The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine turned into an embarrassing (for Russian leaders) failure because the Russians were unable to supply their forces while the Ukrainian internal transport system survived Russian attacks. Russia did block access, by water, to Ukrainian Black Sea ports, but Ukraine had numerous land routes across borders with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. While supplies can no longer be flown into Ukraine, they can be flown to neighboring countries and then enter Ukraine via railroads and highways.
Like most nations that once belonged to the former Soviet Union, Ukraine depends more on railways than highways for moving people and freight. Russia tried to shut down the Ukrainian railways with air and long-range missile attacks, but the internal railway system is so dense, and track repair capabilities so expanded, that track damage is rapidly fixed and there are usually ways to reroute traffic until repairs are completed. Ukraine has 22,300 kilometers of railway and employs over 400,000 people to operate nearly 2,000 locomotives, 85,000 freight and 4,000 passenger cars.
There are not many railroad border crossings, even as long-closed rail crossings with friendly nations are being refurbished and reopened. Meanwhile most military supplies and personnel come in via roads. Not just the major roads that pass-through border control posts, but many additional rural paved and unpaved roads as well as some traversable cross-country routes. Russia has tried to locate the concentration points inside Ukraine where military supplies are stored until needed. A few have been bombed so the concentration sites are frequently changed or trucks continue going until they are close enough to the fighting to unload. Ukraine provides refueling on the way in and out.
Russian supplies and military equipment also move up to and sometimes across the border by rail. Russia tried to run its trains into Ukraine but found their locomotives and rail cars were frequent targets of attack by the many small groups of well-armed Ukrainians waging an effective war on Russian road or railway traffic. This made it difficult to remove disabled locomotives and train cars, or repair damaged tracks. The Russians were soon restricted to using the roads where Russian trucks and combat vehicles were constantly under attacks from Ukrainian ground forces. The Russians did not have sufficient troops to go out and attack, or even find, the Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainians were operating in small groups and usually in uniform. The Ukrainian fighters traveled on roads or via known cross-country routes with the assistance of locals.
The Russians concentrated on maintaining control of the roads, which was costly in terms of casualties and troops required. The Russians had trouble communicating while the Ukrainian forces did not. Russian military patrols on the roads attracted attacks and reduced but did not eliminate, the attacks on supply convoys, and themselves attracted more Ukrainian attacks. This limited how deep into Ukraine Russian troops could advance and is the main reason Russian troops stalled after two weeks of fighting. Russia has several hundred transport helicopters but these are vulnerable to Ukrainians armed with American Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that have been updated to get past missile defenses Russian helicopters are now equipped with.
Until early March Russia had an easier time using railroad crossings from Belarus, where six rail lines cross into Ukraine. In early March Belarussian railway employees were found to be cooperating with their Ukrainian counterparts to sabotage Russian rail traffic from Belarus to Ukraine. Belarus had refused to send troops into Ukraine but has been forced to allow Russian troops to operate in Belarus and cross into Ukraine. The pro-Russia Belarus government was forced to divert some of its few reliable military units to guard the rail crossings. This has not stopped the sabotage but has slowed it down. Most Belarussians oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as their own pro-Russia ruler, who was recently helped by Russian troops moved into Belarus to help suppress the growing number of demonstrations against the unpopular Belarussian ruler and Russia in general.
The Ukrainian army still has about a dozen combat brigades and over a hundred thousand troops. This is augmented by more than twice as many reservists and armed civilians who are organized into hundreds of smaller units and have inflicted most of the vehicle losses and personnel casualties on the Russians. The Ukrainian army brigades have to be used carefully because Russia has more combat aircraft and long-range missiles and guided rockets that could attack them. The Ukrainian brigades act as a threat to Russian units and tie down many Russian troops. The brigades are employed whenever the Russians get an advance going, as they have in east and south. But most of the damage is done by the irregulars, which includes many of the army special forces troops.
Ukraine was much better prepared for this war than the invading Russians and that is a major embarrassment for the senior Russian political and military personnel who planned it. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who ordered the invasion, has since removed or arrested many of his subordinates who were in charge of planning the invasion and assessing the degree of Ukrainian resistance that could be expected. Putin disregards the fact that he refused to consider advice that more accurately described Ukrainian preparations. These Ukrainian efforts were concealed by the Ukrainian but not invisible. The invasion is increasingly unpopular inside Russia as more news of what is happening gets past the Russians censors and to change attitudes. Putin refuses to admit defeat despite the growing number of people who work closely with him express misgivings about the war or simply quit and, in many cases, leave the country. At month after the invasion began Putin explained that the “Ukraine operation” was a success because the multiple advances were a deception that enabled Russia to improve its hold on Donbas and Crimea as well as possibly taking more Ukrainian ports. In other words, this was a peace proposal that Ukraine quickly turned down. There would be no deal to accept the loss of Crimea and the two provinces in eastern Ukraine in return for the withdrawal of the other Russian troops. The stalled Russia forces in the north had gone on the defensive and were being attacked by Ukrainian forces. These Russian troops were still short of supplies and growing more disillusioned and angrier at their own government. The Ukrainians were exploiting this by making it easier to surrender and be put back in touch with their families. The Russian troops in Crimea and Donbas were better supplied, but dismayed at the dismal performance of their government in planning and conducting this war. Russia had to worry about their troops’ willingness to die to maintain Russian occupation of Crimea and Donbas. These troops were more aware of the hostile international reaction to the invasion and the sudden collapse of the economy back home. Hunger and a sense of abandonment will do that to frontline troops and this rarely ends well for the national leaders who ordered the failed invasion. That’s why logistics are more important than tactics.