How Ukraine Prevented Russia a DAY 1 Win
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February 24th, 2022- 05:30 AM local. Russian President Vladimir Putin is going live to millions of people around the world, announcing a special military operation to “de-nazify” Ukraine. Even as Putin announces the beginning of his invasion, two dozen MI-8s are already penetrating Ukrainian airspace. The transport helicopters are carrying over a hundred of Russia's most elite air assault troops, the very cream of the crop of the Russian military. Accompanying them is a flight of Ka-52 attack helicopters to provide escort security and fire support once they arrive at their intended target. The trip is 250 kilometers from their starting bases in Belarus, and the helicopters have been in flight for a half hour by the time the news of the invasion is being broadcast around the world. The entire formation is hot on the heels of a massive missile assault on Ukraine in preparation of the invasion. Kaliber cruise missiles rain down on strategic targets across the nation, prioritizing known air defense sites. Many air defense radars are destroyed, many more however survive.
Yet under intense missile and electronic warfare attack, Russia achieves the only true victory of the war by completely disrupting Ukraine's extremely dense air defense network. It'll take days for the network to reform itself, but for now Russia has near uncontested dominance of the airspace above the nation. But such a long reaching air assault comes with risk, and it would only take one battery of Ukrainian air defenses to destroy the entire assault team. So the helicopters fly fast and low skimming over the treetops. The Vodzushno-destanye voyska Rossii, the Russian name for their Airborne Force, rely on speed, surprise, and more than a fair bit of bravery to seize victory, and if they accomplish their objective today, the war for Ukraine will be over by the end of the week. Hostomel Airport, also known as Antonov airfield, will allow Russia to fly in thousands of troops right on Kyiv's doorstep for a decapitation strike on President Zelensky's regime.
As the helicopters penetrate deep into Ukraine though, the mission planners have made one fatal mistake. Russian troops are not as well equipped as their Western counterparts, and even these elite aviators and paratroopers lack enough night vision equipment to undertake such a risky operation in the dark. Thus, the assault begins right before sunup, but this also gives Ukrainian defenders a clear view of the approaching helicopters. As the choppers near the Dnipro River, they are no longer obscured by tree cover or buildings, giving Ukrainian troops clear lines of fire at the approaching formation. Caught out in the open with no possible means of defending themselves, the helicopter assault immediately comes under fire from heavy machine guns.
One of the MI-8 helicopters is brought under withering cannon fire as bullets riddle the belly of the aircraft and cockpit. Seconds later it drops out of the sky, smashing into the far river bank. A Ka-52 attack helicopter tries to suppress the enemy defenders and unleashes a rocket barrage on a heavy machine gun position. However, as it banks away a soldier using a shoulder-fired Stinger missile lets loose, the missile striking true and blowing the Ka-52 out of the sky. A few hundred meters away another soldier inserts a battery coolant unit into the gripstock of his stinger system. The unit immediately releases high pressure argon gas, the pressure causing the gas to become superchilled. This gas is routed straight to the seeker of the missile, chilling it to sub-zero temperatures. Now ultra-sensitive to heat, the seeker is easily capable of spotting the tell-tale thermal signature of Russian helicopter engines even from a thousand meters away. Squeezing a trigger, the rocket motor is ignited and the missile leaps into the air. The missile is smart enough to tell the difference between a helicopter's engine and its rapidly cooling exhaust, and course corrects to strike a Mi-8 directly below the gearbox.
The helicopter immediately begins to spin out of control, crashing into the water at over 150 kilometers an hour seconds later. A cheer erupts from the defenders, not a single Russian is seeing escaping the rapidly sinking wreck. The air assault however continues unabated, and two dozen helicopters weather the sporadic defensive fire. The Ukrainians have been taken by surprise despite the CIA's warning that an invasion was imminent. However, not all warnings went unheeded, and the airport has had multiple defenses installed over the last two weeks. But a traitor has already given away the location of these defenses to Russian intelligence, and as the assault nears the air field, the Ka-52s take the lead. Each attack chopper knows exactly what target to hit and quickly move to neutralize the heavy machine guns and troop emplacements with cannon and rocket fire.
The Ukrainian defenders manning these positions are taken completely by surprise by the speed of the attack and don't stand a chance. Not all defensive positions are surprised like this though, and soon the sound of helicopters and explosions have put the garrisoned troops to action. These aren't Ukrainian regulars though; these men are mostly reservists who did not expect to be bearing the brunt of an attack by Russia's most elite troops. They are initially overwhelmed, but soon the attacking helicopters come under withering ground fire. The Ka-52s wheel over the air field and launch a fresh volley of rockets and cannon fire, ripping into the defenders. In the distance, the sound of the approaching Mi-8s can be heard and the Ukrainian defenders realize that they are about to be overwhelmed. Serhiy Falatyuk however refuses to break and run, and brings his 9K38 Igla to his shoulder, lining up a shot on an attacking Ka-52. The missile strikes true and the marauding helicopter is sent plummeting to the ground.
The defenders cheer and are rallied, they won't give this airfield up so easily after all. The Russians were told ground fire would be light and sporadic, but as the main air assault begins to enter the air field, they are met with fire that is anything but light and sporadic. Captain Ivan Boldyrev is in one of the lead helicopters when suddenly it is strafed by heavy machine gun fire. The helicopter sputters and stalls in the sky, forcing the pilots to bring it to a very hard and unpleasant stop on the grass below. The men inside are thrown about and jarred in their seat harnesses, but all survive the emergency landing. The attack helos have bought enough breathing room for the Mi-8s to set down, disgorging their complement of paratroopers. The men rush to create a defensive perimeter around their choppers, then squad leaders coordinate with unit commanders to expand the perimeter to nearby buildings.
They're surrounded by Ukrainians, but the reservist and draftees that make up the defending garrison are no match for the attack helicopters and elite paratroopers. To drive the point home, a series of explosions follows the roar of jet engines as a pair of Russian Su-25s lay waste to another Ukrainian position. The jets don't hang around for long, already Ukrainian fighters are on their way. They've done their job though, and the majority of the air assault has successfully landed. The defending troops have been pushed out of the airport in a bloody assault that leaves many of the poorly trained and equipped defenders dead. The Russians take only light casualties. All is going well, and back in Russia, infantry and heavy vehicles are being loaded onto massive Ilyushin II-76 airlifters. Within hours the airport will see the first of these big planes land and disgorge hundreds of troops. With 18 in total on their way to bring troops and equipment, by the end of the day several thousand crack Russian troops will be sitting outside Kyiv.
The perimeter is quiet- for a short time. An American news crew from CNN is covering the air assault within meters of the Russians. The commander of the assault even takes time to pass off a few comments. The airport is secure, he says. However, shots soon ring out along the edge of the airport and the news crew quickly flees. The troops posted along the perimeter are coming under fire from Ukrainian civilians hiding amongst the trees that ring the airport. Hearing of the air assault, local militias have taken upon themselves to quickly respond and lend their aid, only to discover that the defenders had already been overrun. Help is coming though, as the 3rd Special Purpose Regiment, an elite unit of Ukrainian special operations forces, is rapidly moving to counter-attack. These special operators are equipped and trained to NATO standards, having learned directly from American, British, Polish, and French instructors the hard lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are practically chomping at the bit to go after the Russian invaders, but more importantly they know they have to act quickly.
Once the first airlifter lands, their efforts would be too little too late. Ukrainian General Valery Zaluzhny realizes this fact as well, and immediately tasks a nearby artillery unit to begin bombardment of the airport. He also swiftly dispatches the 72nd Mechanized Brigade in a counter-attack on the airport. The Russian defenders are soon once more engaged, this time by a well-organized counter-attack involving Ukrainian regulars and special forces. The Ukrainians operate under the cover of artillery, with two brave helicopter pilots conducting attack runs on the airfields. But the Russians manage to repel the attack with portable anti-tank weapons which tear into the armored vehicles. Automatic grenade launchers further wreak havoc amongst the attacking troops. The Russian defensive perimeter buckles at points, and they are forced to fall back in order to consolidate their position, but they are holding the airport. The time on the arrival of the first Ilyushin is ticking, all the Russians have to do is hold long enough for it to land safely. The Ukrainian force is running into extremely stiff resistance, and without a good fix on enemy positions the artillery is proving ineffective.
They are running out of time and they know it, if they don't push the Russians out in the next few hours it'll all be over. The 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade of the Ukrainian national guard has been quickly assembled and dispatched in their armored vehicles, going full speed towards the airport. Police block off civilian roads to make a clear lane for the armored vehicles. An hour later the first infantry fighting vehicles and tanks of the 4th are arriving at the airport, throwing their weight into the battle. The Russian paratroopers have little heavy equipment to counter this armored threat with, and rely on air cover to deal with the heavy tanks and IFVs of the 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade. Nearly out of anti-tank missiles, the Ka-52 attack helicopters and a pair of Russian bombers are all that stands between the defenders and annihilation under the treads of the Ukrainian tanks. More helicopters are destroyed, but under intense cannon and rocket fire the 4th's tanks and IFVs take heavy losses. Russian air cover can't stick around forever though, as the aircraft are quickly running out of fuel and ordnance. To make matters worse, Ukraine's air force is scrambling to overcome the shock of the attack and the effects of missile strikes against its air fields and hangars. A MiG-29 is screaming towards the airport, and it spells doom for any Russian helicopter or bomber left in the area. Forced to retreat, the paratroopers are now on their own. By now their defensive perimeter has shrunk even more.
The commander of the airborne assault has to make a fateful decision- he cannot possibly guarantee the security of landing aircraft. Knowing that it might spell the doom of him and his men, he radios the information via satellite comms back to headquarters. The Ilyushins are turned around and head back to Russia. The Ukrainian defenders have no idea that they've just won the battle for the airport, but the fighting is far from over. The Georgian National Legion has been fighting in Ukraine since 2014, and in 2016 was officially made part of the Ukrainian armed forces. Legionnaires now rush to reinforce the attack on the airport. A fresh assault bears down on the Russians. They are now out of anti-tank missiles and are running dangerously low on ammunition. Cannon and machine gun fire strafes the buildings of the airport and the Russians realize that they are about to be overrun.
There's only one way to avert an even bigger disaster, and that's to retreat to the safety of the woods to the north of the air field. As the sun begins to set, the paratroopers are ordered to retreat, the men making a mad dash for the safety of the forest outside the airport. Out of ammunition, Georgian Legion commander Mamuka Mamulashvili hops into a civilian vehicle and runs over retreating paratroopers. As night falls, the airport finally goes quiet. But the battle for the heart of Ukraine is not over. North of the airport, a giant Russian armored thrust south out of Belarus has run into unexpectedly stiff resistance at Ivankiv, a key river crossing held by the Ukrainians. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Ukrainians are forced to destroy the bridge. But many tanks and IFVs have already crossed the river. Despite being understrength, they are ordered to immediately make for Antonov airport. The column of armored vehicles comes under attack from Ukrainian special forces and partisans, who spring several ambushes along the road to the airport. Nonetheless, the vehicles push through the ambushes knowing that victory lies in taking and holding the airfield. The Russian paratroopers have had sleepless hours to rest after their retreat from the airport, on alert for Ukrainian partisans and special forces who might be on the hunt for them.
They had been told Ukraine wouldn't put up much of a fight, but they had never expected such fierce resistance. The sound of approaching friendly vehicles lifts their battered spirits though. Refitted and re-equipped, the Russians organize an assault on the airport. Preempting the attack, Russian bombers conduct severla prepatory strikes, inflicting serious damage to the defenders. Ukrainian air defense networks are only now starting to come back online after being forced to disperse from pre-war positions or face destruction. Russia still enjoys the ability to use close air support, and takes full advantage of the fact, bringing withering fire down on the airport's defenders. The assault breaks on the airport with renewed vigor, and a fresh wave of paratrooper’s skirts Ukrainian positions to land more troops.
The tide is turning and the Ukrainian defenders can't hold under the intense pressure of the assault. Forced to retreat, Ukraine once more calls on its artillery- but this time not to attack the Russians, but to pound the runways of the airport. The big guns belch out heavy shells that smash the concrete runways to pieces, and after an hour of bombardment the runways are a mess of craters and debris. The Ukrainians are forced to cede the airport to the overwhelming Russian assault, but they have won the battle for Antonov by default. With the runways out of commission, no troops can be ferried here, making the operation to create the air bridge and quickly win the war a failed one. A parallel assault on nearby Vasylkiv airfield also ends in frustration for the Russians, and leaves them with no hope of flying troops and resupply in. The greater battle for Kyiv has now begun and will rage for the next month, but by the end of its Ukraine will emerge victorious. The war will be decided in the east in the coming months, maybe years, but not within days as Russia foolishly believed it could be.
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