Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Is Just Beginning

Russia has only sent in a third of the troops it had deployed near Ukraine.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Members of the territorial defense battalion organize a military redoubt on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Members of the territorial defense battalion organize a military redoubt on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Members of the territorial defense battalion organize a military redoubt on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia has only deployed around one-third of its amassed forces into Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official said in a briefing to reporters on Friday, underscoring the risk of a significant escalation as Russian troops enter the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv. 

Though the official did not provide the evidence behind the U.S. intelligence finding, it comes as Ukrainian forces and civilians are preparing to fight a pitched battle to repel Russian forces from the capital city 

Military experts say there are a number of possible reasons why Russia hasn’t deployed the full brunt of its force into Ukraine.

Russia has only deployed around one-third of its amassed forces into Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official said in a briefing to reporters on Friday, underscoring the risk of a significant escalation as Russian troops enter the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv. 

Though the official did not provide the evidence behind the U.S. intelligence finding, it comes as Ukrainian forces and civilians are preparing to fight a pitched battle to repel Russian forces from the capital city 

Military experts say there are a number of possible reasons why Russia hasn’t deployed the full brunt of its force into Ukraine.

The invading forces have so far largely relied on traveling by road, as opposed to plowing across the Ukrainian countryside, creating a natural bottleneck. “You can only send so many forces in at a time,” said Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Lee also said the Russians are likely holding forces in reserve in case they encounter pockets of fierce resistance but that there has been little evidence that Russia has been truly routed at any point in its campaign. 

The U.S. Defense Department estimates Russia has fired over 200 missiles into Ukraine since the war began early Thursday morning local time, and Russian forces have already reached Kyiv. Yet analysts stressed that the war is still in its very early stages. 

“I think they’re assessing in the first 48 hours what they sense the Ukrainian resistance is, where they plan to reinforce units, and how the initial axis of attack is doing, to decide where to allocate their forces,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the think tank CNA.

In Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s two largest cities, families are sleeping in subway stations as improvised bomb shelters as Russian missiles have struck military targets around both cities. 

In a briefing on Friday, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova said Russian forces had struck a number of civilian sites in Ukraine, including ambulances and an orphanage in the village of Vorzel with 50 children in it, although none were injured in the attack. As the war unfolds, there is little independent data on civilian and military casualties. 

Markarova said the country’s prosecutor general is gathering evidence for any future international tribunals. According to Human Rights Watch, a cluster munition struck outside a hospital in the Donetsk region, killing four people. 

While civilian targets have been struck, analysts said the Russians have not pursued a strategy of indiscriminate bombing. “It’s pretty clear that the goal of this operation has been to minimize civilian casualties,” Lee said. He said this suggests the Russians may be seeking to minimize resentment among Ukrainians in the event that they seek to install a puppet government after ousting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “It’s all about Kyiv, it’s all about Zelensky,” he said of Russia’s goal. 

But things could easily get worse. Experts said Russia has already moved multiple rocket launch systems, which can saturate battlefields with thousands of rockets, to the outskirts of major Ukrainian cities.

“I am concerned there is a high rate of expenditure of their precision-guided munitions,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. who studies Russian military capabilities. “Once those are expended they will rely on unguided bombs that have been shown to be highly inaccurate.” 

But as the battle for the capital looks increasingly likely to turn into a street fight between Russian invaders and Ukrainian troops and citizens, Ukraine’s defense ministry said Friday that it had handed out more than 18,000 assault weapons to citizens on the streets of Kyiv, and the Kremlin seems to be moving ahead with a heavier attack. 

“We do assess there is greater resistance from the Ukrainians than the Russians expected,” the senior U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity to discuss ongoing military operations, said on Friday morning. “The Russians have lost a little bit of their momentum.” 

Drawing on its numerical advantages in troops, tanks, and weapons, Russia is preparing to put more forces on the ground in Ukraine to try to wrest the initiative back. Russia is planning to put thousands of naval infantry ashore from the Sea of Azov in an assault targeting the port city of Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine. 

Buildups have also continued elsewhere. The Pentagon now believes Russian forces are moving on three axes of maneuver in an effort to topple Zelensky’s democratically elected government. Satellite imagery provided to Foreign Policy and others by the company Maxar on Friday showed Russia massing 150 ground attack and transport helicopters in southern Belarus, less than 100 miles from Kyiv. In the Belarusian town of Chojniki, not far from Ukraine’s Chernobyl exclusion zone, the Russian military parked more than 90 helicopters on a road—a deployment analysts said extended for more than 5 miles.

Despite the aerial bombardment Russia has carried out over the last two days, the senior U.S. defense official said on Friday that Russia had not yet achieved air superiority over Ukraine. Massicot, the Rand analyst, said Russian military strategy typically prioritizes suppressing air defenses and air bases before making larger commitments of ground forces and that Russia would likely continue hitting those targets at night. 

The Pentagon said on Friday that the United States plans to provide more military assistance to Ukraine. But Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin acknowledged in a meeting with lawmakers on Thursday that the Biden administration would have to take “a new approach” to assistance if Zelensky’s government fell. Austin told lawmakers that the United States is looking to provide more ammunition to the Ukrainians but that Russia’s full-scale invasion is making providing assistance over ground routes more complicated. Axios first reported on Austin’s meeting on Thursday night.

On Friday, Zelensky’s press secretary Sergii Nykyforov said Ukraine had agreed to talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, after Russian officials indicated that Kyiv would need to surrender to get to the negotiating table. 

Yet publicly, Zelensky remained defiant, insisting Ukrainian forces would fight to defend the capital and that he expects more nighttime Russian attacks on Friday. 

“All prayers should be with our armed forces,” Zelensky said. “The night will be difficult, very difficult. But daytime will come.”

Correction, Feb. 25, 2022: This article has been updated to correct a transcription error.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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