Wednesday 13 April 2022

Destination Disaster: Russia’s Failure At Hostomel Airport

Six weeks into Russia's invasion of Ukraine it can be argued that the full array of issues affecting the Russian military and its operational planning have been laid bare. Setting out to first seize Kyiv within days in order to have a strong position in negotiations with the West about the future status of Ukraine in exchange for a reduction of sanctions, it suddenly finds itself a month past that deadline with meagre territorial gains, an army in tatters and severe reputational damage, not to mention an economy buckling under some of the heaviest sanctions ever instated on a nation. [1]
Having lost more than 2.800 military vehicles and heavy pieces of military equipment, including at least 500 tanks, Russia has meanwhile been forced to adjust its ambitions to conquering just the Donbass territories of Donetsk and Lugansk with the aid of its proxy forces, aside from the southeastern part of Ukraine that had already been largely secured. [2] Though Russia maintains that its offensive on Kyiv was merely a ruse to keep Ukrainian forces busy while degrading their combat capabilities and advancing elsewhere, and that the retreat from the Kyiv operational zone was to give space for negotations, it doesn't take a skeptic to point out that these are mere face-saving excuses for grave military failures. [3]
Hostomel Airport, located 10 kilometres northwest of Kyiv, played an important part in Russia's plans to cut off Kyiv. Hostomel is the home of Antonov Airlines, the cargo division of the Antonov design bureau, and notably also housed the An-225, the world's largest aircraft, at the time of the Russian assault on the city. Sadly, this awe-inspiring aircraft could not be evacuated in time, and was destroyed during the fighting. The Russian plan entailed the rapid occupation of Hostomel Airport (popularly known as Antonov Airport) so that it could be used as a staging area for the subsequent encirclement and conquest of Kyiv. In keeping with its important role, Hostomel was taken with much fanfare by a heliborne assault using VDV forces on the 24th of February. Even though Ukraine had been made aware that Hostomel was a target by CIA director William J. Burns in January 2022, the speed with which Russia's heliborne operation was conducted still appears to have caught Ukrainian troops by surprise. [4]
During the assault, Mi-35 and Ka-52 attack helicopters operating out of Belarus softened up the airport's defences so that Mi-8 transport helicopters carrying VDV airborne troops could safely land. Over the course of these manoeuvres one Ka-52 was hit by MANPADS before making an emergency landing just outside the airport's perimeter. [5] However, Ukrainian defences were left largely intact and without any meaningful air support, the VDV was soon facing counterattacks by Ukrainian forces.

A dream no more: The destroyed An-225 'Mriya'.

As the VDV troops battled it out with Ukrainian forces for control over the airport, Russia's ground push from Belarus managed to break through Ukraine's defences near Ivankiv and raced towards Hostomel, running into several Ukrainian ambushes on the way. Nevertheless, Russian troops managed to fully secure Hostomel Airport on the 25th of February. The Russian Army and VDV then set out to turn Hostomel into a forward operating base from which the push on Kyiv could be initiated. It was at this time however that Russia's offensive into Ukraine began to bog down, leading to the forming of the infamous 40-miles-long convoy and complete units that had to halt their push due to a lack of fuel.
Not to be deterred by setbacks elsewhere, newly arrived VDV and Russian Army units attempted to break out of Hostomel Airport into the nearby town and press their advance into Bucha and Irpin. However, these poorly coordinated pushes ran into ambushes in Hostomel and Bucha with significant losses in manpower and equipment as a result. Though the Russian military had prepared for an easy lightning takeover of Ukraine, it now found itself in a situation it had not bargained for, with Russian forces seemingly clueless about where to expect its enemies and how to best combat them. The ambushes in Hostomel and Bucha not only inflicted substantial casualties, but also set in a stark realisation of what was to be expected when advancing further on Kyiv.

The next developments turned out to be crucial. Rather than adapting to the new reality, and looking for ways to deal with it, the VDV and Russian Army around Kyiv largely became a static force, waiting for additional supplies and for the 40-miles-long convoy to advance and complete the encirclement of Kyiv (which would never occur). Faced with poor or absent leadership, a lack of supplies, daily shelling and significant casualties and low morale, the VDV and Russian Army were forced to bunker down, digging in on the roadsides to defend themselves against Ukrainian artillery and drone strikes. Increasingly they began to be pestered by such drones (often scouting targets for artillery) and SOF inflicting heavy casualties during the night, against which Russia is poorly prepared, having invested little in night equipment for its soldiers. All the seeds for an army that would soon turn its guns on civilians and begin looting were planted.

What remains of a Russian convoy that got ambushed by Ukrainian forces in Bucha.

The situation was entirely analogous in Hostomel, where the VDV and a sizeable Russian Army contingent was stationed waiting for the order for a push on Kyiv that never came, while under constant shelling. On the 4th of March, Russian state-owned television channel Channel One Russia aired footage that already showed large amounts of destroyed Russian equipment struck by Ukrainian artillery scattered around the base. [6] Russian forces stationed here had essentially become sitting ducks, with no order given to advance and no order to retreat.

Relief came only when such an order finally was given on the 29th of March, after which Russian troops at Hostomel began their retreat from Kyiv Oblast. [3] Damaged equipment that couldn't be taken along was blown up, while Ukrainian artillery shelling covered the flight. At Hostomel, such equipment included 16 of the VDV's most modern AFVs, the BMD-4M, and a 1L262E Rtut-BM EW system. Their position indicates they were either destroyed while they were staging to retreat or blown up by the Russians themselves. After Ukrainian troops reentered Hostomel, they encountered evidence of Russians having left in a hurry everywhere, including anything from unopened packages of food, passports, bank cards and even captured Ukrainian armoured vehicles that couldn't be taken back. [7] A video of the carnage can be watched here.

Carnage at Hostomel Airport.

A detailed list of destroyed and captured Russian vehicles and equipment at Hostomel Airport can be seen below. This list only includes vehicles and equipment destroyed or abandoned on the perimeter of Hostomel Airport. The total amount of equipment captured and destroyed in and around Hostomel itself is far larger than recorded here.
(Click on the numbers to get a picture of each individual captured or destroyed vehicle)


Armoured Fighting Vehicles (7, of which destroyed: 5, recaptured: 2)

Infantry Fighting Vehicles (23, of which destroyed: 20, damaged: 1, recaptured: 2)

Armoured Personnel Carriers (3, of which destroyed: 3)


Towed Artillery (2, of which captured: 2)


Anti-Aircraft Guns (1, of which captured: 1)


Jammers And Deception Systems (1, of which destroyed: 1)

Helicopters (6, of which destroyed: 5, captured: 1)


Trucks, Vehicles and Jeeps (68, of which destroyed: 65, captured: 2, recaptured: 1)

Battered and bloody Hostomel stands as a monument to Ukraine's struggles against Russia's invasion force. Like a true David against Goliath, it broke the back of the Russian assault on Kyiv, in the process sadly losing its own gentle giant. Yet like the dream of a Ukrainian nation free from enemies and oppressors, the An-225 Mriya lives on in its unfinished sister airframe. [8] Perhaps its construction, like the construction of this free Ukraine, will someday soon be accomplished.

The second (unfinished) An-225, which Turkey has shown interest in completing. [8]

[1] Putin thought Russia's military could capture Kyiv in 2 days, but it still hasn't in 20
[2] Attack On Europe: Documenting Equipment Losses During The 2022 Russian Invasion Of Ukraine
[4] Vladimir Putin’s 20-Year March to War in Ukraine—and How the West Mishandled It 
[8] Sky Giant: Turkey Mulls To Complete The Second Antonov An-225 Mriya