The failure of Russia’s 35-mile armored convoy
Three days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a satellite spotted a massive 10-mile (15.5km) line of armored vehicles in the country’s north. The very same morning, 67-year-old Volodymyr Scherbynyn was standing outside his local supermarket in Bucha, just outside of Kyiv, when more than a hundred Russian military vehicles rolled into town. Both Volodymyr and the satellite witnessed a crucial element of President Vladimir Putin’s strategy for a swift and decisive victory. Additionally, they were witnesses to its failure.
The western press referred to it as a convoy. In actuality, it was a traffic jam and a significant tactical error. 48 hours after the first satellite image, on 28 February 2022, the line of vehicles had grown to a staggering 56 kilometers (35 miles) long. Vehicles were immobilized for weeks. They eventually retreated and vanished seemingly overnight.
What occurred? Why was a force of this magnitude unable to reach Kiev?
A BBC team interviewed dozens of witnesses who had direct contact with the convoy, including military personnel, national and international intelligence services, civilians, veterans, and territorial defense personnel. In addition, it gained access to Russian maps and documents that shed light on the actual nature of the plan and why it failed so spectacularly.
Satellite images of the convoy captured the previous year 2022 Maxar Technologies
The initial hours
The story begins on the first day of the war at the northern border of Ukraine and Belarus.
Vladyslav, a 23-year-old Ukrainian from the 80th Air Assault Brigade, noticed a flurry of bright lights in the night sky as he stepped outside to smoke his first cigarette of the day.
“I recall seeing lights emerge from the entire forest. I initially believed they were car headlights. Then I realized they were Grads [autonomous multiple-missile launchers]. They opened fire on us.”
When the first Russian vehicles entered Ukraine, Vladyslav’s unit was on patrol deep within the forest of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
“The entire planet was trembling. Have you ever been in a tank? There is no comparable sound. It is a potent object.”
As planned, Vladyslav and the rest of the 80th brigade blew up the bridge connecting Chernobyl to the next major city, Ivankiv, in the event of an attack.
The Russians would have to spend time constructing a replacement pontoon bridge, allowing Vladyslav and his unit to retreat to Kiev.
“Initially, I was perplexed; why didn’t we stop them in Chernobyl? However, we needed to learn about our adversary. Thus, this is what we did.”
The Ukrainians could not afford to fire and risk starting another conflict so close to the Belarus border. Before sending their troops into the line of fire, their top priority was to comprehend Russia’s battle plan.
Putin’s grand design
What Vladyslav observed were the initial vehicles of the convoy.
According to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, contrary to many media reports at the time, the 56-kilometer-long (35-mile-long) column consisted of ten separate Russian tactical battalion units.
The Russian army also attacked Ukraine in the east and south, but these 10 units had a specific mission: enter Ukraine from Belarus, overthrow the capital city of Ukraine, and remove the government. In military parlance: a head-on assault.
A Russian document viewed by the BBC reveals the plan’s timeline. After entering Ukraine at 4:00 a.m. on February 24, the first battalion was tasked with advancing directly to Kyiv by 14:55.
Several battalions were to advance to Hostomel, just north of Kiev, in order to reinforce the troops who had been airlifted in to secure the airport.
The remainder were to proceed directly into the heart of Kiev.
Luibov Demydiv (R), a pensioner from Demydiv, indicates on a map where she witnessed the convoy circling after a destroyed bridge halted their advance.
Luibov Demydiv (R), a pensioner from Demydiv, indicates on a map where she saw the convoy circling after a destroyed bridge halted their advance.
The assault relied heavily on two factors: secrecy and speed.
According to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British security think tank, if Russia keeps its plans for an attack on the capital secret, it could outnumber Ukrainian forces in the north of Kiev by a ratio of 12 to 1.
Putin’s secrecy, however, came at a price. His deception was so effective that the majority of his commanders did not receive their orders until twenty-four hours before the invasion.
This left them exposed from a tactical standpoint. They were without food, fuel, and maps. They lacked adequate communication tools. They were short on ammunition. Even for winter weather, they were ill-equipped.
Equipped with the incorrect tires and surrounded by snow, the Russians drove directly into a mud pit. According to locals, Russian soldiers instructed Ukrainian farmers to assist in pulling their tanks out of the mud.
In order to avoid soft ground, the Russian vehicles had to detour onto paved roads, forcing thousands of them to form a single column.
Due to the lack of communication between the battalions, they quickly converged into a massive traffic jam.
According to one military expert on the ground: “You never travel in a large convoy into hostile territory. Ever.”
We were able to map the terrain traversed by the convoy between the outbreak of war and the end of March based on witness testimony and military intelligence from the Ukrainian government. By avoiding fields, vehicles ended up on the majority of the major roads north of Kyiv.