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 4.
Current Military Situation
In its first attempt at multi-divisional warfare since WW2, the Russian military continues to demonstrate itself incapable of coordinating its battalion tactical groups (BTG) for concentrated lines of advance. So far, the Russian military has yet to show it can coordinate multiple divisions along different axes and towards a clear, unified objective.
Instead, by day 8 of the conflict, Russia has been primarily engaging in piecemeal attacks while attempting to open up new lines of advance through regiment-sized operations.
The Russian military has had the most success along its southern Crimea axis of attack. On March 3, Russia scored the first capture of a major Ukrainian city, securing a negotiated surrender of the port city of Kherson.
Inexplicably, however, instead of consolidating forces to mutually support a single objective, Russia appears to now be conducting forward operations along three diverging axes in the south.
Overnight, Russian troops attacked the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear facility in Europe, in southeast Ukraine. Thanks to a live stream camera at the nuclear plant, in a surreal scene, people all over the world could watch the attack as it unfolded in real-time.
LIVE: Right now you can watch Ukrainian and Russian forces fighting over Europe’s largest nuclear reactor, in real time, via livestream. This is surreal. https://t.co/d5PRuNCb6o
During the action, several armored vehicles could be seen on fire, and what appeared to be dismounted Russian troops pinned down by small arms fire along Promyslova St. at the plant’s entrance.
The nuclear plant caught fire in a tense moment, with emergency services unable to put out the blaze due to the ongoing battle. On Twitter, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba said a nuclear disaster at Zaporizhia would be “10 times larger than Chernobyl.”
From the view of the live stream, the situation often looked bleak for the Russian attackers. However, by the morning of March 4, officials from Ukraine’s regional state administration said the Zaporizhia nuclear plant had been seized by Russian forces.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said, “The plant’s reactors are protected by robust containment structures, and reactors are being safely shut down.” Granholm said she had also spoken with Ukraine’s energy minister, and there were currently no signs of elevated radiation readings near the facility.
On March 3, news emerged that Russian Major General Andrei Sukhovetsky, Deputy Commander of the 41st Combined Arms Army of the Russian Ground Forces, had been killed while fighting in Ukraine.
Sukhovetsky’s death was first reported by Rosgvardiya (Russian National Guard) on the Russian social media site VKontakte. The Kremlin-backed news outlet Pravada additionally confirmed the General’s death.
Citing unnamed military sources, some reports said Sukhovetsky had been killed by a Ukrainian sniper. His death has not yet been officially confirmed by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, and senior officials at the Pentagon said they could not immediately confirm the reports. “If it’s true, it’s big,” former CIA officer and station chief Dan Hoffman told Fox News.
On March 4, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine claimed 9,166 Russian troops had been killed since February 24. On March 2, the Kremlin said roughly 500 soldiers had been killed in the conflict. The Debrief cannot independently verify either of these claims.
Where is the Russian Air Force?
As of March 4, Russia has inexplicably been unable to achieve air superiority over Ukraine.
Air defenses and the Ukrainian Air Force continue to operate eight days into the invasion. On March 3, the Ukrainian General Staff said Ukrainian Su-24s and Su-25s had conducted airstrikes on Russian ground troops in Kyiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv oblasts. As of the morning of March 4, the Ukrainian military claimed it had downed 70 Russian aircraft and helicopters since the invasion began.
The fact that Ukraine’s air space remains contested and the Russian Air Force’s overall irrelevance has stumped defense observers. “There’s a lot of stuff they’re doing that’s perplexing,” Rob Lee, a Russian military specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Reuters.
After analyzing combat footage, situational reports, and speaking with defense experts, The Debrief likewise cannot come up with a good reason for Russia’s failure to achieve air superiority.
There are, however, a few potential explanations for the Russian Air Force’s poor performance.
Low Stockpiles of precision-guided munitions: As Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) points out, the Russian Air Force may have very limited stockpiles of precision-guided munitions (PGM). During combat operations in Syria, Russia rarely used PGMs, relying more on unguided bombs and rocket attacks. The lack of targeting pods and PGMs means the Russian Air Force has limited capability to provide stand-off air support to ground forces.
However, the lack of available PGMs doesn’t entirely explain the Russian Air Force’s absence. We’ve seen Russia have no problem using area-attack weapons – such as cruise missiles and artillery – against civilian areas in Ukraine. Likewise, one would assume Russia would be willing to use unguided bombs for indiscriminate air attacks.
Poor Training: It’s hard to accurately assess how many training flying hours Russian Air Force pilots receive annually. Indications are fighters likely get less than 100 hours in the cockpit a year. By comparison, U.K. Royal Air Force and U.S. Air Force fighter pilots complain that the average 180-240 flying hours they receive a year isn’t enough to maintain combat readiness.
The lack of training hours likely plays a factor in the Russian Air Force’s lack of confidence in conducting large-scale combat operations in contested airspace.
Inability to Deconflict the air space: So far, Russian ground forces have demonstrated incredibly poor coordination in virtually all phases of military operations.
Perhaps, the most likely explanation for the Russian Air Force’s ineffectiveness is that this same lack of coordination and communication equally plagues its ability to conduct airborne missions.
Not only is the Russian military unable to arrange air support and air defense cover, but it likely isn’t capable of deconflicting the air space to avoid friendly-fire incidents from ground-based surface to air missile systems (SAMS) being maintained by ground forces.
While the actual number may never be fully known, a percentage of Russia’s aircraft losses have likely come from friendly-fire incidents.
Essentially, the Russian Air Force may be unwilling to commit to large-scale sorties because it lacks the confidence their aircraft won’t come under fire from its own forces.
Poor Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance: The final factor that likely influences Russia’s inability to demonstrate significant airpower could be Russia’s limited real-time situational awareness.
So far, Russia hasn’t demonstrated itself as having a good image of what’s happening on the ground. In the initial days of the invasion and what continues to be hit by Russian missiles, have primarily been fixed targets, like airfields, buildings, etc.
Ultimately, this suggests Russia has poor intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to provide an “eye in the sky” for target designation. Coupled with the possibilities mentioned above, it may cause Russian Air Force commanders to be highly risk-averse and unwilling to commit to large-scale air operations.
Russia’s Primary Axes of Advance
Main Effort—Kyiv Axis: On its Kyiv axis, Russia continues to demonstrate a desire 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 forces have made limited to no gains on its western Kyiv axis. They will likely require additional combat power to complete an encirclement of Kyiv.
Northeastern Axis: In the morning of March 4, The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported that fourteen BTGs from the Central Military District, as well as the 14th Army District of the Northern Fleet, were conducting offensive operations in the cities of Oster, Zazimya, Berezan, Vyshenky, focusing on Kyiv.
Sixteen BTGs from Russia’s Western Military District were also reported to be conducting offensive operations in the direction of Novomoskovsk and had captured Balakleya.
Russian forces continue to make heavy use of bomb, missile, and artillery strikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine’s second most populous city of Kharkiv.
Russian forces will likely hope to encircle Kharkiv within 24-48 hours. Instead of entering the city, The Debrief assesses Russia will likely continue to use indiscriminate fire, causing significant civilian casualties, in hopes of forcing Kharkiv to capitulate.
Crimea Axis: Russian forces continue to completely encircle the port city of Mariupol. As of March 4, Russia appears to be content bombarding Mariupol with airstrikes and artillery in hopes of forcing the city to surrender. The likelihood of civilian casualties in Mariupol remains exceptionally high.
After seizing the port city of Kherson on March 2, Russia continued an advance toward Mykolayiv on March 3, including a puzzling failed airborne landing.
In a third southern front, Russian troops have moved into Zaporizhia, successfully seizing the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant.
While the southern Crimea axis has been the most concerning area for overall Ukrainian defenses, The Debrief assesses that if the Russian military continues on three separate and independent lines of advance -Mikoayiv, Zaporizhya, and Mariupol – it is unlikely to achieve any significant gains. In essence, the biggest defense of Russia’s southern advance seems to be Russia itself.
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.
As of the morning of March 4, there is no evidence that the Ukrainian military’s claimed offensive on Horlivka in Donetsk Oblast by the 95th Airborne Brigade has been successful.
Immediate Situations To Watch
Russian forces are likely to continue maneuvering to the west and southwest of Kyiv to envelop and then encircle it. Based on the situation as of March 4, it is unlikely that Russia will be successful in surrounding Kyiv without further reinforcement of troops and supplies.
Russian troops will likely 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. As with the situation west of Kyiv, Russia will likely require more troops and better logical lines to achieve a breakthrough to eastern 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. Rather than enter the city, presently, The Debrief assesses Russia is likely to attempt to bypass Kharkiv from the south to head east towards Kyiv.
Russian and proxy forces will likely continue to encircle and bombard Mariupol with air, missile, and artillery strikes to force the city to surrender. The potential for civilian casualties in Mariupol is exceptionally high. However, as of March 4, it remains uncertain if Russia has enough committed force to take the city.
It is assumed that Russian forces in Kherson will continue their advance toward Mikoayiv and Odesa. However, as of the morning of March 4, Russia has failed to pose an immediate threat to Odesa. Instead, Russia has been trying to advance northward into Zaporizhya.
As of March 4, Russia’s objectives and military strategy in southern Ukraine are difficult to discern. Based on the unusual decision to open up three simultaneous and divergent fronts in the south, it is difficult to predict if Russia will continue to maintain the military success they’ve enjoyed thus far.
Unconfirmed reports suggest Belarus has already committed ground forces in Ukraine. If they haven’t already, indications remain extremely high that Belarus will enter the war on the side of Russia at any time.
Russia continues to clamp down on internal dissent over the decision to invade Ukraine.
On March 4, Russia’s legislative body, the State Duma, will consider proposed legislation that would impose up to 15-year prison sentences for anyone disseminating “fake information” about the actions of its armed forces in Ukraine.
On March 3, the Kremlin also shut down several Russian media outlets for spreading “deliberately false information” about the war in Ukraine. Editor-in-Chief for the independent Russian outlet Novaya Gazeta and Noble Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov told The New York Times, “Everything that’s not propaganda is being eliminated.”
Kremlin officials continue to frame the invasion of Ukraine as a necessary “limited special military operation” to protect the contested Ukrainian states of Donetsk and Luhansk. On February 26, Russia’s federal communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, announced it was illegal for the invasion of Ukraine to be described as an “assault, invasion, or declaration of war.”
In the past few days, thousands of citizens have purportedly fled Russia after rumors swirled that the Kremlin was preparing to impose martial law during an extraordinary session of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, scheduled for March 4.
Citizens reportedly fear that martial law would effectively establish a “total war” society in Moscow, leading to forced conscription into the armed forces.
Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, described the rumors as “nothing but hoaxes published on social networks.”
Indications are high that Russia is currently moving more combat vehicles and troops from the Eastern Military District (EMD) in Khabarovsk and far eastern Russia. These movements suggest military commanders have likely realized they had insufficient available forces to successfully carry out initial invasion plans.
The Debrief assesses the Russian military still has a net advantage in combat strength and maintains considerable available combat power at its disposal in and outside Ukraine. However, Russia has so far failed to execute an effective combined arms, multi-domain campaign. The chances of Russia scoring a decisive success are all but out the window.
Because of low morale, poor planning, and execution by the Russian military against the high morale and incredibly scrappy defense seen in Ukraine, the ultimate outcome of Russia’s invasion remains unpredictable.
After a 90-minute phone call with Russian President Validimir Putin on March 3, French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly walked away with “nothing reassuring,” believing that “the worst is yet to come.”
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.