LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Russia's invasion of Ukraine is entering a new phase, promising a more deadly time ahead for the country's civilians and its remarkably determined army, according to Western military officials.
Early signs are that Russian commanders are abandoning the approach that marked the first days of the conflict, in which they relied on lightning strikes into cities they assumed would be half-heartedly defended, the officials said.
After multiple failures - highlighted by images on Monday (Feb 28) morning of a column of Russian heavily armoured Tigr vehicles destroyed after trying to punch into Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city - officials from the US and allied nations expect more indiscriminate tactics as Russian forces seek to suppress resistance.
The new phase is likely to play out over several days, according to a report by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. After pausing to regroup and draw new assets into place around the capital, the ISW expects Russian forces to relaunch their attack on the capital, Kyiv.
In a sign that shift may already have begun, Russian forces encircling Kharkiv, a city of 1.8 million, on Monday conducted rocket attacks on a residential district, with reports of dozens killed or injured. Russia says it is only targeting military infrastructure. The governor of the northern Sumy region, Dmytro Zhyvytskiy, published photographs on his Telegram channel on Monday night of what he said was a Ukrainian army base reduced to rubble the previous day by Russian artillery.
In a rare admission of heavy losses, he said graves were being prepared for 70 soldiers. On Tuesday morning, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko told Ukrainian media his city had faced days of heavy bombardment from artillery and aircraft, with infrastructure destroyed and electricity cut off.
"These are the liberators who have come to free Russian-speaking people," he said, adding that they were, rather, "Russian Nazis". A dash cam video clip from a car fleeing the city purported to show a TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launcher at the side of the road. The weapon has 24 chambers to fire volleys of so-called vacuum bombs that spray a fine mist of fuel, which on detonating create fireballs that suck the oxygen from the area hit. A Western official said on Monday that TOS-1A units had been identified, but not yet used.
"Masks off," President Volodymyr Zelensky's chief of staff Mykhailo Podolyak said in a Twitter post on Tuesday. "Russia is actively shelling city centres, inflicting direct missile and artillery strikes at residential and government areas. Russia's goal is clear - mass panic, civilian casualties, destruction of infrastructure. Ukraine is fighting with dignity."
Amnesty International has condemned what it said was Russia's use of a cluster bomb next to a school on Feb 25. The weapons are widely banned from use in civilian areas. "What's next? Russia's political leadership is still not conceding their plan's failure, trying to take Kyiv quickly," Michael Kofman, a specialist on the Russian armed forces at the Washington security think tank CNA, said in a lengthy Twitter thread.
"But we're seeing them open up greater use of fires (artillery), strikes, and air power. Sadly, I expect the worst is yet ahead, and this war could get a lot more ugly."
Russia's Defence Ministry continues to say the operation is on track, reporting steady gains on the ground. In a phone call that Vladimir Putin held on Monday with French President Emmanuel Macron, the Russian president reiterated his forces are not targeting cities, the Kremlin said. Putin accused "Ukrainian nationalists" of putting artillery and military equipment in residential areas and using civilians as "human shields", according to the Kremlin.
On Monday, a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague said that as a result of the escalation he was opening a case based on a December 2020 investigation of alleged abuses in Ukraine, stretching back to the so-called Maidan revolution of 2014. He said he would include war crimes allegations from the Russian invasion as they emerge.
One US defence official said the risk for Ukraine is that while 75 per cent of the force by Russia assembled had now moved into Ukraine, much of it had yet to reach a position where it could be used - particularly in the north. Satellite pictures of a column of Russian military vehicles as long as 67 km north of Kyiv showed both some of the problems of the first days of the war and the potentially difficult future that awaits the capital.
The sheer quantity of vehicles sent down Ukraine's relatively narrow highways has caused traffic jams that make it difficult for fuel trucks, bridging equipment to traverse blown up bridges and even anti-aircraft systems to get through. That has prevented a breakthrough into Kyiv and the failure also to eliminate Ukraine's ageing air defences and air force, repeatedly identified as critical by US defence officials.
It also exposed Russian units to ambush, allowed Ukraine's fleet of Turkish-made armed Bayraktar drones to harass Russian lines and left helicopters and transport aircraft vulnerable. Russia says it has shot down several of the drones.
"The bulk of the Russian military has yet to enter the fight. Outside Kharkiv, most of the 1st Guards Tank Army, and 20th Army, are just sitting there," Kofman said in his Twitter thread, adding that most of Russia's air power and artillery also had yet to engage. "Russian mil is an artillery army first, and it has used a fraction of its available fires in this war thus far."
Even Russia's initial shock and awe missile strikes on Ukraine's airfields had limited effect, according to Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, a US think tank. The ballistic missiles that were often used carry a single conventional warhead and while that can put a big hole in a runway, the damage is relatively easily repaired.
"They were designed for nukes," he said.
Russia's air force was attempting to remedy that on Monday, bombing airfields across Ukraine in an effort to ground its jets.
The core Russian failure, according to US and other Western officials, has been a misreading of the Ukrainian willingness to fight back. That's even true for those who consider themselves ethnically Russian and despise the governments that have run the country since 2014.
The result is a narrative of heroic Ukrainian resistance has been allowed to develop that is in itself a powerful asset.
Russia, according to Kofman has been unable to push back effectively in this information war because it is minimising the scale of the conflict at home for political reasons.