Hundreds of Ukrainians huddled under the shattered bridge over the Irpin river outside Kyiv in the early days of the war appeared to show the hopelessness of the Ukrainian cause, as Russian forces advanced on the capital.
Five weeks on, Ukrainian forces have retaken what was left of Irpin after fierce shelling forced the Russians holding it to retreat — one of several territorial gains around the capital and elsewhere in the country in recent days that have put the invaders on the back foot.
“They [the Russians] thought they would in one quick sprint roll in and capture Kyiv,” Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of the city’s defences, told the Financial Times from a frontline position close to the nearby Hostomel airport. “But they lost their best forces,” he said. “They did not calculate on . . . our ability to mobilise our forces.”
The Ukrainians have made use of guerrilla-style counter-attacks to retake territory and deliver a series of body blows to an enemy that can call on superior forces.
Irpin, for example, was supposed to be an easy bridgehead for the Russians to roll into Kyiv. But Ukraine’s decision to blow up the bridges into the capital delayed Russia’s advance, forcing them to try to go around and leaving them exposed to shelling and western-supplied anti-tank weapons.
In several locations, Russian troops and armour were repelled by smaller, highly motivated Ukrainian units who exploited their superior intelligence-gathering capabilities to establish where the enemy columns were located.
“Our fighting spirit is a main factor,” said a commander called Volodymyr from a freshly dug trench outside Kyiv. “The support from the population has been hugely motivating. They’re feeding us, even providing equipment and materials to dig new trenches.”
A top Ukrainian commander said on Thursday that Russia’s forces had withdrawn nearly 700 military vehicles from positions north of Kyiv, having failed to break through towards the capital.
To the north-west of Kyiv, the Ukrainians have retaken Irpin while fierce fighting has raged around the suburb of Bucha and the contested Hostomel airport, fought over tooth and tail since the war began in one of the conflict’s most emblematic battles.
In the south, especially around Mykolayiv, successful counter-attacks have blunted the Russian advance on the strategic port city of Odesa. Ukraine also claims to have made gains around the northern city of Chernihiv, only 100km from the Russian border.
Even control of Kherson, the only large city captured by Russian troops so far, is contested, according to US intelligence reports.
“Nobody has such a strong spirit and unity as we Ukrainians,” said Serhiy, a soldier involved in the defence of Kyiv. “We’ll fight to the end.”
The counter-attacks have emboldened Ukrainian fighters and broken the Russian attack by exploiting its vulnerabilities: stretched logistics, poor supplies, no local knowledge and low morale. This is especially true of Russian conscripts, many of whom reportedly did not know they had been shipped to the Ukrainian border to attack the country.
Moscow has depicted its losses very differently. The defence ministry said this week that Russia was moving into the “final phase” of operations after “achieving all the main tasks” in northern Ukraine. Troops would be rotated out of Kyiv so as to “liberate” the Donbas region in the east, it said.
Western defence officials and analysts stressed that the Ukrainian counter-attacks and the shift in Russian military focus did not mean Ukraine was on the edge of victory.
“There’s not been a total reversal on the ground,” one said. “We’re not seeing a turning of the tide, even though there are areas where Ukrainian forces are having some success.”
As Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, emphasised this week: “The scale of the challenges has not diminished. The Russian army still has significant potential to continue attacks against our state.”
One challenge Ukrainians face is that, as Russia concentrates efforts on the Donbas, it will be better able to iron out the flaws in logistics and supplies that dogged the initial attack.
“As they withdraw to more defensive positions [in the north] that will also make their supply lines shorter, which should help,” the official said. “Just because Russian troops have drawn back [don’t think] there’s necessarily a reduction in threat.”
A tenet of Russian military doctrine also stresses the idea of “offensive defence” — premised on defeating an opponent by buying time, preserving forces and using artillery and missile strikes to degrade the enemy, analysts said. They noted how shelling had continued in the Kyiv suburbs and elsewhere in recent days.
Russia is generating at least 10 new battalion tactical groups, which typically have about 700 troops, and armour and artillery, to send to the Donbas, according to western intelligence.
“The war continues,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, a former military intelligence officer and currently a Zelensky administration adviser.
Ukraine will also need a continued flow of weaponry if it is to keep up its counter-attacks. The west has supplied a range of arms, notably shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles, but Zelensky has repeatedly called for them to send tanks, aircraft and artillery systems.
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One area where Ukraine can press the advantage is via a “diplomatic counter-attack” in the peace discussions with Russia. While talks were held this week in Turkey, Kyiv said Moscow was still insisting on unacceptable territorial gains over the Donbas and occupied Crimea.
US and European officials have voiced scepticism about Russia’s sincerity and commitment towards the talks, and said only a full ceasefire, troop withdrawal and return of captured territory would trigger discussions over lifting sanctions on Russia’s economy.
“It’s a good time for the Ukrainians to pin down the issues they want while the momentum is there and European unity and support still holds,” said Sergio Jaramillo, a former Colombian defence official who designed the country’s peace process with rebel forces, and who is now an adviser with the European Institute of Peace in Brussels.
“It’s always best to negotiate when you are at your strongest and for the Ukrainians that may be now,” he said.
Additional reporting by Andres Schipani in Lviv