties of SU- 25s flying in support of mechanized infantry attacking targets. Those flights appear to be fairly rare, but there are indicators that they are picking up. So in the last two days that sightings of aircraft have started to increase across the front again, which means either the Russians are starting to feel more confident deploying their air, or they're throwing cautions to wind a bit with it.
Huw Williams: What about the Ukrainian tactics? We've talked a lot about Russia's approach to things here. Is this what we would've expected?
James Rands: They've had eight years since the original Crimea op to get to used to fighting and plan and prepare for fighting Russians. They've become very good at trench warfare because they've got trenches all along that border. What they've also done is buy a lot of light armored wheel vehicles. And not necessarily super duper new kit. They've got Humvees, they've even got the old British Saxons, which were pretty archaic when I was a battalion commander, but they like them because they can move a lot of light infantry around so they can reinforce the line and they can move into depth. Now, they wouldn't fight from those vehicles because that would be suicidally stupid. But they can get close to the enemy, move in and carry out the attacks, and that seems to be what they're doing. And I think what Amil was saying earlier about how they're able to pick out these small packets of Russian troops.
Amael Kotlarski: In places where there are concentrated forces, they tend to suffer a lot of the hands of the Russians because in the straight on straight fight. They often have either similar equipment to the Russians or perhaps slightly older versions, but Russians tend to have the mass where it counts. But when they are dispersing, which is probably what they're trained for because of the lessons of 2014, what happens when the entire battalion is caught out by artillery in the open, not moving for a long time. They learn that lesson in a very painful way. So presumably, Ukrainians have been planning on having dispersed operations. And again, also the fact that they have to split their forces because they wouldn't have known exactly where the Russians would've hit them at which time. So the Russians, they are the attackers, they in many ways dictate the tempo. But it's also a little bit more difficult to judge how well the Ukrainians are doing, because it's a segue into info war that's going on at the same time. We're getting a lot of sources that quite highly like the failures of the Russians, but we're getting a lot less of that about Ukrainians, how they're fighting, what their dispositions are. Their uptake is a lot better, and I think Tom can go into that a little, in terms of open source of what we're getting.
Tom Bullock: Yeah. I think there's definitely an availability bias that's influencing all open source assessments. There's not really a lot you can do apart from caveat your assessments with that. So there's this facade that the Ukrainians aren't taking the same level of losses as the Russians. In quite a few places, it looks like they're taking equal or more losses than the Russians. It's just the fronts aren't moving as much. So there are examples of videos, pieces of propaganda published by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, which show a single destroyed Russian BMP surrounded by dead Russian soldiers. But the long version of that footage or additional footage we've gathered shows five Ks of abandoned Ukrainian and destroyed vehicles behind that single BMP. And that really, I think is the side of it we're not seeing. And so it's very difficult to make an accurate assessment on particularly how long the Ukrainians will be able to sustain this level of fighting for and how they're actually doing.
Huw Williams: So we saw early on the Ukrainian government put a call out for these post imagery and videos of Russian activity on social media.
Tom Bullock: They've changed tact with that now. So now their call is don't post it of the Russians, send it to, they have set up telegram bots. So you send it to these telegram bots to stop the Russians from being able to counter it and move their forces out of these areas.
Huw Williams: So, how useful would that kind of citizen ISR be to...
Tom Bullock: I imagine it'd be immensely useful for Ukrainians. We're seeing it with the open source collection as well, Ukrainian civilians are making it very easy to track Russian movements because we tracked Russian movements in Russia. People are a bit coy about it, they might not necessarily tell you where this particular thing they filmed happened. And then you have to spend hours diving around trying to find exactly where it came from. But the Ukrainians are quite happy to tell you," Yes, it rumbled through my town today, which is here, and another 70 tanks followed on afterwards." That sort of thing. So I think the Ukrainians, it's a real powerful tool.
James Rands: You just need to process it. Presumably they're getting a huge amount of information, I think.
Tom Bullock: There must be thousands of videos taken and published every day.
James Rands: Yeah. It's a paradox. I think it's called. You see everything, you see nothing. The other tricky bit is what the Brits would call the sense inaudible link. So you have your sense of wherever that is a Ukrainian householder looking out their window and filming on their phone. Whether it's the most high tech radar that you've got in the world, it still needs to get that message about what the enemy is and where it is quickly to someone that can do something about it. And this is the question that everyone's been asking for the last couple of days is there's a 40 mile convoy, why are the Ukrainians not doing anything about it? Well, the Ukrainians are doing something. They are attacking it. But it's not helpful to know that there's an enemy force there, unless you've got some asset that can actually go and do something about it.
Amael Kotlarski: I think in that case, I think its more of a demonstration of the lack of means that the Ukraine has to actually capitalize on such an incredible target. Had the Ukrainians had the air power that the west would have, it would've been suicidal for the Russians to pull something like that. But either by happenstance or by knowingly knowing that the Ukrainians can't do much about it, they've let this thing happen. I don't know about the dispositions of the air cover this convoy has, presumably the Russians have taken some precautions in terms of providing some kind of air defense for this convoy, knowing it's going to be a huge target for TB- 2s or even Ukrainian frontline aviation. Not much they can do about artillery, but Ukraine doesn't have a ton of that.
Tom Bullock: Yeah. I think given the risk posed by Bayraktars, they must be covering that convoy with some level it's got to be, otherwise it would have been-
Amael Kotlarski: And it's been static enough for the AV units to actually catch up and start deploying, which we say often with AV units being caught out of position, classic cases of maneuver warfare, you outrun your artillery, you outrun your air cover, you outrun your air defense. By slowing things down, the Russians are now being able to fight again as combined arms groups again, which is what they trained for. It's what will favor them.
James Rands: There's one thing that plays in my mind about the Bayraktar. I know we were trying to work out how many units the Ukrainians had and I think the answer was we don't know.
Tom Bullock: I think it's around 25 with the suspicion that the inaudible are moving more.
James Rands: But there's a lot of reference to those in analysis. And actually there's a Ukrainian pop song just come out called Bayraktar about how is the glory of the defender of the motherland. But how impactful actually are that many units?
Amael Kotlarski: They're going to have some impact, but Ukraine is a real big country. And therefore they cannot be everywhere at once. And thing is, the munitions they carry as well, the MAM series, are fairly small yield, primary designed for precision strikes. They don't have the power to knock out a large convoy. They don't carry enough of them. So we saw this used to great effect against Armenian forces, in the Nagorno- Karabakh campaign, taking out houses and isolated tanks. But the Bayraktar can only carry out four MAM-Ls, I believe. So, limited magazine depth. You're talking about potentially hundreds of Russian vehicles lined up. You just don't have the fire power to take them all out. So, useful for the taking out high value targets. But when it comes to striking large Russian formations, you're going to need massed artillery, or you're going to need aircraft with large capacities to carry air launched to ground munitions. There's no real two way about it, really. Drones just don't have enough fire power to effectively deal with it this kind of stuff. A nuisance, for sure, but probably not a war winning weapon for the Ukrainians.
Huw Williams: Any closing thoughts on what we can expect in the next few days?
Tom Bullock: I think on the ground, Russian forces are going to keep trying to push against northwest Kyiv as they have for the past few days. The south, it's almost certain they're going to try and close the encirclement around Mariupol.
James Rands: I completely agree with Mariupol, I'm not so sure about Kyiv, because I think that they now have a huge traffic jam that they're going to take a couple of days to actually sort out. The big question to my mind is are they going to try and encircle Kyiv and then fight a western medieval siege of it? Or are they going to try and force their way in with an artillery barrage? Both of those are not going to be taken at all well by the international community, because both necessarily involve significant civilian casualties. Then we get into that intersection between politics and war fighting as to what is actually acceptable. Clearly the Russians have got a greater tolerance for inflicting civilian casualties than the UK or US would. But there will be a figure that is unacceptable given the likely pushback from the rest of the world.
Amael Kotlarski: I think we've already seen that. Partly my explanations of why Russia didn't do what we expect them to in the early days is I think there's an element of restraint. The narrative of liberation of Ukraine rather than conquering. It doesn't do well to start wantingly destroying Ukrainian villages and property, but under the pretext of liberation. So I think there's just a clear element of they deliberately restrained themselves knowing it wasn't going to support their political narrative. A lot being made recently about the weapons being shipped over from many European countries to Ukraine armed forces, those will go a long way in keeping Ukraine forces into the fight because high intensity conflicts tend to consume vast quantities of ammunition and weapons, either being fired or simply destroyed or lost. And therefore Ukraine has only a finite pool of weapons to dig into and their local industry is unlikely to able to resupply them in an effective manner. Therefore outside help will be welcome. Now, there also could be a point of how these weapons are being shipped in. We mostly think they'll be shifted over land from Poland, but you've still got to get them into the hands of the fighters. And if they're surrounded, for example, in Kyiv or Mariupol, that's a difficult way to actually get these weapons to them and resupply them. So we'll see on that front how long the Ukrainians can hold out. I think we all expect eventually a ceasefire of some kind to be declared, but we'll see how long the Ukrainians are willing to hold out on that kind of pressure.
James Rands: I think one last part is if inaudible has at fallen, it hasn't yet, I'm sure it will have done by tomorrow, given the situation. How easy it is for Russian forces to actually operate in and around that town will, I think, dictate some of their future behavior. If it's still unmanageable, even having defeated the conventional forces there, then they may have to seriously rethink what they do with the other cities.
Amael Kotlarski: It's going to be a test for the inaudible guard to see what they can do. But that's what we'll figure out this week, I think.
Huw Williams: Great. Well, thank you all for the insight and your thoughts. I think there's been some great nuggets of information in there and we'll wrap up now.
Speaker 1: Thanks for joining us this week on The World of Intelligence. Make sure to visit our website, janes. com/ podcast, where you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts, so you'll never miss an episode.
Huw Williams of our EMEA news team chairs a discussion focussed on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine asking why were the Russian actions so different to expectations, what were they trying to achieve and what went wrong?
Amael Kotlarski, Senior Analyst at Janes, Thomas Bullock, Senior Russia and CIS OSINT Analyst at Janes and James Rands, C4ISR Manager at Janes, discuss these questions across the land, maritime and air domains with reference to combat, logistics, command and control, communications, ISR and planning.