Written by Adrien Fontanellaz & Tom Cooper
During the early hours of 24 February 2022, Moscow launched its so-called "special military operation" in Ukraine, which was expected to stun the Ukrainians into submission in a matter of days thanks to the swift advance of multiple mechanized columns converging on the capital and other crucial areas, along with airborne assaults and decapitation strikes. To undertake its regime-change operation, the Russians had massed a staggering 127 Battalion Tactical Groups – in essence regular mechanized, airborne or tank battalions, each heavily reinforced with several artillery batteries and other support units – around Ukraine, controlled by at least nine combined arms or tank army commands, in turn attached to either the Western or the Southern Military District.
This was an arsenal of staggering proportions, and the very best the Russian Army could muster: more than 200,000 men, at least 12,000 armoured vehicles of all kinds, including main battle tanks (MBTs), self-propelled guns (SPGs), armoured personals carriers (APCs), infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAP) and a vast array of more specialized machines. The bulk of this arsenal consisted of either recent designs or heavily modernised older designs, such as the T-90 and T-72B3 tanks, BMP-3 and BTR-82 IFVs, or Pantsir air-defence systems to name a few. The Russian Aerospace Force (VKS) had mustered roughly 60 percent of its combat assets with hundreds of the dreaded state-of-the-art Su-35S, Su-30MS, Su-34 or heavily modernised Su-25, together with dozens of Mi-28, Ka-52 and Mi-35 attack helicopters lying in wait at their airbases located within striking range of Ukraine. The Russian Army was widely assessed as a deadly fighting machine, whose infamous "fire-reconnaissance complex” had not only savaged a series of Ukrainian Battalion Tactical Groups in the Donbass in 2014 and 2015, but also turned the tables in Syria from 2015 onwards by almost single-handily saving the Assadist regime.
But, and to the surprise of many, the entire Russian operation was derailed in just a few days. The Ukrainian army proved to be something entirely different to the underfunded, corrupt and ill-trained force so badly beaten in the summer of 2014 and reacted by offering from the onset, and despite some initial confusion, much fiercer resistance than anyone – primarily the top Russian commanders – expected. Gradually, it appeared that since 2014 Kyiv had not only massively expanded its army, but also entirely retrained it – thanks partly to intensive NATO support – and reshuffled its doctrine to integrate the lessons drawn from the 2014 defeat. Perhaps even more surprisingly is that in a matter of days, a number of NATO members, foremost the USA, began massive support to the Ukrainians by delivering weapons and unheard-of amounts of intelligence, thereby giving them a crucial edge. Thus began the fiercest conventional war to erupt in Europe since the Second World War, where almost all imaginable kinds of weaponry have been deployed, from decades-old tanks to the latest-generation laser-guided shells, cruise missiles, ATGMs and UAVs, with at least half a million troops from both sides fighting each other.
Image taken at a front line position near Yasynuvata, Donetsk People’s Republic (May 2019). These fighters are local (from Donetsk) but refuse to be governed by what they describe as ‘fascists in Kiev’ hence why they decided to take up arms.Photographer Dean Obrian
To be honest, the all-out Russian attack surprised number of us at Helion, as we thought that any attempt to invade Ukraine could only trigger a protracted conflict and that therefore, Moscow would never bet on such a high-risk gamble. Therefore, we understood the widely publicised Russian build-up during the preceding months as an exercise in muscle flexing and sabre rattling to coerce the Ukrainians into concessions on the diplomatic front. It was only a few days beforehand, when the Russians began to paint tactical markings on their vehicles, and mounted improvised cages on their tank turrets to counter top-attack missiles such as the Javelin, that we began to feel increasingly concerned. Even though we all felt stunned, almost depressed, on that infamous 24th of February, because the tragedy had begun and through studying conflict and warfare for most of our lives, we were all too familiar with the devastation which always comes, the waste of countless innocent lives, the ruin of crucial infrastructure and the immense suffering, hate and the grief that wars never fail to leave in their wake.
Almost instantly, several of us also felt we needed to cooperate even more intensively together, if only to be able to cope with and process the massive amounts of information and disinformation which almost continuously floods social and mass media, thus trying to sort out the proverbial needles from the haystack. We did it for a purpose; trying to publish as fast as we could a narrative of this ongoing war, as well as its origins. Of course, this will never be "exhaustive, "all-encompassing" or "definite" – this is already an impossibility when one works, as we do, on the subject of "unknown" or "little previously researched" wars that occurred decades ago, no to mention an ongoing conflict, but as always, we intend to do our very best to provide our readers with the best possible coverage and in the best Helion & Company fashion. Because, in the end, this is simply what we have always done; researching, collecting and assessing information, trying to make sense out of this and put it into writing, and hoping that by doing so, we make a valuable contribution to the understanding of the so-called "contemporary" history. It is thus our privilege to announce our mini-series dedicated to the Ukraine wars, whose first two volumes will be dedicated to offering an in-depth study of the armed forces of the separatist republics, and of the first phase of the current war, from 24 February to 31 March 2022 respectively.
Ukraine War Volume 1 Coming Soon.