Three days into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a satellite detected a massive 10-mile (15-point-five-kilometer) line of armored vehicles in the nation's north. A hundred or more Russian military vehicles arrived in Bucha, a city outside of Kiev, that very morning as 67-year-old Volodymyr Scherbynyn was waiting outside his neighborhood grocery store. President Vladimir Putin's strategy for a swift and decisive victory was witnessed by both Volodymyr and the satellite. They also saw it fail in front of their eyes.
The word "convoy" was used in western media. In actuality, it was a major tactical error and a bottleneck. On February 29, 2022, 48 hours after the first satellite image, the line of cars had gotten so enormous that it was 35 miles (56 km) long. The cars were stuck for several weeks. They eventually withdrew and appeared to vanish over night. .
What went wrong, and why did such a huge force fail to reach Kiev?
Numerous witnesses were interviewed by the BBC, including members of the military, national and international intelligence agencies, civilians, veterans, and the territorial defense, all of whom had contact with the convoy. It also had access to Russian maps and documents, which provided insight into the details of the plan and the reasons why it was so egregiously flawed.
the initial hours.
In the north of Ukraine, close to its border with Belarus, the story opens on the first day of the conflict.
Vladyslav, age 23, of Ukraine's 80th Air Assault Brigade noticed a flurry of bright lights in the night sky as he went outside for his first cigarette of the day.
"I distinctly recall watching the lights spread throughout the forest. At first, I mistook them for automobile headlights. My realization that they were Grad (self-propelled multiple missile launchers) came later. At us, they were firing. " .
Vladyslav's unit was out on patrol when the first Russian vehicles entered Ukraine, having camped deep inside the forest of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
"The entire earth began to tremble. There is no other sound like it, have you ever been in a tank? It's a strong thing. ".
Vladyslav and the rest of the 80th brigade destroyed the bridge linking Chernobyl and the following major city, Ivankiv, as was intended in the event of an attack.
Vladyslav and his unit would have time to retreat to Kyiv because the Russians would be forced to waste time constructing a substitute pontoon bridge.
Why didn't we stop them there in Chernobyl, I wondered at first, but we had to learn more about our foe. So, we took that action. " .
The Ukrainians could not afford to open fire and run the risk of sparking a new conflict this close to the Belarusian border. Before sending their troops into the fray, their top priority was to comprehend Russia's battle strategy.
The first cars that would make up the convoy were what Vladyslav saw.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces claim that, in contrast to numerous media reports at the time, the 35-mile (56-km) column was made up of 10 distinct Russian tactical battalion units.
The Russian army also attacked Ukraine in the east and south, but these 10 units had a very clear objective: enter Ukraine from Belarus, overthrow the capital city of Ukraine, and overthrow the government. Decapitation assault, to use military terminology.
A timetable for the plan is shown in a Russian document that the BBC has access to. The first battalion entered Ukraine at 4:00 am on February 24 and was given orders to march directly to Kyiv, where they arrived at 14:55.
A few of the battalions were to move on to Hostomel, which is near Kyiv, to support the soldiers who had been airlifted in to guard the airport.
The rest were instructed to walk directly into Kiev's city center.
Both secrecy and speed were key components of the assault.
By keeping their plans for an assault on the capital secret, Russian troops could outnumber Ukrainian forces in the area to the north of Kyiv by a ratio of 12 to 1, according to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a security think tank based in the UK.
Putin's secrecy, though, had a price. Because of how well he pulled off his deception, even the majority of his commanders did not get their orders until the day before the invasion.
They were now tactically exposed as a result. Maps, food, and fuel were all lacking. They lacked effective communication tools. They lacked enough ammunition. Even for the winter weather, they lacked adequate preparation.
The Russians sped into a mud puddle while outfitted with the incorrect tires and surrounded by snow. People who live close to Ivankiv recall Russian soldiers telling Ukrainian farmers to aid in removing their tanks from the muck.
Due to their inability to move forward, the Russian vehicles were forced to turn onto paved roads in order to avoid soft ground, which resulted in thousands of them forming a single column.
However, because the battalions were unable to communicate effectively, they almost immediately came together to form a massive traffic jam. .
You never travel into hostile territory in a large convoy, as one military expert on the ground put it. Ever. ".
We were able to map the area the convoy traveled from the beginning of the war until the end of March using eyewitness accounts and military intelligence from Ukraine. Vehicles ended up on the majority of the major roads north of Kiev in order to avoid crossing fields.
Up to 1,000 tanks, 2,400 mechanized infantry vehicles, 10,000 soldiers, and dozens of supply trucks transporting food, fuel, oil, and ammunition were all part of the column by the time it reached a length of 35 miles (56 km), which it eventually did. .
The Russians had also undervalued their opponent, who was out of food and fuel and stalled north of Kyiv.
In their hometown of Bucha, Volodymyr Scherbynyn and his fellow volunteers, most of whom were pensioners, had been getting ready for the convoy's arrival for three days.
The 12 of them prepared hundreds of petrol bombs and destroyed all the road signs while each having a single machine gun.
The Russian tanks finally arrived in town on Sunday morning.
Volodymr and his small group of soldiers pounded the tanks for almost 30 minutes with what they had.
According to Volodymyr, "We set two of the cars on fire and slowed down the entire convoy.".
But after that, there was reprisal.
Maksym Shkoropar, 30, claims that when they saw us throwing bottles, they started firing. A bartender, I was. I was not trained for the military. ".
All of Volodymyr's party had been shot and taken to the hospital by the end of that period of time.
Although he was in the sick bay, Volodymr continued to fight, gathering and cross-checking reports of the convoy from bystanders all over the Kyiv region and reporting them to the Ukrainian authorities.
Roman Pohorilyl, the local deputy governor for Irpin, was on the other end of the line. He was 23 years old.
He admits to not having slept for three days to the BBC.
"My coworker and I were answering calls on the council office hotline about the column and saboteurs, people who were marking the ground for the convoy to follow, with paint. ".
Roman is a councilor by day and a specialist in open source intelligence by night. He combines social media and intelligence reports as co-founder of the prestigious website DeepState. Following their geolocation, he reposts them on his website. .
The Russians posted videos to social media as they traveled to Kyiv. To show their actions, we reposted the videos. They were merely acting showy when they were arrested. " .
The idea of a united Ukraine was crucial during the attack on Kyiv, according to Roman.
"There was activity all around. I'll admit, those first few days were very hectic. Veterans, however, were assisting civilians. Everybody desired to protect their city. ".
Numerous attacks on the convoy occurred in towns and villages throughout the area, coming from both mechanized infantry and artillery units as well as ordinary citizens armed with homemade weapons.
In stark contrast to the Ukrainians, Russian forces frequently displayed their inability to make quick decisions when the situation called for them.
According to Vladyslav from the 80th Brigade, "The Russians were all carrying substantial metal boxes marked'secret'.". "We captured one in an ambush. We discovered their route marked in full on their maps. We then knew their entire strategy. ".
Furthermore, their navigational aids were dreadfully outdated. The BBC has continued to uncover maps from the 1960s and 1970s that were left behind by Russian troops in the year following the invasion. There are now entire towns that did not exist when they were using the maps for navigation. We also discovered semaphore flags, an extremely antiquated form of inter-unit communication.
Blasting bridges and dams in front of the convoy to force the Russians to reroute was one effective strategy used by the Ukrainian resistance. The Russian units frequently became paralyzed by indecision because they were dependent on outdated maps and had poor communications with their high command.
Several satellite pictures depict the Russian cars going in circles, literally.
The Russian convoy was eventually forced to halt just outside the city limits of Kyiv by Ukrainian artillery and airstrikes. The situation was horrifying for thousands of civilians who lived nearby the troops who were stalled.
"They stole from every place they could find. The stores were empty, claims Vladyslav. As human shields, they also employed civilians. ".
Investigations into what occurred in numerous villages and towns to the north and west of Kiev are still ongoing by a number of agencies, including the International Criminal Court.
The Russians began to withdraw after a grueling four weeks.
Close to the airport at Hostomel, two of the largest remaining battalions were routed. In the village of Zdvizhivka, artillery destroyed another 370 army trucks that appeared to have been abandoned.
Up until March 19, when they completely withdrew from Kyiv Oblast, the Ukrainian military continued to push the Russians back.
Russia is continuing to advance into the eastern industrial hub of Donbas and launch attacks in the south toward the regions of Kherson, Melitopol, and Zaporizhzhia.
The majority of experts concur that a new attack on Kyiv is unlikely despite rumors to the contrary, as there has been no significant Russian troop deployment to the Belarus border.
However, the Ukrainian recruits are still observing via reconnaissance drones close to the border.
Vladyslav declares, "I'll never forget that night in Chernobyl. "When I went outside with my friend to smoke. However, the war had already begun when I was done with my cigarette.
"My friend and I have this dream that we will report for duty, just as we did that day, and as we light another cigarette, we will learn the war is over. And we succeeded. ".
Slava Shramovych, Marcus Buckley, Michael Whelan, Alastair Thompson, Ben Allen, and Tim Coey deserve special thanks.