The first UH-60 Black Hawk of the Ukrainian GRU military intelligence.
A year of bloodshed
Text: Miro Barič
Photo: Ukrajinian armed forces, social media and other public sources
Even though the Russian aggression against Ukraine started in the Crimea and Donbas in February 2014, and their terrorist activities even sooner, in February this year we commemorated the first anniversary of the Russian attack on the whole Ukrainian territory. It is the largest conflict in Europe since 1945.
This part of our series will be a summary of the events in the past 12 months. In the end, as usual, we focus on the events taking place between February 1 to March 1 and relevant to the air war.
For several months the Russian troops were gathering near the Ukrainian borders and the American intelligence services warned it was not an exercise but preparation for the invasion. The government in Kremlin repeatedly stated that it was not going to attack Ukraine, on the contrary the troops would be withdrawn after the exercise was completed. None of it was true. On Thursday, February 24. 2022, early morning the massive bombing of the targets all over the entire Ukraine started and the Russian troops attacked in four directions – to Kiev, Kharkov, Donbas and Kherson from Crimea. The most important target was Kiev. Putin’s army wanted to capture the capital and consequently the whole country in a couple of days. The paratroopers from the helicopters were tasked to capture the airport Hostomel near Kiev so that the reinforcements and heavy equipment could be moved there by the transportation airplanes. The Russians however failed to capture Kiev and kill or capture Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. He refused the American offer to evacuate saying: “I need ammo not a ride!”
The Russian advance on Kiev and Kharkov was stalled and was very slow in Donbas. The Russians made a rapid advance in the south only. The local Ukrainian command there failed miserably in organizing the defenses, a criminal deed in fact. In a couple of days, Kherson, north-west of Crimea and Melitopol, north-east of Crimea, were captured. Mariupol was surrounded but the advance from Kherson to Mykolaiv and Odessa was halted by Ukrainians. The key moment was the Russian defeat at Voznesensk. At Kiev the Russians tried to break through with a convoy many kilometers long. The Ukrainian troops however (and Russian logistical mistakes) stopped the convoy and significant parts of it were destroyed. Without supplies the Russians had to start a retreat.
In the beginning of month, the Russians had to withdraw from the areas north of Kiev. After they left a lot of evidence was found about the massacre of civilians in the town of Bucha and other cities. After its retreat from Kiev, the Russian army started to focus on Donbas where heaviest fighting has taken place since. Even though Russians withdrew from certain areas, they continued to shell the Ukrainian cities with missiles. Step by step the military aid for Ukraine started. In the beginning of April Slovakia was among the first countries to offer aid by delivering S-300 AA system. In the middle of April, in the Black Sea, the cruiser Moscow, a flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet was sunk having been hit by two Ukrainian missiles.
The Ukrainians started heavy shelling and bombing of the Snake Island located near the coast and border with Romania. The island controls the shipping routes to Odessa. The Russians captured it during the first day of war. In the middle of May, the defenders of the steelworks Azovstal in Mariupol were ordered to cease the resistance. By May 20 all of them surrendered. Even though these days is considered taboo, during this month the Ukrainians received their first aircraft deliveries – 21 decommissioned Mig-29 fighters for the spare parts and 14 Su-25 combat aircraft. The deliveries were made through the mediating parties.
In their advance in Donbas the Russians took advantage especially of their overwhelmingly superior artillery. Therefore, the Ukrainians started to receive the new 155 mm howitzers from the Allies and above all HIMARS rocket launchers which are crucial for destroying the Russian ammunition dumpsters, bridges and command posts. In June the Czech Mi-24 and Slovak Mi-17 helicopters arrived in Ukraine. In the end of the month, after another series of successful Ukrainian attacks, the Russian troops had to flee from the Snake Island. On the other side, after a long-lasting effort the Russians managed to capture the city of Severodonetsk in the Luhansk area.
The front line practically stalled. In the beginning of month, the Russians captured Lysychansk but did not advance any further. The fiercest battles were fought for the town of Bakhmut and have been going on until the present time. The Ukrainians started to successfully deploy HIMARS rocket launchers to destroy the Russian ammunition and fuel dumpsters. The Russians retaliated by bombing the civilian targets.
The Ukrainians received the anti-radar HARM missiles a started to use them successfully to blind the Russian AA defense. During this month the large-scale attacks were launched against the Russian military airports on the occupied Crimea. On August 29 the long-awaited Ukrainian counterattack was launched in the Kherson area.
While the Russians focused on the defense of the Kherson area the Ukrainian troops launched a surprise attack on the other side of the front line. In a couple of days, they liberated Balakliya, Kupyansk and Izyum and by the end of the month Lyman and practically the whole Kharkov area. Putin reacted by declaring partial mobilization even though only in March he promised that there would not be any. The hastily organized referendums about the annexation to Russia took place on the occupied territories. The Russians started to use the Iranian kamikaze drones to bomb the Ukrainian cities.
The counterattack towards Kherson continued. On October 6, in the vee hours, the explosion took place on the Kerch bridge connecting the occupied Crimea with Russia, one road lane was destroyed, and the railway section was seriously damaged. On October 29 in Sevastopol the attack of the remote-controlled boats against the Russian warships at anchor took place. The Russians launched the bombing campaign against the Ukrainian energy infrastructure.
The memorial with the MiG-17 aircraft in Bachmut underwent renovation shortly before the war.
A Ukrainian soldier takes a picture in front of the memorial in Bachmut during the fighting.
Belarusian volunteers from the Kastuś Kalinoŭski regiment in Bachmut.
The MiG-17 at the memorial was eventually destroyed like most of the town of Bakhmut.
On November 11, the Ukrainian troops liberated Kherson. It has been only 42 days since Putin declared the city will be Russian forever. At Bakhmut the fighting in the muddy trenches, reminiscent of WWI, continued. The Russian bombing of the civilian infrastructure continued as well. As a reaction to it, the West started to supply Ukraine with the modern AA defense systems.
The muddy terrain did not allow any significant movements at the frontline. The Ukrainians, using the drones, attacked the airports from where the Russian strategic bombers took off. The USA promised Ukraine the delivery of the Patriot AA defense system and later were joined by Germany and Netherlands as well.
The New Year started with the largest massacre of the Russian soldiers when the building where hundreds of them stayed for celebrations, including the stored ammunition, was hit by HIMARS missiles. There was an ammunition dumpster in that building as well. After several months, the Russians achieved the breakthrough at Bakhmut. They took advantage of the poorly planned Ukrainian troops rotation and captured the town of Soledar north of Bakhmut. Germany and USA promised Ukraine Marder and Bradley AFVs.
The Russians continued with the push they initiated immediately after the New Year. They tried to attack along the whole frontline, from Kupyansk and Kremnina at the junction of the Kharkov and Luhansk areas through Bakhmut and Avdiivka in Donetsk up to Vuhledar. The pressure at places was enormous accompanied by large losses, but the advance was minimal. According to some reports, in two months since the beginning of the year the
Russians captured only 85 square kilometers of territory. Each square kilometer of the Ukrainian territory gained cost them 250 soldiers killed … Especially at Vuhledar, where they stubbornly attacked across the large, widely open terrain, the Russians suffered big losses – they lost more than hundred tanks and armored vehicles and the whole Marine brigade.
Several aircraft and helicopters were reported shot down on both sides, but these claims could not be verified. Same as during the previous months, many of these destroyed aircraft could be only documented later when the wrecks were discovered, and the new images surfaced. The destruction of the Russian Mi-35M helicopter (other sources stated Mi-24VM) was confirmed however as it had to perform emergency landing on February 9 near the frontline at Tokarivka in the Kharkov area, barely 3 kilometers from the Russian border. Immediately after landing it was destroyed by the artillery fire from the 14th Independent Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This was recorded on video by a drone and later photographs appeared showing a helicopter wreck lying on the side. On Monday, February 13, the Russian Sukhoi Su-24M, carrying registration RF-93799 and bort number “blue 45”, was hit above Bakhmut by the portable missiles. Its crew members belonged to the so-called Wagner mercenary group. Despite the number thirteen in the date, the aviators were lucky and managed to land the burning aircraft at their home base. On February 23, the pilot of the Su-25SM carrying registration RF-95143 and bort number “yellow 37”, was not so lucky. On his return from the combat mission, he crashed near the village of Orekhovo in the district of Valyuki in Belgorod area. The cause of the crash was supposed to be a mechanical failure. The pilot from the 266th Squadron of the Attack Aviation did not survive.
Russia launched at least six balloons with corner radar reflectors into Ukraine on February 15. At least one of them was shot down by Ukrainian air defense forces.
A Russian Mi-35M had to make an emergency landing near Tokarivka in the Kharkiv region on February 9 and was subsequently destroyed by Ukrainian artillery.
Su-25 with designation RF-95143 and fuselage number “yellow 37” photographed in February 2022 in Belarus and destroyed a year later in Belgorod Oblast.
During the reported period, loss of one Ukrainian aircraft was confirmed. On February 13 near Pishchanka in Vinnytsa area, while intercepting the Iranian-made drones Shahed-136, a Mig-29 was destroyed. Its pilot, Lieutenant Dmytro Shklyarevskyi saved himself on the ejection seat but suffered injuries and had to be hospitalized. From the hospital the pilot wrote that he had survived by a miracle and an operation was awaiting him. On the same day, the information appeared in the Ukrainian media that after four months long recovery Major Vadym Voroshylov from 204th Brigade of the Tactical Aviation returned to the duty. We wrote about him in the previous parts of this series. On October 12 he shot down five Shahed-136 drones and the debris from the last one hit his Mig-29 and he also had to eject. Hanging on the parachute he took a selfie of his bloodied face – in this way he wanted to check his wounds. Also, the images of the Ukrainian Mi-8, hit under unknown circumstances in the previous period, appeared. First, on February 13, an image of the Mi-8MSB-V sporting digital camouflage and bort number “yellow 88”, was published. The fuselage of the damaged helicopter was filmed during its ground transportation. Immediately next day, on February 14, the video of another Mi-8MSB-V wreck carrying digital camouflage, appeared. The wreck, lying in the snow-covered countryside, was filmed from the board of another Mi-8. No further details are known at this time.
Su-24M of the Ukrainian Air Force. The yellow coloring of the lower surfaces is to prevent firing from their own ranks.
Damaged Ukrainian Mi-8MSB-V in digital camouflage during ground transport.
Shots of the wreckage of a Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopter from the deck of another chopper of this type.
Sequence of shots of a Ukrainian Tu-143 drone launching from an SPU-143 wheeled launcher.
On February 21, the Ukrainian military intelligence service GRU published the photograph of the first Black Hawk helicopter in its service. Based on the coloration it was determined that it was most likely the former US Army UH-60A serial number 80-23439 which later received the civilian registration N60FW and was modernized by Ace Aeronautics company from Alabama. After a long diplomatic pressure, Germany, USA and the Great Britain committed to deliveries of the modern tanks Leopard 2, Abrams and Challenger 2. Other countries joined the effort to deliver Leopard tanks, Poland in the first place. Training of the Ukrainian tank crews began in Germany, Poland and Great Britain and during our reporting period the first Leopard 2A4 tanks arrived in Ukraine from Poland. After this delivery the discussion started about deliveries of fighters and long-range missiles. We will talk about this next time.
While the stream of the modern armor is coming to Ukraine increasing variety of the emergency modifications appear on the Russian side. In a year of fighting Russians lost more than 1700 tanks, 2100 AFVs and further 1000 armored personnel carriers and other armored vehicles. Moreover, these are all the losses documented on the Onyx server by photographs and videos, the actual losses will be even higher. The high losses lead to the deployment of the artillery tractor MT-LB, originating in the 1950s, in the role of an AFV. It had not been intended for the first line employment therefore it features weak armor (maximum 10 mm on the hull) and light armament (one 7.62 mm machine gun). To increase the firepower of these vehicles the Russians started to install the naval AA cannons on them, which were removed from the old warships rusting in the ports. Part of the modifications are 2M-7 turrets carrying 14.5 mm caliber twin machine guns which in 1950s had been installed on the small torpedo and patrol boats.
The 2M-3 turrets carrying the 25 mm caliber twin cannons promise better firepower. This weapon was produced during 1953–1984 in the Soviet Union and was installed on patrol ships, minelayers or landing crafts. Only the Soviet Navy used 25 mm caliber 110-PM cannons. Their rate of fire was up to 300 rounds per minute, horizontal range 2.5 km and vertical range 1.7 km. However, their installation on MT-LB is bizarre. They are welded on the ceiling of the rear part of the hull including the whole ship barbette, instead of cutting the opening in the hull and putting the barbette inside. This doubled the vehicle’s height. Originally these turrets were designed for the AA warfare, but they cannot meet the current requirements. They only feature manual aiming which is sufficient for the slow flying targets. It is supposed then that these vehicles are assigned to ground warfare, to provide supporting fire for the infantry. Due to their height, however, they present an easy target for the opponent.
Russian MT-LB with 2M-7 naval turrets with two 14.5 mm caliber machine guns.
MT-LB with barbette and 2M-3 turret with a pair of 25 mm caliber guns, which the Russians removed from the old ships.
In addition to their effort to break through the Ukrainian defense on the front line the Russians continued with shelling of the civilian infrastructure in the Ukrainian cities. During the large-scale attack on February 10, they launched 71 cruising missiles out of which 61 were shot down by the Ukrainian AA fire. 20 Shahed-136 drones were destroyed as well. However, the rockets that penetrated the defense hit and damaged four power stations. In addition to the missiles and drones the Russians started to launch the balloons. They carry the radar reflectors which deflect the radar microwaves back to its antenna. This causes a strong disturbance on the radar screen. The goal is to disable the Ukrainian AA defense. Not only the Ukrainians waste the precious rockets on the useless balloon, but the chances are that the actual missiles will break through as the anti-weapon will be confused by multiple targets. The Ukrainians also retaliated by the drone attacks. During February 27 and 28 the whole series of incidents took place deep in the Russian territory. Ukrainians do not officially claim them but the whole situation looks like testing the capabilities of the variety of UAVs before the large-scale attack. There were different types of drones used on different targets. The Russians official statement is that all these drones were shot down and no damages were sustained which is not quite true in the case of Tuapse on the Black Sea coast. On Tuesday, February 28 the Rosneft oil refinery was damaged by the drone explosion. A smaller fire broke out. The Russians were lucky as the explosion and fire took place away of the main oil tanks.
At the same time the attack of at least 15 drones was launched on the targets in Crimea, at least two hit Belgorod in the Russian territory. The old Tu-141 Strizh jet reconnaissance drone, full of explosives, crashed in the Krasnodar southern outskirts. One drone crashed right next to the gas compressor station in Kolomen area which is only 100 km south of Moscow! No surprise the the Russians started to build the AA defense around Moscow and even the Pancir AA systems appeared on the roofs of several houses in the Russian capital. However, the most daring attack against the Russian targets took place at the end of February in Belarus. On February 26, at the Machulishchy base near Minsk two explosions damaged Beriev A-50U AWACS aircraft. The Russian AF has been operating out of this base since the beginning of war and besides A-50U Mig-31s are flown out of there. The attack was supposedly conducted by the Belorussian resistance who consequently fled the country. According to their claims they damaged the radome and the hump containing the satellite communication located behind the pilot’s cockpit. They used two commercial drones each carrying 200 grams of explosives. At least the hump damaged behind the cockpit was recorded on video and later confirmed by satellite images. Destroying the electronics effectively disabled A-50U from performing its missions even though the flight capabilities were not impaired by such small charges. A couple of days later the aircraft was flown in for repairs. The question is how fast the Russians can fix it. Only seven A-50U were built in 10 years, between 2011 and 2021.
Satellite shot of Maxar after the attack. Damage to the hump on the fuselage and the antenna dish are discernible.
A satellite image of an A-50U at Belarus’ Machulishchy airport was taken by Planet Labs PBC shortly before the attack.
Russian Defense Ministry photo of an A-50U before the drone attack.
Footage of the attacking drone. It landed on a hump with antennas on the back of the aircraft and exploded there.
A drone also crashed near Kolomna, just 100 km from Moscow, on February 28.
Wreckage of a Tu-141 Strizh drone that landed on the outskirts of Krasnodar on February 28.
Drones also landed on Belgorod on February 27 .
Refinery in Tuapse damaged by drone strike on February 28.