Russian troops arrived in the town of Makariv just four days after Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This week, Ukrainian authorities claimed to have retaken the town, 65km west of Kyiv, in a daring counter-attack that sent Russian forces into retreat.
Andriy Nebytov, the Kyiv chief of police, posted a video on Facebook showing him dressed in full combat gear, visiting the damaged and seemingly deserted town. In one scene he picks up what looks like a crumpled Ukrainian flag.
“As long as our flag lives,” he later said in a statement, “our army lives.”
The next day the Ukrainian defence ministry declared that “the state flag of Ukraine was raised over the city of Makariv, the enemy was driven back”. It seemed to imply that the town had been liberated from Russian control.
The “liberation” story went viral on social media. And news outlets around the world reported that the Russians had indeed been pushed back in Makariv. But it was untrue. Makariv has not been liberated. Putin’s troops had only controlled a sixth of the town its mayor, Vadim Tokar, tells the Financial Times. And they are still there.
In Ukraine, two wars are being waged in parallel: the real one and the virtual one. Sometimes they tally but increasingly they don’t.
Yet the story of Makariv also provides a snapshot of the conflict one month after Putin unleashed the biggest military offensive in Europe since the second world war: neither side has the upper hand in what is becoming a static war of attrition.
What was supposed to be a lightning Russian ground incursion has shuddered to a halt, crippled by broken supply lines, tactical mistakes, low morale and determined Ukrainian resistance. Russia’s army, the largest in Europe, lacks the manpower and the tactics to punch through Ukrainian defences. For several days it has made no notable advances. Increasingly the Kremlin is resorting to use of indiscriminate force — missiles, rockets and artillery fired from long distances — to level Ukrainian cities. According to analysts and western officials, Russian forces outside Kyiv this week began to dig in behind defensive positions.
The stalemate may explain why Russia’s top army commanders on Friday said the war had entered a new phase focusing on the eastern Donbas region, were some 40,000 Ukrainian troops risk being encircled by Russian forces. Sergei Rudskoy, head of the Russian army’s main operations directorate of the general staff, said Moscow’s strategy all along had not been to seize Ukraine’s main cities but to distract and weaken its defences before the “full liberation” of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“It is clear that most parts of the Russian offensive are now bogged down,” says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, a think-tank. “Supplies aren’t getting through, soldiers are getting hungry, vehicles don’t have petrol, ammunition is running out and so on.”
Western officials and analysts say Russia’s forces may be reaching the so-called point of culmination, where an army weighed down by losses, fatigue and supply problems can no longer advance and fails in its objectives, a theory developed by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz.
“Any complex, military heavy force starts to get bogged down, get stuck,” says Ben Wallace, the UK defence minister.
“You only have to see the open-source pictures of T-80 tanks stuck in the mud in significant numbers, with no one ever around by the looks of things, they seem to have done a runner,” adds Wallace. “Those are all sorts of characteristics of a culminating force.”
‘Just the beginning’
Ukrainian forces have in recent days launched counter-attacks, sometimes with spectacular results. On Thursday, a Ukrainian missile struck a Russian landing ship berthed in the captured southern port of Berdyansk.
Western officials have cautiously endorsed Ukrainian claims of a counter offensive. A senior US defence official said on Thursday that Ukrainian forces had pushed their Russian opponents further out from the east of Kyiv — to a distance of 55km from between 20-30km away earlier in the week.
The extent of Ukrainian territorial gains to the west of Kyiv is harder to assess and in some cases government claims are contradicted by local officials. An update from Ukrainian military chiefs on Friday made no mention of counter-attacks, summing up operations around the capital as “repelling the enemy’s offensive actions, inflicting fire damage on the occupants and maintaining all the defined boundaries of defence”.
Whatever the real extent of Ukraine’s counter-attacks, it is clear that it is holding the line against Russian invaders at critical points, such as Kharkiv in the north, Mykolayiv in the south and Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv regarded as a gateway to the capital. Ukrainian forces are still fighting hard to stop Russian troops from taking over Mariupol, the besieged port city in the south-east.
The morale of Ukrainian forces is high but they are fast running out of weapons and new equipment promised by the US and others needs to be delivered immediately to hold their positions let alone push the Russians into any major retreat.
The prospect of a long, drawn-out conflict — possibly akin to the Donbas war after 2014 but on a larger scale — has forced western leaders this week to reassess how they prop up Ukraine over the longer term and how they might respond if Moscow tries to regain the initiative by using weapons of mass destruction.
At a Nato summit in Brussels on Thursday, leaders of the 30-strong military alliance agreed they must adapt their support for Kyiv.
“There is a need to keep this sustainable. Nobody knows how long this will go on for. [Nato leaders] considered the possibility that Putin [will] just grind on, get stuck, bogged down into a war of attrition, and how we can sustain our support for Ukraine in those circumstances,” says a senior western official present at the meeting.
Western weapon supplies, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, have been critical in sustaining Ukraine’s defence. Officials in those countries are now planning to expand the number of supply routes into Ukraine to reduce the reliance on a single distribution hub in southern Poland and lessen the risk of Russia disrupting the convoys.
Boris Johnson said after the Nato summit that the UK and its allies would “ramp up lethal aid to Ukraine at scale”. But the British prime minister noted that these supplies are “just the beginning. We must support a free and democratic Ukraine in the long term.
“This is a fellow European democracy fighting a war of national defence,” he added.
Regrouping in the Donbas
Western leaders warn that Putin is likely to respond to Russia’s inability to make gains by deploying more violence, including possible chemical or biological weapons.
Nato agreed on Thursday to both activate its own chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapon defences, and to begin sending equipment to Ukraine to detect, protect and help mitigate the damage caused by weapons of mass destruction.
“We are taking measures both to support Ukraine and to defend ourselves,” secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said, citing Russia’s use of chemical weapons against dissidents, such as Alexei Navalny, and its support for the Assad regime in Syria, which used chemical weapons against its own people during the war in that country.
“We are close to stalemate . . . that is clear. After one month, Russia has achieved almost none of its strategic objectives, but it is stalled in Kyiv. They are stalled in talks,” says a senior Nato defence official. “But the price of it is absolutely horrendous when you see that . . . what they do is techniques from world war two.”
It is unclear whether Russia will actually pull back forces from the rest of the country to concentrate on the east or whether Friday’s statement was intended to explain Russia’s failure to make advances in recent days.
Western officials and analysts warned earlier this week that the Kremlin might refocus its offensive on the Donbas. About a quarter of Ukraine’s land forces, including some of its best trained units, are fighting there and defeat would deliver a blow to President Volodymyr Zelensky. It would also secure a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, and possibly allow Putin to declare “victory” back home.
The US defence official says the Donbas region has “become much more active for Russian forces . . . they have applied a lot more energy in the area”.
“Of all areas, it’s where I have the greatest concerns,” the western official adds. “The good thing is there are 10 brigades there of Ukraine’s best troops, who are in defensive positions — they’ve been dug in since 2014 — and are a really good force.”
Before the Russian statement on Friday, in places such as Makariv, Russian troops were digging in for the long haul. To get to Makariv means taking back roads and dirt tracks and passing through village road blocks manned by armed locals. When the FT attempted to visit this week, the final leg of the journey was cut short by shelling.
On the edge of the town, Tokar, the 39-year old mayor — armed and in combat fatigues — describes how late last month a column of Russian armoured personnel carriers and tanks had been stopped by lightly armed locals, members of the new volunteer Territorial Defence Force.
After this, he says, the Ukrainian army brought in artillery and used its Turkish-built Bayraktar drones to stop the Russians advancing further. But they had not been able to expel them from their positions.
As for the story of the flag, Tokar says it came off a damaged flagpole and he had hung it back on the side of an official building. “It is part of our identity,” he says. “All Ukrainian cities have one, only occupied ones do not.”
From the fields around Makariv on Wednesday came the regular sound of what appeared to be both incoming and outgoing shelling. Columns of smoke billowed above the town. According to Tokar, there were 15,000 people in Makariv before the war and now there are fewer than 1,000.
Asked if it was safe for anyone to return home, in the wake of optimistic reports of its liberation, his response was categorical: “One hundred per cent no.”