As Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, members of a Ukrainian special forces unit deployed to defend the strategic Hostomel airport outside Kyiv were stunned by what they saw as dawn broke: some 30 Russian attack helicopters coming over the horizon, speeding toward the airport.
An added surprise was that the helicopters were moving on their own toward Hostomel, without supporting ground forces or barrages of long-range missile fire to weaken the Ukrainian defences. It was as if they expected no resistance at all.
The Ukrainians, however, intended to resist. The defenders of Hostomel – a mix of regular soldiers and reservists that the special forces unit had been sent to bolster – opened fire with everything they had. The anti-aircraft weapons supplied by Western countries, which would prove so effective later in the war, hadn’t yet been delivered, so the Ukrainians shot at the helicopters with machine guns, as well as Soviet-era anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. Videos taken that day show at least three Russian KA-52 helicopters were hit.
The surprise attack briefly allowed Russian paratroopers, several hundred of them, to capture Hostomel. Sustained control of the cargo airport would have enabled Russia to begin landing tanks and artillery right on the edge of Kyiv in the first hours of the invasion. Some 18 Ilyushin cargo planes were reportedly on standby in Belarus to begin the airlift of military equipment that could have led to a quick capture of the Ukrainian capital.
But the Russian assault was as risky as it was brazen – reflecting the Kremlin’s apparent belief that the Ukrainian army would not put up a significant fight, and that a large part of the population would welcome Russian troops. Shortly after landing, the Russian paratroopers found themselves surrounded on all sides and taking heavy losses as the Ukrainians were reinforced by their own paratroopers – as well as fighters from the Georgian Legion, a unit of battle-hardened foreign volunteers.
By nightfall, all the Russian troops – some of the country’s most elite forces – had either died, surrendered or fled. Even more importantly, Hostomel’s airstrip had been rendered inoperable in the fighting, destroying the Kremlin’s plans.
This account of the fighting at Hostomel is based on the records and recollections of two Ukrainian special forces members who participated in the battle. Looking back, they remain stunned by the strange first hours of the Russian invasion.
“I would say these tactics would work in a Third World country against a Third World army, but shooting at these choppers wasn’t a critical problem for us,” one of the special forces fighters, 32-year-old Volodymyr, told The Globe and Mail in an interview this week. “Their tactics didn’t work because they were told there would be no resistance – and their plans were designed in this way.”
Though Russian forces later recaptured Hostomel, the airlift to Kyiv was no longer possible, and when the same troops crossed overland from Belarus the Ukrainians fought the invaders to a standstill on the outskirts of the capital. At the end of March, Russia ended its assault on Kyiv and redeployed the forces that had been fighting there to eastern Ukraine, which is now the main front of the war.
The Russian withdrawal allowed Volodymyr and the other men in his unit, who usually operate in a small group of five or six fighters carrying out dangerous tasks at or behind the front line, to be the first to see the horrors left behind in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv that was the headquarters of the occupation force, and where mass executions and other war crimes appear to have been committed.
The two special forces members who spoke about their experiences, Volodymyr and Dmytro, met with The Globe in Kyiv this week while in the capital for recuperation and retraining after Dmytro sustained a concussion on April 12 in the fighting around Izyum, a town in the eastern Kharkiv region that has fallen under Russian control as the fighting in the east has intensified.
The Globe is not using the family names or unit details of Volodymyr, a native of the Kharkiv region, or Dmytro, a 31-year-old from Poltava region, in Ukraine’s centre-east, because they were not authorized to give media interviews.
Both men believe that Ukraine will have to adjust its tactics – and receive even more military aid from its allies in the West – in order to stop the new Russian offensive in the east, which has seen Russian troops capture several towns this week. While drones and small units of special forces played an oversized role in the defence of Kyiv, the battle in the east is shaping up to be an old-fashioned clash of armies, with Russia holding the edge because of its superior air force, as well as its arsenal of long-range artillery and rockets.
The fighters echoed Ukrainian government calls for the West to deliver long-range artillery and anti-aircraft systems to the Ukrainian army as soon as possible. “We need weapons that can keep them at a distance,” said Viktor Chumak, a former Ukrainian MP who served as an artillery specialist in the Soviet army. “We don’t need more weapons, we need better.”
Canada recently promised $500-million in military aid to Ukraine, a package that is supposed to include long-range artillery. No timeline for the delivery of the weapons has been made public.
Volodymyr and Dmytro’s account of the battle of Hostomel is corroborated by Mamuka Mamulashvili, the commander of the Georgian Legion, who was also involved. “We had no weapons to shoot helicopters, only 50-calibre machine guns, but it worked very good,” Mr. Mamulashvili said. He claimed that his men shot down one of the three destroyed helicopters.
The Russian tactics were bewildering to the Georgians as well. “Putin has never had objective information about the real ability of his armed forces … he never knew the real ability, what they can do on the battlefield,” said Mr. Mamulashvili, who has been fighting Russian troops since a 1990s war in his native Georgia.
Both Volodymyr and Dmytro have GoPro videos of fighting saved to their phones, which they showed The Globe as evidence of some of the battles they had participated in over the first two months of the war. They described their main task as operating covertly behind enemy lines to ambush tanks and disrupt supply lines.
Their assessment of the different challenges Ukraine will face on the eastern front is supported by Ukrainian and Western military analysts The Globe spoke to. While the Kyiv region is densely forested and split by rivers – near-ideal terrain for special forces operations – much of eastern Ukraine is a broad, flat steppe, making Russia’s numerical advantage more important.
“Theoretically they will have a better force density ratio, so that should help them,” Konrad Muzyka, a Polish military analyst, said of the Russian forces. “But also they are now using troops which are quite battered, so I am not sure to what extent this will work.”
In a sign of how unprepared Ukraine was for the initial Russian attack – President Volodymyr Zelensky had downplayed the possibility of invasion until just days before it happened – the special forces fighters said they were put on war footing and deployed to Hostomel less than 24 hours before the war began.
Though they had seen some triumphs, neither Volodymyr nor Dmytro was in a celebratory mood after what they and their country had been through over 58 days of war.
When their unit entered Bucha as Russian forces withdrew from the region at the end of March, they found the town battle-scarred. Volodymyr, a tall and earnest man with broad shoulders and short brown hair, said residents mistook the group for armed civilians at first. “But when we said ‘We’re the Ukrainians, we’re back,’ they started to cry,” he said.
The unit soon came to understand why Bucha residents were crying. Bodies of civilians, many of whom appeared to have died days or weeks before, lay in the streets. An old woman, who said she hadn’t eaten bread in a month, came begging for food. “All these frightened [Russians] were shooting at everyone so no one would shoot at them,” said Dmytro, a muscled fighter with a neat black beard who said he has been in the military since he was 18. “They were literally afraid of everyone. All of the bodies in the streets were within eyesight of the Russian positions.”
More than 500 bodies, many of them shot in their heads with their hands tied behind their backs, have been recovered in Bucha since the Russian withdrawal. There have been accounts of Russian troops committing torture and organized rape in the area.
After a visit to Bucha and the nearby town of Borodyanka, Karim Khan, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, said there were “reasonable grounds” to believe Russian forces had committed war crimes.
There was no time for the members of the special forces unit to process the horrors they had seen in Bucha before they were deployed to the east, as the main Russian offensive shifted there.
The unit’s experience in the fighting around Izyum illustrates the greater challenges Ukraine will face defending its eastern flank. While Dmytro has a mobile phone full of evidence of the successes the unit had fighting around Kyiv, the same strategies did not work on the new battleground.
The battle for a key crossroads near Izyum was similar to a series of firefights the unit had been engaged in around the capital. A group of Ukrainian special forces fighters, 15 in this case, tried to ambush a group of five Russian tanks.
But this time Russian drones patrolled the sky, watching the movements of the Ukrainians. As the Ukrainians crept forward, a tank shell landed near the group. Dmytro and two colleagues were wounded. “It wasn’t bad tactics. They just control the sky,” Volodymyr said, adding that his unit was lucky not to have sustained fatalities.
As Russia’s army grinds forward in eastern Ukraine, it is using its long-range weapons to keep the Ukrainians at bay – often demolishing entire villages and towns in the process. The scorched-earth tactic is drawn right from the Soviet military playbook, the Ukrainian fighters said: destroy everything in their path, and crush all resistance in the process.
Volodymyr and Dmytro are worried about what comes next, particularly if the promised Western arms don’t arrive soon enough. On Friday, Russian state media quoted a senior general saying Russia’s war aim is now to capture all of southern and eastern Ukraine, creating a territorial link between Russia and the occupied Crimean Peninsula, as well as the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova, west of Ukraine, where Russian forces are already stationed.
“The story is absolutely different now,” Dmytro said of the second phase of the war. “People have the spirit to fight to the end, but we need to be supplied with the equipment to do the job.”
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