Russians 'struggling with Ukrainian terrain' as reluctance to go off-road stalls advance

Invading forces surrounded the capital but struggle to break Ukrainians' lines of defence

A Ukrainian passes a Russian armoured personnel carrier near Brovary. Getty Images
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Vladimir Putin’s troops have been thrown off by the challenging Ukrainian terrain and are reluctant to send tanks through rough fields and forests, hampering the army’s ability to gain a foothold in their neighbouring nation, according to British intelligence.

Britain's Ministry of Defence said for the most part Russian troops are concentrated on roads and their ability to get around is being thwarted by the lack of suitable river crossings.

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian forces have worked to destroy key bridges leading to strategic cities and towns.

As the war stretches into its fourth week, the MoD said Russian soldiers are “struggling to overcome the challenges posed by Ukraine’s terrain”.

“Russian forces have remained largely tied to Ukraine’s road network and have demonstrated a reluctance to conduct off-road manoeuvre,” the ministry said in an intelligence update on Wednesday, day 21 of the invasion.

“The destruction of bridges by Ukrainian forces has also played a key role in stalling Russia’s advance.

“Russia’s continued failure to gain control of the air has drastically limited their ability to effectively use air manoeuvre, further limiting their options.

“The tactics of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have adeptly exploited Russia’s lack of manoeuvre, frustrating the Russian advance and inflicting heavy losses on the invading forces.”

Justin Bronk, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), a British defence and security think tank, said judging from the current situation it appears unlikely that Russia can successfully take Kyiv.

Mr Bronk said Mr Putin’s troops continue to target the Ukrainian capital with cruise missiles and some ballistic missiles, but their efforts to establish a presence on the ground in the city centre have so far failed.

Heavy clashes are taking place in the north-east and north-west suburbs of the city, which was home to 2.9 million people before Moscow sent its troops into Ukraine.

Mr Bronk said the groups of Russian troops encircling the capital are small, and the army therefore has a “limited capacity to push in a large scale around Kyiv itself”.

“I must admit I don’t think at this point that Russia can take the city centre,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I don’t think it’s possible with the combat power they have so it will be encirclement and bombardment as part of a strategy to pressure terms for a ceasefire.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has offered hope of a possible breakthrough in peace negotiations, despite Moscow’s stepped-up bombardment of Kyiv and new assaults on the port city of Mariupol.

After delegations from Ukraine and Russia met again on Tuesday via video, Mr Zelenskyy said early on Wednesday that Russia’s demands were becoming “more realistic”. The two sides were expected to speak again on Wednesday.

Mr Bronk said a full-scale assault from the sea on the strategically important Black Sea port city of Odesa could not be ruled out, but said such an attack looks unlikely at this stage.

He said Russian navy forces shelled the city on Tuesday and another round of missiles could be on the cards for Wednesday as ships have again moved close to the shoreline.

“An amphibious landing at Odesa would certainly be a threat for Ukraine but certainly for the moment the forces around Mikolaiv are too far really to rapidly reinforce it,” he said. “Amphibious landings are still extremely dangerous for the force conducting them and there aren’t many places on the coastline that are particularly suitable for it so the Russian navy would expect to take a lot of losses and it would be interesting to see if they’re that desperate.”

The defence expert said Ukrainian troops on Tuesday had destroyed at least four Russian helicopters at an air base near the occupied southern city of Kherson.

Kherson became the first major city to fall to the invading forces when the Russians captured it on day eight of the invasion.

Defence expert Franz-Stefan Gady said Mr Putin’s army is facing “manpower issues” and suggested conscripts could be coerced into extending their military service as the war looks ;likely to drag on.

Mr Gady, who has advised militaries in Europe and the US, suggested the Russian leader could “attempt to generate additional forces by pressing conscripts whose service ends on April 1 to sign new contracts” with the armed forces.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called Mr Putin an “extremely dangerous man” and said he may be “playing a smoke and mirrors game” by negotiating for peace with Ukraine while attacking the country.

“The first precursor to any successful peace talks has to be a ceasefire and Putin withdrawing his troops from Ukraine,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“It’s very, very difficult for the Ukrainians to negotiate with a gun against their heads, and I am very, very concerned that Putin is playing a smoke and mirrors game of trying to claim that he is seeking peace while at the same time continuing with this appalling war that he instigated and [in which] he is not making the progress that he thought he would.”

Updated: March 16, 2022, 5:00 PM