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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Saturday 8 July 2023

War in Ukraine 2

This is the second volume in Helion's study of the war in Ukraine. It is challenging to write about an ongoing conflict, not least because of the amount of disinformation. However, this volume covers the first two weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, for which the narrative is clearer, although details remain obscure. This is also a vitally important conflict for so many reasons. If you want a taster, you can watch an interesting online book launch here in which the authors described the writing challenges and sources. 

The first chapter covers the weakness of the Ukrainian armed forces during the Crimean debacle of 2014 and the Donbas fighting. Then how they rebuilt into the effective armed forces we see in action today. This included refurbishing their Soviet-era weapons systems and then incorporating NATO equipment. This was initially primarily defensive, but as the conflict developed, more lethal weapons have been delivered, including cluster bombs this week. Just as important has been the reorganisation of the army, away from the ragtag collection of volunteer units to an integrated all-arms structure capable of mounting offensive operations, as well as home defence.

Technology has been a feature of the conflict, along with establishing an integrated air defence system capable of protecting cities against Russian missiles and drones. The Ukrainian Air Force gets less media attention but still plays an important role.

The second chapter looks at the development of Russian forces, covering some of the ground addressed in more detail in Mark Galeotti's excellent Putin's Wars. The graphics and orbats of the Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) are particularly good. The use of private armies is not ignored, even if this was before the recent events. While the numbers looked impressive, the analysis in this chapter highlights the poor state of much Russian equipment and training. There is also a short chapter on Russian efforts to reorganise the Donbas People’s Militia. This involved pulling the numerous ‘battalions’ into a formalised structure under a unified chain of command and ‘removing’, by any means necessary, several violent and unruly commanders.

The chapters on the 'Special Military Operation' looks at Putin's planning and motivation for the invasion, how it was prepared under cover of the Zapad military exercise and his personal involvement in the operational aspects of the invasion. Documents show that it was intended to start on 20 February and end on 6 March. Putin was micromanaging the entire campaign in Ukraine by bypassing the established chain of command and issuing orders directly to commanders of BTGs, sometimes even below that level.

While strategic strikes took place using missiles and cyber to attack air bases and the strategic communications systems, the attack on Kyiv became the best-known part of the invasion. The Battle of Hostomel Airport was facilitated by a Ukrainian traitor who enabled the Russians to take down the air defences. As the Russian attack on Kyiv stalled, Putin pushed more units towards the city. This meant advancing through built-up areas, ideal for Ukrainian ambushes. We saw Russian armour moving through these areas unsupported by infantry. With even armchair wargamers worldwide screaming at their TVs, don't do that!

The final chapters are devoted to the assaults outside Kyiv, some advanced with little resistance, but others ground to a halt, particularly in the cities. In addition, the poorly maintained Russian vehicles started to break down, causing traffic jams that were easily ambushed. The war in the Donetsk and Luhansk so-called republics was reignited with the support of regular Russian forces. However, conscripts from these regions were thrown into battle against some of the best Ukrainian units, with predictable consequences. 

The most successful Russian advance was in the south, helped by the sparsely populated terrain and the failure to fortify the border with Crimea. Southern Ukraine is a vast and flat plateau, with large distances but no major obstacles between the urban centres except for the rivers Dnipro and Buh in its west. The Ukrainian armed forces rushed to the region, and after fierce fighting at Voznesensk, the advance on Odesa was halted.

As the authors conclude, 'Contrary to all expectations, a combination of massive resistance by the population, the stubbornness of the government in Kyiv, and much more effective operations of the ZSU in the north, north-east, and east than ever expected, effected a quick collapse of what can be described as ‘Putin’s Plan A’: a coup in Kyiv and a quick conquest of about half of Ukraine.' 

There has been a lot written about this conflict already. Personally, I have been impressed by The Economist's coverage. This volume should appeal to wargamers and modellers in particular, given the superb colour plates, orbats and the detailed descriptions of the critical actions.

A photo of some of my 20mm Russian troops advancing in a 2021 wargame that turned out to be a little too close to reality.


  1. Bit too modern for my tastes as a wargamer but I listened to the book launch at the time and it was very interesting.

  2. Great review. An interesting read. With the pace that things move at these days I think this 'history in a hurry' will be referred to a lot in years to come.



    1. Indeed, although with a fair degree of revision!

  3. Excellent stuff. As Chris/Nundanket says above, it’s a bit too current for me to game - although I have no qualms about gaming “generic former Soviet bloc conflicts”.

    1. Yes, I am a bit nervous about gaming so close to home, but on the other hand thats what the current military does all the time.