July 13, 2024
Most Ukrainians to this day will recall how impossible the prospect of a full-scale invasion felt before it happened.

The battle that saved Kyiv from Russian occupation

Editor’s Note: This article was published by the blog “The Counteroffensive with Tim Mak” on Feb. 22, 2024, and has been re-published by the Kyiv Independent with permission. To subscribe to “The Counteroffensive,” click here.

In the first hours of his full-scale invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his most elite troops to get behind enemy lines to an airfield right outside Kyiv that was normally used for cargo and flight testing – Antonov Airport in Hostomel. Dozens of helicopters ferried hundreds of Russian airborne soldiers to within striking distance of the capital city’s central district.

Despite courageous efforts by Ukrainian special operators and the National Guard’s 4th Brigade to defend the grounds, by 3:00 p.m. on Feb. 24, 2022, Ukrainian forces were forced to pull back to the strategic site’s perimeter.

This single moment was the point of maximum danger and vulnerability for the survival of the modern Ukrainian state. Having taken the airfield in an air assault, Russian forces now had the opportunity to land massive cargo planes filled with armored vehicles and thousands of troops right in the suburbs of Kyiv. With that ability, the city could fall within hours and, with it, the democratically-elected government.

It fell to Col. Oleksandr Vdovychenko, the commander of Ukraine’s 72nd Brigade, to ensure the ukraine warRussians couldn’t hold the airfield. But Vdovychenko didn’t have much to work with. He told Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, that a mere four pieces of  2S3 artillery, Soviet-era guns firing 152.4mm rounds, were en route to firing positions near the airfield. Everything else was still being unloaded from train carriages in Kyiv. Zaluzhnyi ordered that they open fire on the runway as soon as they could – they needed to disable it immediately.

“The Battle for Kyiv could have ended with a Russian victory had they taken the airfield,” said Nick Reynolds, a research fellow at the British think tank RUSI. “Russian offensive operations would have been much easier.”

During the disorganized, frenzied battle that followed, Ukrainian resistance – and luck – turned the entire tide of the war. This epic, 36-hour battle pierced the idea of Russian military superiority and a quick military victory and prevented Kyiv from falling into Russian hands. It’s why we’re talking about fighting in the east of Ukraine now rather than fighting in the west.

And it’s arguably why President Volodymyr Zelensky is still alive.

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