A missile strike on the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, on Tuesday and a 27km convoy of Russian military vehicles heading to an almost encircled Kyiv suggests the invasion is shifting to a more destructive phase as a frustrated Moscow reassesses its line of attack
Over the first five days of the invasion, Ukrainian troops managed to repulse successive waves of Russian ground attacks on urban areas. Footage on social media of blown up bridges, successful Ukrainian drone attacks, retaken airfields and charred tanks had even fed hopes in Kyiv that Moscow’s military timetable was slipping behind schedule.
Although western governments have applauded Ukrainian resistance, officials caution the bloodiest part of Russia’s offensive is still to come.
Once the Russian military has solved the logistical problems that have bogged down its forces, western officials fear Russia will unleash brutal firepower on Ukraine, with massive civilian casualties.
Early signs of that came on Tuesday with a large explosion in the heart of Kharkiv, which destroyed its local government headquarters and filled the adjacent Independence Square with rubble. Ukrainian officials blamed it on a Russian missile strike. This could not be independently verified.
That followed a heavy bombardment of Kharkiv’s residential areas on Monday, with photos and videos, widely shared on social media, of the characteristic fin-tailed sections of cluster bombs protruding from the streets. Western officials also pointed to social media posts of TOS-1 heavy flame throwers positioned outside the besieged southern city of Mariupol.
Satellite imagery showed a 27km convoy of Russian trucks and military vehicles heading south to Kyiv on Monday, within 45km of the capital. Western officials have warned that the city is close to being encircled. Russia has said it has kept open an access corridor.
A pause in attacks on Kyiv on Monday “means that Russian forces are regrouping, reinforcing and increasing [their] readiness, ”said Rochan Consulting, a conflict analysis consultancy. “This of course is very concerning.”
According to western military intelligence, Russia has moved between 50 and 75 per cent of the combat forces it had positioned along the Ukraine border – about 150,000 troops – but much of them have yet to see action. Russia has also not yet used its heavy artillery in the way the army has traditionally been trained to fight.
“It is challenging to predict what will happen next,” one official said. “But I have a high degree of confidence that they [the Russian army] will fix those issues and when they do they will bring more of their firepower and resources into combat. . . It will come clearer over the next 24 to 48 hours. ”
While Russia has struggled to make inroads into Kyiv and Kharkiv, in the south the Kremlin’s forces have broken out of their redoubts in Crimea and, to some extent, the Donbas, enabling them to form a land bridge along the southern coast that cuts Ukraine off from the sea.
“There have been some Russian successes,” said Henry Boyd, a military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
But in the north and east of the country it has been a different story.
Special forces were pushed forward to capture airfields, such as Hostomel in Kyiv, but left unsupported so they had to either retire or face capture. Armored convoys have meanwhile chugged along, unprotected by air cover, vulnerable to attack.
“Their convoys are traveling so closely spaced,” said Ben Hodges, former commander of US armed forces in Europe. “They have not been in tactical formation ready to fight and have been getting smoked by drones and artillery.”
Observers cite three main reasons for Russia’s atypical attack, and why its tactics are likely to change.
First, Moscow underestimated Ukrainians’ will to fight. “It’s a common mistake to be arrogant about your enemy’s abilities,” Hodges said.
Second, Moscow gambled on a quick victory, which would also allow it to keep “the war secret from the Russian public”, said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, a US-based think-tank, in a recent podcast. “It was based on terrible assumptions.”
And third, Russian commanders probably overestimated the effective force of their own troops.
Officials and analysts fear that addressing those failures will now lead to a grizzly escalation of military tactics involving more force and more power.
“Russia’s military did not play to its strengths at the start, so the obvious recourse is to fall back to a strategy that does work,” Boyd said. “It’s a scorched earth approach.”