Both battles and wars are characterized by curious tipping points. It’s weird. Such stuff seems to take on a spirit of its own. Through the lens of history, it all looks so clear. At the time it must have been absolutely terrifying.
Military history is rife with such stuff. In 405 BC the Spartans and the Athenians faced off in a naval conflict that was epic for its era. The resulting Battle of Aegospotami during the Peloponnesian War determined the trajectory of Western civilization.
The Athenians and Spartans were fairly evenly matched. The fight could have gone either way. However, The Spartans under Lysander took advantage of some poorly-timed leadership mistakes and ultimately either seized or sank 170 of the 180 available Athenian Men-o-War. Lysander subsequently decreed the death penalty against anyone caught taking grain to Athens.
Faced with the prospect of starvation, the Athenians capitulated in 404 BC. Had Athens been victorious, then Greek democracy would likely have been the driving force behind the development of modern civilization. As it was the Romans filled that void, so here we are. That’s no doubt an oversimplification, but it is nonetheless thought-provoking.
The Battle of Gettysburg was precipitated by Confederate forces searching for shoes. The subsequent fight for Little Round Top came down to the desperate actions of a few desperate men. While the war dragged on as wars are wont to do, the Confederacy never really regained the initiative after that seminal moment.
Similarly, the Battle of Midway represented the turning point in the Pacific War. The Japanese were a most formidable power in that particular pond. Their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, represented a watershed moment in the annals of modern warfare. It seemed the Imperial Japanese Naval (IJN) was unstoppable. Then AF grew short on water.
Unbeknownst to the Japanese, American codebreakers were reading their mail. The IJN had been using the term AF to describe the objective for their next major conquest. The American leadership was not certain what AF might be. Captain Wilfred Holmes suggested they send a message in the clear that Midway’s water purification facility was on the fritz. 24 hours later the Japanese transmitted that “AF was short on water,” and the Americans knew they were coming.
It cost the attacking American Task Force 34 of 41 deployed torpedo bombers and most of their crews, but the Zero fighters all dropped down to the deck where the hunting was good. At the same time, Commander Wade McClusky’s SBD Dauntless dive bombers rolled hot from altitude and sent three of the four Japanese fleet carriers to the bottom. The remaining flattop Hiryu joined them soon thereafter. Though the war ground on for three more years, the Japanese were doomed after Midway.
Similarly, the war in Ukraine seems to have had a turning point. As I type these words the Russians and Ukrainians are busy slugging it out in the east. Though everybody seems to be an expert, nobody really has any idea how it will turn out. However, Russia’s best hope for success evaporated at the Antonov Airport on February 25, 2022. This was D+1 after the initial invasion. That was the day Vladimir Putin quite likely lost his Special Military Operation.
Bear with me here. It’s tough to get the details straight on a war before the historians have moved in as an army of literary occupation to dissect everything about it. If I miss a bit in the ongoing fog please forgive me. I used the most reliable sources I could find.
Putin expected the world in general and Ukraine in particular to just roll over and die. In the leadup to their Special Military Operation, the Russians hallucinated up their standard load of steaming crap to justify their efforts. Political maneuverings, a few pitifully staged propaganda videos that looked like they were produced by teenagers, and some epic lies about the Nazi leanings of Ukrainian leadership served to fuel these fever dreams. The fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and had lost relatives in the Holocaust was an inconvenient spot of reality in the otherwise schizophrenic Russian narrative.
The original Russian war plan, such as it was, envisioned a rapid decapitation strike led by Russian Spetsnaz and VDV airborne forces to eliminate the Ukrainian leadership and pave the way for their replacement by Russian stooges. Alas, the American intelligence apparatus is the most well-financed and capable in human history. The CIA uncovered the Russians’ intentions and communicated them to the Ukrainians in plenty of time for them to prepare. Regardless, it was still a very iffy thing.
Antonov Airport is situated a mere 10 km outside the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Seizure of this strategic objective would allow Russian airborne forces to establish an air bridge and subsequent lodgment from which to neutralize the government and take the city. Taking Kyiv was the key to taking Ukraine. Taking the Antonov Airport was the key to taking Kyiv. Everything turned on this.
The Antonov Airport was also known as the Hostomel Airport. It was home to the world’s only An-225 Mriya cargo plane, the largest such aircraft on the planet. The CIA had provided details of the Russian war plans and the part that Antonov Airport played in them to the Ukrainians the month before. When the Russians attacked, the Ukrainians were ready and responded with overwhelming force.
The Russians led with a massive air assault consisting of either 20 or 34 (depending upon what you read) heavily-loaded Mi-8 Hip helicopters escorted by Ka-52 gunships. Current intel indicates that the troops involved were drawn from the 11th and 31st Guards Air Assault Brigades. As the Russian airborne task force came in low over the Dnieper River, Ukrainian defenders opened up with machine guns and MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems). An indeterminate number of Mi-8s were hit, several of which crashed into the river. At least one Ka-52 was brought down as well. In a surreal take on modern war, this engagement was streamed in real-time. You can watch it on YouTube. It is indeed captivating.
The concept of the operation had these heliborne troops seizing the airport for a follow-on force in eighteen Ilyushin Il-76 fixed-wing transports. However, before they could secure the airfield the Russians were attacked by a mixed force of Ukrainian National Guard troops, Ukrainian special operators, and some seriously tooled-up heavily-armed Ukrainian private citizens. Several Russian Su-25 ground attack aircraft flew in support, while the Ukrainians answered with at least two Su-24s and a MiG-29.
The resulting damage to the runway left the airfield unable to support the Il-76s, so they turned back. Along the way, at least one or potentially two of these massive heavily-laden aircraft were shot down. One of these lumbering cargo planes was purportedly downed by a Ukrainian Su-27 fighter, though this has not been independently verified. As a former paratrooper myself I’d sooner not dwell too long on what that looked like up close. Depending upon its configuration the Il-76 will accommodate between 125 and 140 combat troops. That would have been a mess.
After a vicious fight, the Russian paratroopers were pushed off of the airfield and into the surrounding woods. One of the defending Ukrainian units was the Georgian Legion. The Legion’s commander, Mamuka Mamulashvili, later claimed that his men had expended all of their ammunition during the battle. In response, Mamulashvili commandeered a car and proceeded to run down retreating Russians with it. Their 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade later posted images on their Facebook page of some of their members proudly holding a Ukrainian flag liberally perforated with bullet holes.
The Flow of War
A lot of stuff happened fairly quickly after that. Russian armor pushed south from Belarus, while airborne and air assault forces struggled mightily to gain a toehold. The Russian Ministry of Defence claimed the operation involved more than 200 combat helicopters, but these guys are bad to lie about stuff. While the Russians did indeed ultimately gain control of the airfield and surrounding areas, it was not before the Ukrainians had thoroughly cratered the runway.
No matter how you slice it, the Battle of Antonov Airport was a bloodbath for all involved and an unqualified disaster for the Russians. By all accounts, the initial assault wave was essentially obliterated. The Ukrainians fought back with BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket systems, Mi-24 attack helicopters, and copious tube artillery. By 27 February, two days into the invasion, intercepted Russian radio transmissions revealed requests for evacuation. The Hostomel debacle is what eventually spawned that infamous 40-mile armored column that stalled heading toward Kyiv. These troops did eventually make it to the airport, but they were so depleted by then as to be unable to move effectively on the Ukrainian capital.
Within a month Russian forces were gone from the area. The Russians announced that they had just been kidding when they spent their finest combat formations on a failed effort to take Kyiv and that they had really only cared about the Donbas all along. In their haste to depart the Hostomel area, the Russians destroyed or abandoned large quantities of equipment. When the Ukrainians regained the airport they found the remains of seven tanks, twenty-three BMP’s, three APC’s, one anti-aircraft system, three helicopters, two field artillery guns, and sixty-seven trucks, jeeps, and sundry military vehicles.
Only time will tell the ultimate outcome of this ghastly fight. If the West stays the course, the Ukrainians keep being awesome, and Putin doesn’t completely lose his mind and toss a nuke in the mix then the Ukrainians have a real shot at winning this thing. Sadly, there remains a lot of blood and heartache standing between now and such a favorable outcome. I just hope humanity learns something from all this. At some point, we really should evolve to the point where one psychotic dictator’s hubris is insufficient to initiate and sustain war between nations.
Addendum–What follows is my opinion alone. Perhaps it will spark some spirited discussion in the comments. I wrote this article some time last year. A lot has happened since then.
Supporting Ukraine with weapons is the one solitary thing Joe Biden’s administration has done that I agree with. This seems to me like a once-in-a-century opportunity to drive a stake through the heart of our perennial nemesis without shedding American blood in the process. I came of age during the Cold War in a world dirty with megalomaniacal dictators like Putin. This insanity has gone on for 78 years.
The weapons we are sending Ukraine are, in large part, drawn from our old stocks. Much of that stuff is already bought and paid for. When Biden announces another zillion dollars’ worth of equipment heading to Ukraine, that’s often money we spent a long time ago. We built that gear to fight the Russians in the first place, not to just sit in the desert and rot.
The Ukrainians are willing and enthusiastic to do the fighting and dying, but they must have the tools. Yes, they have their warts. Yes, they have a legacy of corruption, but so do we. How much Chinese money do you figure passed through the Biden family in the past decade? If nothing else the Ukrainians are striving mightily to stamp out corruption now because they know failure to do so will stop the flow of weapons.
I’m admittedly biased because I know people who are serving over there. They are patriots who are fighting desperately for their freedom just as we would were we invaded by a rampaging conquering army. If the last 20 years have taught us anything it is that Putin will never, ever stop until somebody stops him.
I know Putin feels hemmed in by NATO, but he is a cold-hearted monster. Of course the former Soviet satellite states want to align with the EU and be free. So would we.
The Ukrainians, against all odds and expectations, are humiliating the Russians on the battlefield. No, I don’t want to see American troops committed to battle in Europe. However, if we do go to war then American boots on the ground will be standing alongside those of soldiers from every country in the free world.
There’s admittedly a lot riding on this, and the Internet is forever. I might indeed have to eat these words. However, screw what the media says about the broken state of the American dream. America stands for freedom. We always have, and this is a righteous fight against the dark forces of tyranny and oppression.
We spent tens of thousands of irreplaceable lives pushing back against this darkness in Korea and Vietnam. Putin made a massive mistake, arguably the biggest since Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, and now he is paying for it. Just like World Wars 1 and 2, we didn’t start this. But we have the means of finishing it once and for all. Now that we have somebody else who wants to do the fighting it seems insane not to support them in every way we can. Just my $.02.