Putin’s failed blitzkrieg: “Kiev’s fate was decided at Hostomel”

In February 2022 all hell will break loose in Ukraine. Putin’s troops are trying to conquer Kiev from several directions. But Moscow underestimates the Ukrainians’ will to resist. The historian Christian Hartmann describes the battle for the city of millions as a key moment in the war.

In the early morning of February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine on Russian state television. The main target of the invaders: the capital Kiev. Moscow’s military planners expected a lightning victory within a few days. But after about a month of bloody fighting, the Kremlin’s troops withdrew from the capital region, defeated.

The historian Christian Hartmann sees the key moment of the war in the Ukrainian victory in front of Kiev. “The Russians expected a short occupation and not a real war. That was a fundamental misjudgment,” said the researcher at the Bundeswehr Center for Military History and Social Sciences in an interview with ntv.de. “The Russian soldiers weren’t even remotely prepared for what awaited them.”

Russian paratroopers must withdraw

Shortly after Putin’s televised speech, Russian ground troops advanced from Belarus along two routes towards Kiev. While units west of the Dnipro crossed the densely forested border area near the Chernobyl nuclear ruins, another large formation east of the river moved towards the city of Chernihiv. At the same time, helicopters with Russian paratroopers landed at Antonov Airport near Hostomel, about 20 kilometers north-west of Kiev.

Russian helicopters approaching Antonov Airport on February 24.

(Photo: AP)

“The conquest of Kiev was intended as a decapitation blow,” says Hartmann. “The idea behind it was: You fly right into the center of the enemy and disable the command center. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979 followed the same pattern. At that time they managed to kill President Hafizullah Amin, take Kabul and then all of Afghanistan occupy.”

But the Russian plan went awry from the start. About 300 Ukrainians, mostly recruits with no combat experience, were stationed at the airport and were able to hold off the onslaught of airborne troops for several hours before they ran out of ammunition. Then Ukrainian guns fired on the area. In addition, several Ukrainian units launched a counterattack and pushed the paratroopers into the surrounding forests.

“The Russian offensive was based on the short-term capture of the airport. However, the Ukrainians did not allow themselves to be taken by surprise – neither militarily nor psychologically. With that, the fate of Kiev and Ukraine was already decided at Hostomel,” says Hartmann. “Not only regular Ukrainian troops were involved in the fighting, but also many national guards, older men with short-term training, who then outgrew themselves in this exceptional situation. Like their President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, they left no doubt that they were defending their country wanted to.”

Selenskyj refuses to flee Kiev


To slow down the Russian advance, the Ukrainians blew up several bridges.

(Photo: REUTERS)

Russian tanks reached Hostomel the next day, after which the Ukrainians abandoned the airport and retreated to a new line of defense along the Irpin River. However, the runway was damaged by the fighting and was unusable for the Russian transport aircraft. “Reinforcements and supplies were supposed to arrive at Antonov Airport,” says Hartmann. “The two large Russian attack columns, which were simultaneously approaching the Ukrainian capital from the north-west and north-east, therefore lacked a logistical basis. Moscow’s war plan failed very early on.”


Members of the Ukrainian National Guard on the second day of the invasion of Kiev.

(Photo: REUTERS)

In Kiev, meanwhile, many people tried to flee the city. Long traffic jams formed on the main westbound routes. The authorities called on the population to produce Molotov cocktails and distributed weapons. Barricades were erected in the streets. Government advisers informed Zelenskyy that Russian agents and sabotage squads were in the city to kill him and wreak havoc. Despite the danger, the President refused to flee. As night fell, gunfights broke out in the government district. Later that evening, Zelenskyy released a cell phone video showing him in front of the presidential building. When it got light again, the authorities reported 60 dead saboteurs. The overthrow of the government had failed.

Russian advance ends at Irpin


In addition to regular soldiers, thousands of civilians also took up arms to defend Kiev.

(Photo: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Before the war began, the Kiev government had stationed its best brigades in the east of the country. Only a small contingent of units was available to defend the capital. The British think tank Rusi according to Russia’s units in the Kiev area had a numerical superiority of twelve to one.

Despite this, on February 27, the Ukrainians managed to stop the Russian advance north of Kiev between the suburbs of Bucha and Irpin. After Moscow’s troops had crossed the Irpin River further east near Moschun and built a bridgehead, the Ukrainians blew up a dam near Demydiv. The extensive flooding created a natural bulwark and restricted the scope of the Russian associations.


In the hands of the Ukrainians, Western anti-tank weapons proved to be a deadly threat to the Russian formations.

(Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Fotobanka CTK)

But it wasn’t just the course of the river that posed problems for the Kremlin. Supply lines were stretched and vulnerable to Ukrainian ambushes by mobile squads armed with Western anti-tank weapons. In the absence of a railway, supplies from Belarus had to be brought in vehicles. “The defenders also benefited from the climatic conditions,” says Hartmann. “The weather was relatively warm by Ukrainian standards, so the mud period started earlier. That’s another reason why the Russian columns concentrated on a few roads.” The result was clogged roads. In addition, many bridges in the swampy region had been blown up by the Ukrainians. Many Russian tanks were left stranded due to lack of fuel.


Christian Hartmann is Head of the Deployment Research Department at the Bundeswehr Center for Military History and Social Sciences in Potsdam.

(Photo: picture alliance / dpa)

The Russian soldiers also suffered from supply problems east of the Dnipro. Moscow’s units failed to conquer the stage destination Chernihiv, which meant that the railway line running through the city could not be used. As a result, a rethink began on the Russian side. Attempts were now being made to encircle Kiev in a wide arc and to cut off transport links to the west. However, the Ukrainians held their position at Makariv west of Kiev, preventing them from flanking the capital. A Russian attack from the Sumy region to the east was also unable to develop any strength.

Ukraine goes on counteroffensive

“What the Russian commanders failed to do was combined arms combat,” Hartmann says. In some cases, the armored formations drove into enemy territory without protection on the flanks or by helicopter, which made them easy targets. “In addition, the Russian battalion combat groups did not operate together, but in isolation next to each other.”


Destroyed Russian vehicles on the road between Bucha and Irpin.

(Photo: AP)

In addition, the Russian air force could hardly be seen over the battlefield. “That means: The cooperation between the branches of the armed forces didn’t work either.” Hartmann sees the greatest weakness in the inflexible command tactics. “Russian soldiers and officers do not act independently, as is much more the case in Western armed forces.”

In mid-March, the Ukrainian armed forces counterattacked in the Kiev area. On March 29, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it was withdrawing its troops from the Kiev area. Four days later, Ukrainian authorities declared the entire capital region liberated. After the Russians withdrew, mass graves containing hundreds of civilians were discovered in the towns of Bucha, Borodjanka and Irpin. Many bodies showed signs of torture. “War is always an unleashing of violence. But in this case a system is recognizable,” says Hartmann; he speaks of “war crimes” and a “war of annihilation”.

“These crimes were accepted, possibly also deliberately promoted.” The Russian invasion is based on the idea that the Ukrainian state has no right to exist. This approach can also be felt in Russian warfare and occupation policy. “It includes systematic looting and also unrestrained devastation of the Ukrainian territories.”

After withdrawing from the capital, the Kremlin intensified its attacks in the Donbass, which culminated in the capture of the twin cities of Lysychansk and Sievarodonetsk in the summer with heavy Russian losses. But the danger for Kiev was averted. To date, the metropolis has been spared further Russian ground offensives.

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