Even in this information age, it is no easy task for the average American civilian to form an accurate picture of what is taking place in a war zone 7500 miles away. Media reporting can be, understandably, inaccurate and the governments of both fighting nations – in this case, Ukraine and Russia – might be putting out false, misleading, or embellished reports of what is happening on the ground. Thus, it is difficult to know what to believe. In the battle for Ukraine, understanding the dynamics of where and why the fighting is being done helps in trying to decipher which side, if either, has the upper hand.
It is worth noting that some of the confusion lies in the fact that Russia’s invasion of its neighbor is being fought mainly on two fronts with two different objectives and, thus far, two contrasting outcomes.
It seems Russian forces are wreaking havoc and devastation upon parts of Ukraine, wrestling control of several cities, bombing others to rubble, and advancing – if much more sluggishly than expected – ever deeper into Ukrainian territory. On the other hand, a great many reports suggest the Ukrainian military is putting up a fierce fight, driving the Russians back – or at least holding them in check – and capturing or destroying impressive numbers of Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs), and vehicle-mounted rocket launchers. So, what is true? Are the Russians suffering a slow and painful defeat or are things not going as well for Ukraine as everyone in the west would like to believe?
Both of those things are somewhat close to the truth, depending upon which part of the country one is looking at.
Two Fronts, Two Different Fortunes
As mentioned, there are two main battlefronts in this war: a northern and a southern front. In the north lies the capital city of Kyiv and in the south, the Crimean Peninsula – also known as the Republic of Crimea, admitted to Russia after the latter’s military takeover in early 2014. To the east of Crimea are the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Between Crimea and Donetsk lie the cities of Mariupol and Melitopol, which have seen some of the heaviest fighting. Both cities are effectively under Russian control or cut off by Russian forces.
On this southern front, the Russians likely have two main objectives; the primary mission is establishing a land bridge between Donetsk and Crimea, effectively linking the peninsula and the two eastern regions to form something resembling a new state – a sort of Russian-controlled East Ukraine, one might say.
A secondary objective would probably be the capture of the port cities of Kherson and Odesa (or Odessa) to the west. Kherson, it appears, is practically in the hands of Russian forces. It is on this southern front that the Russians seem to be making the most progress.
The northern front is a different story. Russian military units entered Ukraine from Russia and from Belarus to the north, but they have made little headway against Ukrainian resistance. A 40-mile-long convoy of Russian vehicles, mostly supply trucks, has been repeatedly attacked and appears to have hardly moved in the past three days. The Russians’ objective here is likely straightforward, in theory; to capture Kyiv and neutralize the surrounding military bases and installations.
The main Ukrainian lines of defense have been established on the northwest and northeast edges of Kyiv and one of the keys to the city’s survival is the road that leads west to Poland. Somewhat surprisingly, the Russians have not yet cut off this supply line – or perhaps they have been unable to. Just to the east of the capital, the city of Bucha has been devastated by Russian bombardment and was briefly captured. Ukrainian troops retook Bucha, though, and continue to hold off the Russian advance. Social media is awash with videos and pictures showing long lines of destroyed Russian vehicles – not just trucks but tanks and APCs. Either those vehicles had all been abandoned before being attacked or the Russians must surely have suffered heavy casualties.
Additionally, the Russians have yet to establish air superiority – perhaps thanks in large part to the great number of stinger surface-to-air missiles provided by the U.S. and other western countries. Maybe also thanks to the now-legendary “Ghost of Kyiv,” if one chooses to believe he is real – and, who knows? Perhaps he is. Very real, though, are the drones the Ukrainians acquired from Turkey. The Bayraktar TB2 system has proven to be an effective weapon against Russian armor.
The existence of these two distinctly separate but simultaneous battlespaces may account for a lot of the seemingly conflicting reports about which side is currently winning or losing. For the Russians, it is at best a stalemate in the north, but the Ukrainians are struggling in the south. All reports of casualties should be treated with a healthy – no pun intended – dose of skepticism. We will probably gain no clear understanding of how events on the ground really unfolded until the fighting stops.
~ Read more from Graham J. Noble.