On Thursday, February 24, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of its southwestern neighbor Ukraine. The action marked a significant escalation between the countries, which have been in a state of conflict since 2014 when Russia first supported an invasion of the eastern Donbas region and annexed the coastal peninsula of Crimea. Russia’s invasion also marks the most significant warfare seen in Europe since World War 2.
Here is The Debrief’s update of the conflict as of the morning of March 3.
Current Military Situation
By the evening of March 2, the southern port city of Kherson became the first major Ukrainian city to fall into Russian hands.
Strategically placed along the Black Sea and Dnieper River, Russian and Ukrainian forces had been engaged in intense fighting for control of Kherson since the invasion began on February 24.
After surrendering the city, Kherson mayor Igor Kolykhaev said Russian military officials told him they intended to set up a military administration to govern the city. “I didn’t make any promises to them… I just asked them not to shoot people,” said Kolykhaev.
Videos posted on social media appeared to show Russian troops looting businesses around Kherson. A Russian soldier was seen trying to break into an electronics store in one instance. After shooting the door and banging on it with his rifle, the unsuccessful soldier eventually walked off.
BREAKING: Kherson has fallen, becoming the first major Ukrainian city to come under Russian control. And here we have a Russian soldier trying to “denazify” and “demilitarize” the door to an electronics store. Decisive victory for the door. pic.twitter.com/s6mTcNLQhO
Before the war, Kherson was home to nearly 300,000 people, primarily ethnic Ukrainians and Russians. It’s presently unknown how many people still remain in the city. After six days of fighting, Kolykhaev told The New York Times there were widespread power outages and limited water and food.
Russian forces will likely spend 48-72 hours refitting and consolidating forces in Kherson before moving further west along the coast towards Odesa, the last major port still under Ukrainian control. As of March 3, four large Russian amphibious landing ships and three missile cruisers are slowly making their way towards Odesa.
260 miles east of Kherson, the Russian military and Russian-backed proxy forces continue to encircle the city of Mariupol. Main ground forces appeared to be holding their positions south of Zaporizhia, roughly 100 miles north of Mariupol.
Throughout March 2, Russia bombarded civilian infrastructure in Mariupol with ballistic missiles and in-direct artillery. Based on the steady increase of area-attack weapons, The Debrief assesses it is likely that Russia’s current strategy is to try and destroy crucial civilian infrastructure and cause civilian casualties, creating a humanitarian catastrophe. The goal would be to force Mariupol to be surrendered without engaging in a large ground assault. Russia is noted for frequently using this tactic in its military actions in Syria.
In northeast Ukraine, Russia continues to make heavy use of area-attack weapons against the second-most populous city of Kharkiv.
Numerous images and videos have shown widespread destruction and damage to residential areas and civilian buildings, such as hospitals, schools, and apartment complexes. Russia continues to deny engaging civilian targets and claiming they are only conducting “high-precision” strikes on military targets.
Enhanced CCTV images by the Netherlands-based investigative journalism group Bellingcat revealed Freedom Square’s cultural and administrative building in central Kharkiv, clearly being struck by a Russian 3M54-1 Kalibr cruise missile.
In Russian-allied Belarus, state-run news media claimed the explosion at Freedom Square was “a provocation by the Ukrainian Nazis.” The “denazification” of sovereign Ukraine has been Russia’s primary claim to justify its invasion.
Limited ground offenses were reported on the outskirts of Kharkiv and near Zolochiv and Balakliya. However, Russian troops did not appear to make any significant gains. As of the morning of March 3, Russian troops appear to remain stalled roughly 40 miles northeast of the capital city of Kyiv.
To the west of Kyiv, Russian forces appeared to try and renew their advances, likely trying to link up with the eastern front to encircle the city. Offensive operations were conducted further west in Zhytomyr Oblast, likely to try and outflank Ukrainian defenses along the western outskirts of Kyiv.
As of the morning of March 3, Russia appeared not to make any significant gains on the ground along its Kyiv and northeastern axes of attack.
As of March 3, the U.S. Department of Defense said Russia has fired roughly 450 short-range and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles since the start of the war.
Since the invasion began a week ago, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed its forces were suffering casualties in Ukraine for the first time.
As of March 2, the Kremlin said 498 Russian troops had been killed, and 1,597 had been injured. The reported casualties are considerable and nearly 300% higher than Russia’s combined losses of the 12-day Russo-Georgian War in 2008. However, there are reasons to believe that Russian casualties are even more substantial.
During their morning press briefing on March 3, the General Staff for the Armed Forces of Ukraine said they approximated Russia’s total personnel losses from February 24 to March 3 to be close to 9,000 soldiers. Ukrainian officials did not clarify if that 9,000 figure represented total combat casualties, including troops killed and injured.
Citing two unnamed intelligence officials, NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel reported that Western intelligence had accessed that approximately 5,800 Russian troops had been killed in the past 6 days.
Based on the available combat after-action information, The Debrief assesses that a potential loss of 2,500 to 4,000 combat deaths and 8,000 to 10,000 injuries on the Russian side is plausible. However, ultimately, based on the continued high-intensity combat, it is impossible to accurately determine just how many troops Russia has lost so far.
On March 2, Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said more than 2,000 Ukrainian civilians have so far been killed in the ongoing invasion.
The United Nations Human Rights Watch said 752 civilian casualties, representing 227 deaths, including 15 children, had been documented as of March 1. “Most of these casualties were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, and airstrikes,” said UN spokesperson Liz Throssell.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cautioned their figures only represented casualties they were able to cross-check, and “the real toll is likely to be much higher.”
The United Nations reports that over 1 million refugees have fled across the borders of Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion.
Russia’s Logistics Nightmares Continue
By all accounts, the Russian military continues to be plagued by poor coordination and logistics shortcomings, as previously reported by The Debrief.
On February 28, a massive convoy of Russian military vehicles- reportedly 17 to 40 miles long – was observed by commercial satellite company Maxar Technologies, apparently heading towards Kyiv. The daunting column of vehicles raised fears that Russia was about to launch an overwhelming ground offensive against the besieged capital.
However, as of March 3, the snaking column has not moved in several days. U.S. defense officials and analysts at The Pentagon now say they believe rather than one massive convoy, the train of vehicles is a series of smaller convoys that have become jammed together and bogged down due to vehicles that have broken down or ran out of fuel.
“The Ukrainians do not need to go to great lengths to interdict this offensive force: it has stopped itself,” wrote Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, Lawrence Freedman.
Other defense analysts have pointed out that images of abandoned Russian vehicles reveal significant maintenance issues. In particular, there have been numerous images showing Russian wheeled vehicles with flat tires or catastrophic wheel damage, without any apparent signs of being involved in combat.
Defense logistics experts say these scenes are indicative of vehicles being left in place for months on end, causing tire sidewalls to become rotted and brittle. So aside from previously reported fuel issues, experts doubt the Russian military has enough spare tires to continue a deep penetration into Ukrainian territory.
U.S. intelligence officials believe Russia has now committed 82% of its pre-staged combat forces to the invasion.
Russia’s Primary Axes of Advance
Main Effort—Kyiv Axis: Russian operations on the Kyiv axis continue to focus on an attempt to envelop and encircle Kyiv from the west, with supporting elements coming from the area of Chernihiv and Sumy from the northeast and east.
Russia appears to have conducted limited efforts to achieve ground advances on the Kyiv axis. These offensive efforts were unsuccessful in making any meaningful gains by all accounts.
Airstrikes against Kyiv continued throughout the day and night of March 2. However, not with the same level of intensity seen in preceding days.
Northeastern Axis: Russian forces continue to make heavy use of bomb, missile, and artillery strikes against Kharkiv.
Yesterday The Debrief assessed that these aerial bombardments could lead to a renewed ground offensive against Ukraine’s second most populous city. However, based on the developments of March 2, it appears Russia may be attempting to instead focus on destroying civilian infrastructure and causing civilian casualties in hopes of forcing a surrender of the city. Russia could equally be trying to constrain Kharikiv’s defenders to allow additional ground forces to concentrate towards the northeast and Kyiv.
Russian forces did not make any significant forward progress along the northeastern axis, still concentrating on reducing pockets of resistance in the areas of Sumy, Lebedyn, and Okhtyrka.
Crimea Axis: Russian forces appear to have completely encircled the city of Mariupol by land and sea.
By all accounts, Russia now plans to bombard Mariupol with airstrikes and artillery to force the city into capitulation. If indeed the case, the likelihood of civilian casualties in Mariupol is exceptionally high.
As of March 3, The Debrief assesses there are roughly 12,000 – 16,000 Ukrainian troops still within Mariupol defending the city. The projected force includes the 36th Marine Corps Brigade, 56th Mechanized Brigade, 12th Operations Brigade, and the infamous Azov Regiment. An unknown number of civil defense fighters are also assumed to be in Mariupol.
Forces have seized the port city of Kherson, representing the first major Ukrainian city to fall into Russian hands. Russian troops will likely consolidate forces and resupply in Kherson before making a western advance towards Mykolayiv and Odesa.
The Russian Navy appears to have a significant landing force on standby in the Black Sea for an eventual push to take Ukraine’s last port city of Odesa.
The southern Crimea axis continues to be the area that poses the most significant risk to unhinging Ukrainian defenses. By conquering the last remaining regions in south Ukraine, it would provide the Russian military with the opportunity to conduct a pincer attack against troops on the Donbas line of defense and ultimately allow for a northward push to assist the beleaguered units near Kyiv.
Donbas Axis: Russian military and proxy forces on the Donbas axis continue to hold the Donbas line while focusing offensive attacks on Mariupol from the east.
Ukrainian officials claimed they had launched operations to retake Horlivka in Donetsk Oblast, describing it as the first offensive operation “in a different direction” since the war began.
As of the morning of March 3, The Debrief assesses that the Ukrainian 95th Airborne Brigade has been unsuccessful in retaking Horlivka so far.
Immediate Situations To Watch
Russian forces are likely to continue maneuvering to the west and southwest of Kyiv to envelop and then encircle it. Russia would also like to cut off Kyiv from its Western supply line and its ability to restock weapons coming in from the Polish border. Russian troops will also continue to try and secure a crossing over the Desna near Chernihiv to link up with forces on the Sumy axis to open an eastern front against Kyiv.
Russia will likely continue to bombard civilian areas in the cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol to force the cities into surrendering. The potential for civilian casualties in these cities is extremely high.
Ukrainian forces are likely to continue to attempt offensive operations against the Donbas line to draw Russian troops from the eastern edge of Mariupol. These attacks could be risky, and potentially there are enough conventional and proxy troops in the southeast to allow Russia to outflank and encircle any possible gains Ukraine makes in the Donbas.
Indications remain extremely high that Belarus will commit troops to the war and assist Russia’s invasion. Belarusian forces have significant potential to open up another northwestern axis of attack.
Russia now maintains control of Kherson, with no Ukrainian military remaining in the city. However, occupying troops will likely have to deal with civil disobedience from a populous who still very much wants to resist Russian control.
Suppose Russian military authorities can provide food, aid, and rule with a heavy hand in Kherson. In that case, it could significantly impact the morale of other besieged Ukrainian cities. Suddenly, surrender could start looking more like a viable option.
That said, Russia has so far been unable to adequately supply its own forces and has arrested thousands of Russian citizens for protesting the war. The current prospects of the Kremlin winning the hearts and minds of Ukrainians remains extremely low.
Nevertheless, the Ukrainian military may need to consider launching asymmetrical, insurgency attacks on Russian troops occupying Kherson. Confronting Russia with the prospect that a “win” doesn’t necessarily translate into “victory” would help further erode troop morale and help maintain Ukrainian’s fighting spirit.
The Russian military maintains a net advantage in combat strength over Ukraine. However, poor coordination, low morale, and logistical issues continue to be significant problems.
Conversely, Ukrainian morale continues to be extraordinarily high, and defenses continue to be very determined and remarkably crafty. Since Russia’s invasion, Ukraine has also given a masterclass in information warfare.
International support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia continues to grow daily. On March 2, 141 member states of the United Nations voted in favor of a resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demand the Kremlin immediately withdraw its forces. Only Belarus, Syria, Eritrea, North Korea, and Russia voted against the measure, with 35 nations abstaining.
Also, on March 2, the International Court in The Hague announced it was beginning a war crimes investigation against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Days prior, Lithuania’s Prime Minister, Ingrida Simonyte, told the Washington Post, “What Putin is doing is just a murder and nothing else, and I hope he will be in The Hague.”
Note: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an ongoing military conflict. Events on the battlefield are highly dynamic and can quickly change. Be sure to follow The Debrief on Twitter, @DebriefMedia, or The Debrief’s Tim McMillan @LtTimMcMillan, where we will provide updated information on the conflict.