The helicopter-led attack by Russian paratroopers on the Hostomel airfield north of Kyiv on day one of the invasion started an operation whose success could have significantly boosted Moscow’s hope of seizing control of Kyiv in a lightning assault.
But its difficulties in securing the heavily strategic runway underscored both the level of Ukraine’s fierce resistance and the high-risk nature of Russia’s invasion strategy, that has brought mixed results, said intelligence officials and defence analysts.
“What’s clear is that if Moscow had hopes of quick and easy gains, they were terribly optimistic,” said Michael Kofman, senior research scientist at CNA, a US-based think-tank.
“Some of the big risks taken by the Russian military . . . don’t appear driven by sensible operational requirements,” he said. “Moscow’s thinking on this war seems to have been coloured by war optimism.”
Those early disappointments were still only likely to delay, rather than change, Russia’s ultimate goal of capturing Kyiv and unseating the administration of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, said western officials.
Russian forces were eventually able to fend off Ukrainian counter-attacks and hold Hostomel, in Kyiv’s north-west suburbs, late on Friday but only after significant damage to the airstrip.
Moscow had targeted the facility with the intention of using it to fly in large numbers of assault troops aimed at a swift capture of the capital. Those airborne deployments were instead diverted to an airfield 250km away in Belarus, Russia’s ally in the war, and forced to travel south by land.
The initial failure to capture and hold Hostomel has played a big role in Russia’s slower-than-hoped advance on Kyiv, said western officials, who added that Russia has also made less progress than Moscow had expected in the east of the country.
The Pentagon on Saturday said the Russian military appeared to be “increasingly frustrated” at the slow progress, and that its momentum was being slowed by “fierce resistance”.
A senior US defence official said Russia was facing the stiffest resistance on two offensive axes: from Belarus towards Kyiv and the assault on the eastern city of Kharkiv, where he said there was still “heavy fighting”.
“The Putin plan was a short, decisive victory. A lot of guys were saying, ‘It’ll take five minutes, or two hours, and Ukraine will collapse’. Well, they’re not. The coming week is going to be really decisive,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military expert.
The early stages of Russia’s invasion had a heavy focus on airborne troops. The attack began with intense cruise missile strikes on crucial Ukrainian defence assets, including more than a dozen airfields, followed by assaults by special forces and paratroopers on important landing sites that would have facilitated the rapid deployment of more troops.
Western officials cautioned that Russian military commanders may now shift from that targeted approach to a broader ground assault, after ratcheting up the number of troops involved in the invasion.
The US official on Saturday said that more than half of the close to 150,000 combat troops that Russia had assembled on the borders of Ukraine in preparation for the invasion had been deployed, up sharply from one-third on Friday.
“In the Kremlin they’ll now be reflecting on the plan not going as it was thought, and there will be all sorts of challenges around the logistics of supporting sustained combat they were not expecting,” said James Heappey, UK armed forces minister.
The setbacks increased the chances that Russia would resort to heavy artillery bombardment, Heappey told the BBC. “What lies ahead for Ukraine are days of utter brutality,” he said.
On Saturday afternoon, Ukraine still controlled much of the capital, despite some Russian incursions to the north and west of the city and heavy fighting overnight, including some artillery strikes on residential buildings.
“Ukrainians have been defending extremely bravely and with enormous courage,” said a western official, who cautioned that Russia’s significantly larger military capabilities meant that Ukraine’s resistance could not last indefinitely.
“We held firm . . . We have withstood and successfully repelled enemy attacks,” Zelensky said in a televised address. “We broke their plan.”
Ukraine said it had destroyed more than 100 Russian tanks and killed 3,500 Russian troops. Military claims of losses on both sides cannot be independently verified.
Felgenhauer said one critical victory that the Kremlin hoped for — a warm welcome from Ukrainians who see Russia as their historical brothers — had dramatically failed to materialise.
“Maybe they believe their own propaganda that the Ukrainians will meet the Russian liberators with flowers, that the Ukrainian military will lay down their arms and everything will be nicely all wrapped up,” he said.
“That’s the main problem . . . The Ukrainian people see they can fight back,” he added. “This war could become a very serious problem for Russia.”
Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv