Small Wars Journal

The Untold Story of the Battle for Kyiv

Tue, 05/31/2022 - 7:34am

The Untold Story of the Battle for Kyiv

By Dan Rice, MBA, MS, MSeD

The world expected the Russian Army to defeat the Ukrainian Army within days. Russian President Vladimir Putin, United States Senate expert testimony[1], and most of the west, all expected Kyiv to fall within a few days under the weight of the enormous and powerful Russian army. The Russians thought it was going to be quick, but the Russians forgot that the enemy has a vote.   The Ukrainian army didn’t collapse. After nearly 100 days, the Ukrainian military continues to surprise the world. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zalensky inspired the world and displayed his resolve, and his nation’s resolve, to fight the much larger Russian Army.    

Instead of collapsing in the face of a Russian invasion along multiple avenues of approach – the drive to Kyiv being a primary one – the Ukrainian Army traded space for time by fighting a withdrawing action against a far larger invading Russian army and fell all the way back to within the city limits of the national capital where it eventually repelled the Russian onslaught[2].  Had Putin’s army taken Kyiv, President Zelensky’s government could have collapsed, and the Ukraine may have lost the war.  On the contrary, however, the Ukrainian soldiers and civilians successfully defended its capital in a battle that may likely be taught as a case study for military leaders for generations once it is fully understood.     

Being able to tell this story from my vantage point was a story unto itself. At the time there were no US military or embassy in country, and I was traveling as a civilian.  After a seven-hour public bus ride from Krakow, Poland into Lviv, Ukraine, I linked up with my contacts for the first time, the Ukraine Chief of Strategic Communications Ms. Liudmyla Dolhonovaka and Colonel Oleksii Noskov from Ukraine Psychological Operations[3].   Together, with my new friends, we drove by car another seven-hour car drive to Kyiv, a total distance from Krakow of 900 kilometers (550 miles) and was finally in the warzone.  The drive in was beautiful, driving past enormous farms of beautiful yellow wheat fields from which the yellow and blue sky of the Ukraine flag are derived.

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The yellow fields of wheat in Ukraine against the blue sky

On the route in, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Kyiv, we began to see battle damage.  Burnt out bombed buildings, destroyed gas stations, 100% disabled Russian tanks facing eastward, and a destroyed Ukrainian highway bridge that had been dropped by the Ukrainians themselves to prevent the Russians from crossing a critical river crossing were just a few of the obstacles I encountered.  Ultimately, the Russians never passed that point.  

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Two bridges in the west and northeast of Kyiv that were intentionally dropped by Ukrainian forces as Russians approached Kyiv and a fuel station near Moschun that was destroyed by Russian forces.

In order to better tell this story, I interviewed many of the commanders who were at decisive points in the Ukrainian War to date for my primary research, especially the battle for Kyiv, and I walked that battlefield with them in May 2022.  I was originally in Ukraine to write about leadership, upon the invitation of Commander in Chief, General Valeriy Zaluzhnny.  But after a two-hour discussion with him about the Battle for Kyiv - a battle that was eight years in the making - I felt the real story was in a first-hand perspective of the Battle of Kyiv[4].  A story that would provide valuable lessons for military leaders in the future.   Few westerners had been in Ukraine during the battle and the Commander had not granted any interviews.

At the end of our meeting, the Commander ran into his office, grabbed an original portrait off the wall of a soldier on Snake Island “communicating with his middle finger” with the Russian flagship Moskva (which later was sunk by two Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles).  General Zaluzhnny signed the back of the portrait for me and gifted it to me.

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