Russia faces ticking clock as it struggles to take Kyiv

Former deputy head of Britain’s armed forces said if invaders fail it will end any chance of Ukraine conquest

A Ukrainian soldier passes a destroyed a trolleybus and taxi after a Russian bombing attack in Kyiv, Ukraine. AP
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The ground battle for Kyiv must begin in the “next few days” otherwise Russia will face the prospect of a humiliating defeat in Ukraine, a leading British general has told The National.

Gen Sir Richard Barrons has been astounded by the performance of Russia’s commanders, soldiers and equipment in the war so far, following the initial “colossal strategic failure” in deciding to invade.

Another senior military figure has suggested that Ukrainian generals have available excellent intelligence, received from the West, which means they have a better understanding of Russian deployments than Moscow’s commanders.

With at least 60 Battalion Tactical Groups closing in around the Ukrainian capital alongside continuous artillery bombardment, the battlefield is set up to suggest a major attack is imminent.

“If there’s going to be battle for Kyiv, it’s got to start in the next few days, otherwise the Russians will just wear themselves out on the ground,” said Gen Barrons, former deputy chief of the defence staff.

“And if they’re going to go for it, then we would expect to see at least two axes develop along key roads where they basically pound their way towards the city centre.”

The National reported on Tuesday that Kyiv’s civic resistance leader said the attack could come only through the heavily defended approaches from the east and west because the River Dnieper, along with deliberate flooding, made the north and south impassible.

A full-scale assault would be bloody, with significant casualties among the attackers along with hundreds of civilian deaths from Russian shelling.

If it succeeded, it would be hard for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government to continue, but if it failed, “it’s game over for Russia’s political aspirations”, said Gen Barrons, 62.

“And I think the Russians are sufficiently alarmed to think can’t they afford to start this without knowing they can win it,” he said.

“Their numbers simply do not allow them to conceive how they could fight for the whole of Kyiv.”

In the 1945 siege of Berlin, the similar-sized city of 2.5 million people was surrounded by 1.5 million Russian troops who suffered 80,000 fatalities taking the German capital. About 60,000 Russian soldiers are in the Kyiv area.

The Russians were also struggling because Nato’s surveillance and eavesdropping aircraft on Ukraine’s borders were picking up significant intelligence on their intentions and movements, according to the military source, who asked to remain anonymous.

“The Ukrainian generals probably have a better knowledge of where the Russian troops are than the Russian generals,” he said. “You don’t have to fly them over Ukraine to know what’s going on the ground. A lot will be known from electronic intelligence and communications intelligence.

“Where are their modern T-90 tanks? Where are their top armour formations? Where are their drones?” he said. “What they are seeing is making Russia look very flat-footed.”

With at least 5,000 soldiers killed and more than 20,000 seriously injured, Gen Barrons suggested this must soon have a severe impact on morale as “there are not many countries that want to do war at that price”.

“The Russians massively underestimated how the Ukrainians would respond and phenomenally overestimated their own capability,” he said. “What I am surprised about is just how poor the Russian conventional army has been at every level, with a quarter of the troops being conscripts whose hearts are clearly not in this.”

Gen Barrons, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the Russians would not try “recover from their mistakes” and “sequence their battles better” by doing fewer operations at once. This would allow them to apply their core strength of “attritional firepower against the urban areas to just make the Ukrainians give up”.

The invasion force, estimated at estimated 150,000, was not “big enough or good enough” to occupy Ukraine by force “and they’re definitely not going to get occupation by consent beyond the separatist areas,” he added.

The dream of conquering all Ukraine had clearly “faded” and instead Russia would look to looking “to secure irrefutable territorial gains” that would form the basis for a ceasefire, said Gen Barrons.

The military source also suggested Russians might “freeze the conflict” if they managed to take all or parts of Kyiv, pushing Mr Zelenskyy’s government out then holding on to gains in the east and south.

Key to the invaders now was to take the port city of Mariupol, which could be “pummelled into dust” to give the invaders a contiguous line linking annexed Crimea to Russia. This would also be a major blow to the Ukrainians and would allow the Russians to concentrate on the vital port of Odesa.

It was also important that Kyiv did not leave its best fighting troops to be encircled in Donbas in the east, “but the Ukrainians are too savvy to allow that to happen,” Gen Barrons said.

Whatever the outcome, the fighting was going to cause both Ukrainians and their Slavic cousins severe hardship and pain.

Updated: March 16, 2022, 5:46 PM