BROVARY, Ukraine – The column of Russian tanks rumbled along a main highway to the east of Kyiv, between two rows of houses in a small town – a vulnerable target.
Soon, Ukrainian forces were sending artillery shells raining down on the Russian convoy, while soldiers ambushed them with anti-tank missiles, leaving a line of charred, burning tanks.
Brovary is just eight miles from downtown Kyiv, and the skirmish on the M01 Highway on Wednesday illustrated how close Russian forces have come as they continue to tighten a noose on the nation’s capital – the biggest prize of all in the war. The Russians continued on Friday to try to close in on Kyiv, with combat to the northwest and east that consisted mostly of fierce, seesaw battles for control of small towns and roads.
But the attack by Ukrainian troops in Brovary also cast into sharp relief the strategic challenges – and, military analysts say, the strategic missteps – that have bedeviled Russian forces and prevented them, so far, from gaining control of most major cities.
Though Russian forces greatly outnumber the Ukrainian army and have far superior weaponry, their size and their need to mostly use open roads make them less mobile and susceptible to attack from Ukrainian troops that can launch artillery strikes from several miles away, in tandem with surgical ambushes .
“Urban combat is always difficult, and I do not think the Russians are any better at it than others,” said Tor Bukkvol, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, a military think tank, and an authority on Russia’s special forces.
He said the Russian military was engaged in a plodding, armored advance into the urban landscape of the city’s outlying towns.
“I’m not sure there is much of a strategy at the moment,” he said.
Illia Berezenko, a Ukrainian soldier who witnessed the Ukrainian attack on the Russian armored column on Wednesday from a distant position but did not take part in it, said it aimed to hit the first and last tank in the column, in hopes of trapping those in the middle.
From that perspective the strike, which set off fighting through a swath of villages in this area that is still ongoing, was only a partial success. In drone video of the ambush released by the Ukrainian army, which largely corresponds to Private Berezenko’s account, many Russian armored vehicles can be seen driving away, apparently unharmed, while others burn.
Still, Private Berezenko said that from his viewpoint 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 was moving with self-propelled artillery vehicles, which typically operate to the rear of frontline forces, 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 the Pinocchio for its bulging nose-like box of rockets, is seen driving amid the mayhem of exploding tanks.
“I do not know why they are doing it,” Private Berezenko said. “Maybe they want to confuse us. Maybe they have some other understanding of what they are doing. Who knows? ”
He said days of artillery shelling had dulled his nerves. “I was feeling normal” and not nervous during the skirmish, he said. “There is nothing exciting about seeing a tank,” he said. “Everybody wants to live.”
Military analysts share Ukrainian soldiers’ puzzlement over the halting Russian advances toward Kyiv so far. It might 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 military attempted a lightning raid on the capital using special forces in an elite airborne unit. These troops tried to seize an airfield north of Kyiv, in the town of Hostomel, in a helicopter assault with the apparent goal of creating a staging area for a quick attack.
But Ukrainian troops shot down a number of helicopters, sending the operation into disarray, then drove those Russians who had managed to land off the airfield and into a forest, according to Ukrainian soldiers who took part in that battle.
Russian armored columns moving towards the capital from Belarus became bogged down in unexpectedly fierce resistance. Military analysts say these circumstances left the Russian army with no good choices as it advanced toward Kyiv.
“They were convinced in the success of Plan A, that they would take Kyiv without a lot of bloodshed, but now are reverting to an older form of warfare,” said Mr. Bukkvol, of the Norwegian research center.
For the Ukrainians, he said, the strategy will be to “draw the enemy into the city,” where armored vehicles are channeled into streets, rather than spread out into fields.
This tactic was evident in the strike on the column outside of Brovary, where armored vehicles were hit as they exited the open fields and entered a stretch of highway bordered by houses, blocking any escapes.
The Ukrainians, said Private Berezenko, fired with “pretty much everything they had” including anti-tank missiles from close range and artillery from farther away. He was ordered to a fallback position and did not see the aftermath.
Videos posted on Ukrainian social networks showed an armored personnel carrier, peeled open by an explosion and spewing yellow flames. A Reuters videographer shot footage of Ukrainian soldiers starting up and driving away an abandoned Russian tank. It was unclear how many armored vehicles were in the column and how many were destroyed.
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On the ground. Russian forces, battered by the local resistance, have stepped up their bombardment across Ukraine, targeting locations far from the front lines. Satellite imagery of a convoy north of Kyiv suggests that Russia is repositioning its forces for a renewed assault there.
The drone video of the attack also cheered Ukrainian soldiers inside the city. “It was beautiful,” said one soldier manning a checkpoint, who declined to be identified. “We just poured it onto them.” The video showed plumes of black smoke and dust bursting on the pavement and a tank apparently trying, awkwardly, to pivot on the shoulder of the road to head back the other way.
Driving out of Kyiv to the east, the high-rises of the city center give way to malls, gas stations and furniture stores, then a forest and a few miles away the suburban community of Brovary.
While 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 all had suffered concussions or wounds from shrapnel or bullets.
They included members of a family whose car was shot at Thursday by Russian forces who had dispersed into a wooded area east of the town after Wednesday’s ambush. The father, Sergei Lugina, said a bullet hit his 14-year-old daughter, Yekaterina, in the right shoulder and another blew off three fingers on his right hand. He said he managed to keep driving until he reached a Ukrainian checkpoint.
One soldier had a gaping shrapnel wound in his right wrist but was resisting recommendations to amputate, Dr. Andriets said.
“He understands he will lose his hand” but was still resisting, Dr. Andriets said.
Shock was wearing off and the soldier was becoming depressed, he said. Of the successful ambush on the M01 highway east of Brovary, Dr. Andriets said, “he’s not thinking of this now. Maybe later he will understand this was a victory for Ukraine. “