How Ukraine’s Maps Show Russia’s Extraordinary History of Failed War

Maps show that in just seven days, vast tracts of territory were returned to Ukrainian hands. But all may not be as it seems.

Russia’s withdrawal from large swathes of northern Ukraine has radically changed the focus of the war.

His campaign for the capital of kyiv was pushed back.

Now analysts are watching for signs of what Moscow will do next.

The cards seem to tell an extraordinary story.

In just seven days, vast tracts of territory were returned to Ukrainian hands.

The attempt to besiege kyiv was over. Russian troops and tanks had withdrawn from its outer suburbs. Fields and highways to the north – over which Kremlin forces had advanced – were empty.

But dramatic maps depicting the war’s shift between March 28 and April 4 can be misleading, military analysts and cartographers warn.

Moscow may never have controlled these territories in the first place.

This may all have been a card-induced illusion.

“Cartographic design choices on color, layout, lettering and symbology, for example, all influence our attitudes and feelings towards the war in Ukraine,” claim cartographers Doug Specht from the University of Westminster in the UK and Alexander Kent from Christ Church University in Canterbury.

“Maps are abstract representations that help us understand the changing global landscape, but none can fully represent the truth.”

This does not detract from the surprising success of the Ukrainian defenders.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged on Friday for the first time that Russia had suffered “significant troop losses”. But he insisted the withdrawal from Kyiv and Chernihiv was “an act of goodwill” – despite NATO estimates of between 7,000 and 15,000 dead.

“I would rather disagree with your characterization of what’s going on,” he said in an interview with Sky News.

What is known is that some 40,000 troops and their support equipment have withdrawn to Belarus and Russia. And cards like those of Institute for the Study of War (ISW) help detail the extent of their defeat.

Proceed in reverse

The Kremlin’s “special military operation” has changed course.

Its initial attack on several fronts appeared to be a “race to thunder”, a race to occupy key strategic centers such as the capital kyiv and the main port of Odessa.

Maps from the early days of the war show Russian Red Arrows penetrating deep into Ukrainian Green territory. They indicated a rapid advance, largely unopposed.

Ukrainian defenders had other ideas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces quickly bogged down. And it wasn’t just due to the muddy terrain. Ukrainian forces appear to have missed the spearhead of the Russian military before emerging from hiding to wreak havoc on their exposed supply lines.

And that’s something maps can’t convey, argue Specht and Kent.

“Describing territorial shifts in a rapidly evolving conflict is difficult, and even more so when an invading force depends on roads,” they write. “Although large areas of eastern Ukraine have been colored red to signify that they are under the control of the Russian military, this generalization – or homogenization of space – is misleading.”

Many maps showed large tracts of territory under occupation. But Moscow’s tanks and trucks have mostly been tied to Ukrainian roads due to weather conditions – and even the deliberate flooding of large swaths of farmland.

This means that most of the land between these important roads is not actually under Russian control.

Cartographers warn that oversimplified maps can “make Russian achievements appear more advanced and certain than they are on the ground”.

Finding True North

Six weeks into the war, Moscow discovered that it could not hold all the territory it wanted to occupy.

The details on the cards weren’t as black and white as they seemed.

“The search for clarity can make a complex war across multiple theaters seem simple with one inevitable outcome,” Specht and Kent explain.

Putin found out the hard way that he didn’t have the troops or the tanks to put down any resistance – let alone seize their objectives.

His army has bitten off more than they can chew.

And it’s probably because of all the little details that many maps overlook – the small towns and villages, the farms, the forests and the hills where the Ukrainian forces find refuge.

Putin seems to have accepted this reality. Thus, he withdrew his most exposed forces.

“I’m just telling you what we see,” a Pentagon official said Thursday. “We estimate that Russian forces near Kyiv and Chernihiv have completed their withdrawal from the area to reconsolidate and refit in Belarus and Russia. We do not show Russian forces in or around Kyiv or north of Kyiv. We do not show Russian forces in or around Chernihiv. »

Elsewhere, Putin’s forces appear to be clinging to the territory they have conquered.

Moscow initially committed some 130 battalion tactical groups (mobile combined arms assault formations) to the invasion of Ukraine.

“Of the total they’ve applied to this invasion, we still estimate they have a good number inside. Over 80. Again, we don’t have a perfect picture of every unit, but that’s pretty much what we see.

And that, cartographers warn, is another map pitfall: “Oversimplification, while familiar to all map users, cannot adequately reflect the dynamic nature of the invasion.”

Uncertain future

The ISW believes Russia is regrouping its forces for another major offensive in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the coming days. He expects the city of Mariupol to fall.

The Pentagon isn’t so sure.

“(There are) no real changes to report in eastern or southern Ukraine,” the Pentagon spokesman explained. “Mariupol remains isolated, but it has not been secured by the Russians despite some open source reports indicating the opposite of the Ukrainians surrendering Mariupol. We do not assess that this has happened.

The ISW assesses that the city is on the line, with no fighting seen in the city center since April 2. And efforts continue to evacuate its civilian population.

“Russian proxy forces claimed to have captured central Mariupol on April 7, but Ukrainian forces retain positions in the southwest of the city,” the ISW says. “Russian forces will likely attempt to regroup and redeploy units withdrawn from northeastern Ukraine to support an offensive, but these units are unlikely to enable a Russian breakthrough.”

And it is the state of these forces that the maps do not show.

We know next to nothing about the number or condition of Ukrainian defenders. And the situation in Russia can only be inferred from pictures and videos of destroyed equipment.

Ideally, a battalion battle group consists of approximately 800 men, ten tanks, six armored personnel carriers, 40 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 20 mobile artillery pieces, ten air defense vehicles and around 40 combat vehicles. support.

Their locations are marked on maps.

But few reveal how many soldiers were killed or wounded. They also do not detail destroyed, damaged or abandoned vehicles.

And the future of the evacuated Russian forces remains uncertain.

“We have now seen the Russians moving north into Belarus and into Russia for refit and resupply,” the Pentagon spokesman said. “We have seen indications that this refit and resupply is taking place, but I have nothing to report regarding a redeployment of these units to Ukraine. We have not seen these units redeployed.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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