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Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine aimed at key cities, decapitating central government

Smoke rises over Kyiv on Feb. 24. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)
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Russia’s initial military action in Ukraine suggests its forces are making an audacious thunder run to capture key cities on the way to Kyiv, where they hope to isolate and eventually decapitate the Western-backed government and install new leadership loyal to Moscow, analysts and Pentagon officials said Thursday.

Using airstrikes, ballistic missiles and tanks to destroy or seize an array of military objectives, Russian forces opened a three-front campaign with troops and heavy weaponry moving from the north, south and east. U.S. defense officials described it as an “early onslaught,” saying the Kremlin is likely later to send in more of the nearly 200,000 troops it has positioned along Ukraine’s border.

The massive military operation is striking in its complexity, the culmination of large-scale planning and exercises dating back years, said Jim Townsend, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration.

The unification of air power, naval operations and ground combat — known in military parlance as “combined arms” — is a seismic step beyond Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia in 2008 when, Townsend said, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assorted military components struggled, comparatively, to complement one another.

“You’re seeing a coordinated effort from multiple axes into Ukraine … a competent Russian conventional military going in a manner we haven’t seen before,” Townsend said.

The Russian military has launched more than 160 missiles into Ukraine, according to initial Pentagon assessments — what U.S. officials suggested was a conservative estimate. Most were short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, said a senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. The Russians also employed a barrage of cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and sea-launched missiles, this official said.

An estimated 75 fixed-wing bombers also played a role in destroying Ukrainian military sites and air defenses, U.S. officials said. Among the targets were troops’ barracks, ammunition warehouses and nearly 10 airfields.

The Russians “have every intention of basically decapitating the government and installing their own method of governance,” the senior defense official said.

The heaviest fighting thus far appears to be around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, about 25 miles from the Russian border. A strategic air base is located nearby. Early Thursday, Pentagon officials also observed that “Russians start to initiate some ground incursions” from positions in Belarus and appeared to be “making a move on Kyiv,” the senior defense official said.

Thus far, Russian gains have been most apparent through Crimea, where Putin’s troops have moved north to capture territory near Kherson, a vital port linking the Black Sea and Dnieper River. Russian troops have advanced about 40 miles there, according to an initial assessment published Thursday by the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War. A Russian focus in this part of Ukraine could be aimed at choking off its economic engine, which depends on the Odesa port to ship much of the world’s wheat.

Helicopter and airborne assaults were used by Russia to secure a cargo airport outside Kyiv, part of an apparent strategy to isolate the capital from the western part of the country, but the raid has been complicated by strong Ukrainian resistance, according to the Institute for the Study of War assessment. The western part of Ukraine is home to the strongest anti-Russian sentiment and the few viable overland crossings into Poland and Romania, where thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed in recent weeks as a bulwark against any Russian moves directed at NATO partners.

Ukrainian officials said late Thursday that their forces had regained control of the Antonov Airport, about 15 miles outside of Kyiv, preventing Russia’s airborne reinforcements from landing there. Other reports indicated a firefight was ongoing.

Social media was flooded Thursday with imagery of airstrikes and fighter sorties and helicopter-borne attacks. Russian tanks and armored vehicles appear to have faced some resistance, including in Glukhov, near Ukraine’s northeast border. A “column” of T-72 tanks was destroyed by U.S.-supplied Javelin antitank missiles, according to a Ukrainian government statement on social media that showed a Russian tank on fire. Officials did not provide further evidence of what had transpired.

Russian forces also saw early successes in Ukraine’s north, which is the shortest path to Kyiv from positions in Belarus, were tens of thousands of troops participated in joint training exercises earlier this month. Troops seized the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the border, prompting concern of ecologic catastrophe — and invalidating some analysts’ predictions that the marshy, forested region would impede heavy armored vehicles.

It appears another thrust of movement east of Chernobyl, and across the Dnieper River, was intended to put Kyiv in a vise grip, but Ukrainian forces impeded Russian troops at Chernihiv, according to the Institute for the Study of War’s early assessment. Chernihiv is just south of the Ukraine’s shared border with Belarus and Russia, with a highway leading directly to the capital.

Analysts and U.S. defense officials have broadly said Russian moves thus far are aimed at a widening war, though some experts have said the next steps are not as clear.

Ian Brzezinski, a former Pentagon official overseeing Europe and NATO policy, said that thus far, Putin’s “operations don’t indicate that he’s determined what he wants to do, and what he deems to be successful and satisfactory outcome.”

“He’s testing the waters, in a very very brutal way,” said Brzezinski, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. How fiercely and effectively the Ukrainians fight, and how forcefully the West responds could determine what endgame Putin pursues, he said, and the next 24 hours could reveal larger clues about the scale of his plan.

Brzezinski noted it is unlikely that Putin will be able to hold a country the size of Ukraine “unless the Ukrainian people collapse and give up — and this is where he could be making a serious miscalculation.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday said weapons would be provided to anyone who wanted to defend the country, which could presage shift to unconventional tactics and ambush type operations to level the odds against more advanced Russian forces.

“Be ready to support Ukraine in the squares of our cities,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter.

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