BROVARY, Ukraine – The column of Russian tanks thundered along a main road east of Kiev, between two rows of houses in a small town – a vulnerable target.
Soon, Ukrainian troops sent artillery shells that rained down on the Russian convoy, while soldiers ambushed them with anti-tank missiles, leaving behind a line of charred, burning tanks.
Brovary is just eight miles from the center of Kiev, and Wednesday’s skirmish on the M01 highway illustrated how close Russian forces have come as they continue to tighten the country’s capital – the greatest prize of all in the war. The Russians continued to try to penetrate Kiev on Friday, with fighting in the northwest and east consisting mainly of heavy see-saws for control of small towns and roads.
But the attack by Ukrainian forces in Brovary also highlighted the strategic challenges — and, military analysts say, strategic missteps — that have deceived the Russian armed forces and so far prevented them from gaining control of most major cities.
Although the Russian forces are much larger than the Ukrainian army and have much better weapons, their size and their need to use mostly open roads make them less mobile and prone to attack from Ukrainian troops who can launch artillery attacks from several kilometers away. , coupled with surgical ambushes .
“City battles are always difficult, and I don’t think the Russians are any better at it than others,” said Tor Bukkvol, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, a military think tank and authority on Russia’s special forces.
He said the Russian army was engaged in a plodding, armored advance into the urban landscape of the city’s suburbs.
“I’m not sure there’s much of a strategy right now,” he said.
Illia Berezenko, a Ukrainian soldier who witnessed but did not participate in the Ukrainian attack on the Russian armored column from a distant position on Wednesday, said it aimed to hit the first and last tank in the column, hoping the ones in the middle.
From that perspective, the strike launched by a swath of villages in this area, which is still ongoing, was only a partial success. In a drone video of the ambush unleashed by the Ukrainian army, which largely matches Soldier Berezenko’s account, many Russian armored vehicles can be seen driving off, apparently unharmed, while others are burning.
Still, Private Berezenko said that from his standpoint as a soldier, the episode was indicative of Russian mistakes. The cluster of armored vehicles on the road was an easy target, he said. “Their artillery came first, then their tanks. The whole scenario was weird,” he said.
He said the column moved with self-propelled artillery vehicles, which typically operate behind the front lines, mixed with tanks. Indeed, in the video released by the Ukrainian military, what appears to be a Russian Tos-1, a rocket artillery launcher nicknamed Pinocchio for its bulging nose-like box of missiles, is seen amid the chaos of exploding tanks.
“I don’t know why they’re doing it,” Private Berezenko said. “Maybe they want to confuse us. Maybe they have a different understanding of what they are doing. Who knows?”
He said days of artillery shelling had dulled his nerves. “I felt normal” and not nervous during the skirmish, he said. “There’s nothing exciting about seeing a tank,” he said. “Everyone wants to live.”
Military analysts share Ukrainian soldiers’ surprise at the Russian advance on Kiev, which has so far been halted. It could be a pause while a new strategy is devised, said Dima Adamsky, an expert on Russian security policy at Reichman University in Israel.
On the first day of the war, the Russian army tried to carry out a lightning strike on the capital with the help of special forces in an elite airborne unit. These troops attempted to capture an airfield north of Kiev, in the city of Hostomel, in a helicopter attack with the apparent aim of creating a staging area for a swift attack.
But Ukrainian forces shot down a number of helicopters, confusing the operation, then drove the Russians who had managed to land from the airport and into a forest, according to Ukrainian soldiers who took part in that battle.
Russian armored columns moving from Belarus to the capital, bogged down in unexpectedly fierce resistance. Military analysts say these conditions left the Russian military with no good choices as it advanced towards Kiev.
“They were convinced of the success of Plan A, that they would take Kiev without much bloodshed, but are now returning to an older form of warfare,” said Mr. Pack full of the Norwegian research center.
For the Ukrainians, he said, the strategy will be to “pull the enemy into the city,” where armored vehicles are led into the streets rather than scattered across the fields.
This tactic was evident in the attack on the column outside Brovary, where armored vehicles were hit as they exited open fields and entered a stretch of highway bordered by houses, blocking any escapes.
The Ukrainians, Private Berezenko said, fired “pretty much everything they had,” including anti-tank missiles at close range and artillery from further afield. He was ordered to sit in a fall-back position and did not see the aftermath.
Videos posted on Ukrainian social networks show an armored passenger car being ripped open by an explosion and spewing yellow flames. A Reuters videographer captured footage of Ukrainian soldiers starting an abandoned Russian tank and driving off. It was unclear how many armored vehicles were in the column and how many were destroyed.
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To the ground. Russian forces, battered by local resistance, have stepped up their bombardment over Ukraine, targeting locations far from the front lines. Satellite images of a convoy north of Kiev suggest Russia is repositioning its forces for another attack there.
The drone video of the attack also cheered Ukrainian soldiers in the city. “It was beautiful,” said a soldier manning a checkpoint, who declined to be identified. “We just poured it on them.” The video showed plumes of black smoke and dust bursting onto the sidewalk and a tank seemingly clumsily trying to turn on the berm of the road to drive the other way.
Driving east out of Kiev, the high-rises of the city center give way to shopping malls, gas stations and furniture stores, then a forest and a few miles away the suburb of Brovary.
As the strike forced the Russian column to retreat, days of fighting ensued in the villages east of here. And it was not without Ukrainian casualties.
In the hours and days after the strike, 20 wounded soldiers and civilians arrived at the hospital in Brovary. Volodymyr Andriets, the deputy director of the emergency room, said they had all suffered concussions or injuries from shrapnel or bullets.
Among them were members of a family whose car was shelled on Thursday by Russian troops who had dispersed in a wooded area east of the city after Wednesday’s ambush. The father, Sergei Lugina, said a bullet struck his 14-year-old daughter, Yekaterina, in the right shoulder and another three-finger bullet struck his right hand. He said he managed to drive on until he reached a Ukrainian checkpoint.
One soldier had a gaping shrapnel wound to his right wrist but resisted recommendations to amputate, said Dr. Andriets.
“He understands he will lose his hand,” but still resisted, said Dr. Andriets.
The shock abated and the soldier became depressed, he said. Speaking of the successful ambush on the M01 east of Brovary, Dr. Andriets: ‘He is not thinking about this now. Maybe later on he will understand that this was a victory for Ukraine.”