The Battle of Hostomel Airport: A Key Moment in Russia’s Defeat in Kyiv

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Editor’s note: The three authors recorded a companion podcast for this article for the Russia Contingency, the War on the Rocks members-only show that Michael Kofman hosts. To listen to the podcast, become a member today.

 

 

The battle for Hostomel Airport was the first major battle of the Russo-Ukrainian War (2022-present) and a decisive event in the war. This battle started on the morning of February 24 and lasted less than 36 hours. In the opening hours of the Russo-Ukrainian war Russian forces sought to seize a key airfield just 12 miles from the capital’s center. Additional airborne battalions would follow on transport planes. They would rapidly deploy, seek to take control of the city, and overthrow the government or make the leadership flee. Russia ultimately gained control of the airport but failed to achieve the objective of the assault. Ukrainian National Guard conscripts, backed by artillery units, were able to delay the elite Russian airborne troops long enough to prevent the Russian military from using the airfield as an airbridge to support a rapid seizure of Ukraine’s capital. 

Russia’s primary objective was to take control of Kyiv within 3-4 days. Vladimir Putin believed that if the Russian military could reach the capital quickly enough, President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government would capitulate, the population could be subdued, and a pro-Russian regime installed before effective resistance could be mobilized or the international community could react. This is undoubtedly why some senior U.S. officials, in the run up to the war, thought that Kyiv could fall within 72 hours.

Russian leadership planned a decapitation attack emphasizing speed of action, but it also involved substantial risk to the forces involved. Rather than a joint forces operation, with the destruction of Ukrainian armed forces as its main effort, Russia attempted a coup de main targeting Ukrainian leadership with the Hostomel operation as its centerpiece. Large incursions by maneuver forces along other axes were meant to take place simultaneously to generate paralysis in the Ukrainian armed forces. The operation was intended as a counterpart to extensive subversion and infiltration activities, with expectations in the Russian leadership that much of the Ukrainian resistance could be disabled from within. Moscow assumed it would not have to fight most of the Ukrainian military conventionally, but that once the capital was taken, parts of the military would stand down or could be readily isolated. 

 

 

This high-risk, high-reward strategy was not atypical given the number of such operations in Russian and Soviet history, including Operation Danube in 1968, Storm-333 in 1979, the seizure of Pristina airport in 1999, and the airborne airlift into Simferopol airport during the seizure of Crimea in 2014. If anything, the attempt was stereotypical of prior regime change operations. This risky approach to seizing the capital was also reminiscent of the initial failed attempt to secure Grozny in 1994, when a multiprong assault into the heart of the city went badly during the first Chechen War. Russian operations have often featured an opening move that involved securing a sizable airbase followed by a rapid buildup of airborne forces, which then attempted to secure the political leadership and set the conditions for a larger land force operation. 

Prior to the invasion, Russian intelligence had moved infiltrators into Kyiv and its suburbs, including Irpin and Bucha. All three of us have conducted fieldwork in Ukraine, and we have learned via interviews that there was an extensive infiltration and support effort ahead of the invasion whose goal would have been to enable Russian airborne and special forces to quickly access the capital. These pro-Russian saboteurs marked landing zones, attempted to secure infrastructure, and were tasked with other supporting efforts. The Russian military strategy was premised on the assumption that the right conditions had been established by intelligence services in Ukraine to enable a lightning assault that would paralyze Ukrainian leadership.

This, however, did not materialize. Russian intelligence grossly overestimated what they could accomplish, as Ukrainian intelligence and police were able to neutralize important elements of the Russian network in the run-up to the operation. Furthermore, Russian units executing the invasion appear to have had little notice regarding the plans and outlines of the operation. Many were surprised that their initial deployment along the border “on exercise” had transitioned to a complex scheme for a large-scale invasion involving tight timetables and numerous axes of attack. Ukraine’s military assumed a Russian attack would focus on the Donbas, rather than a large-scale invasion of the whole country, and positioned its forces accordingly. As a result, both forces were to some extent surprised by what they faced on the opening day of the war.

The Battle

Russia’s operational plan called for a rapid air assault into Hostomel Airport, while mechanized forces would concurrently advance on Kyiv from Belarus, on the western side of the Dnipro River, and from Russia, on the river’s eastern side. 

Hostomel Airport, a military airfield and base also called Antonov Airport, is located near Hostomel, a town in the Kyiv oblast about 12 miles northwest of Kyiv’s city center with a pre-war population of approximately 17,500. The military airbase included an 11,483 foot (3,500 meter) runway, capable of supporting the largest of transport aircraft, and several dozen single-story and multi-story structures — some up to six stories — and two large hangers. The built-up area, or cantonment area, was the home base of the Ukrainian National Guard’s 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade and located to the southeast of the runway. 

We believe the Russian military selected Hostomel due to its large runway, its location along the Russian military’s mechanized forces route of advance, it having defendable terrain around the airfield, and it likely having lighter defenses than other nearby airfields, so that a small strike force could seize and hold the airfield long enough for reinforcements to arrive by air or ground.

Russia’s assault force consisted of approximately 34 helicopters and 200 to 300 Russian airborne soldiers from the 31st Guards Air Assault Brigade and 45th Separate Guards Spetsnaz Brigade. Both units were part of the Russian Airborne forces, Vozdushno-desantnye voyska Rossii in Russian, commonly referred to as “VDV.” The helicopters included a mix of Mi-8 Hip transport aircraft — to carry the airborne soldiers — Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters, and a few older Mi-24 attack helicopters. The force staged from VD Bolshoy Bokov airport in Belarus, approximately 170 kilometers north of Hostomel. Their objective was to seize the airport and establish an airbridge to support the assault on the capital.

We believe the Russian military expected minimal resistance at Hostomel, since only a small number of Ukrainian forces were left to defend the capital. The 72nd mechanized brigade, which was charged with Kyiv’s defense, was still on the move from its garrison south of the city. While many Ukrainian units began moving the day prior, they had not yet reached their planned defensive positions when the airmobile strike force arrived at Hostomel. 

Thus, on the morning of the attack, approximately 200 soldiers from the Ukrainian National Guard’s 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade were left to defend the airport. The rapid reaction brigade was a new unit, organized according to NATO standards, combining light infantry, tanks, artillery, and surveillance drones. Ukraine expected Russia’s main effort to be in the Donbas region, so most of the brigade had been moved southeast. The 200 personnel left to guard the airfield were largely new conscripts and rear-echelon troops as opposed to combat soldiers. With the infantry, tanks, artillery, and drones out east, the defenders were left with small arms, older Igla man-portable air defense missile systems, and at least one ZU-23-2 towed 23×152 millimeter anti-aircraft gun to defend the airfield. They also had some air support consisting of two Ukrainian Su-24M bombers and two Mig-29 fighters. The handful of officers left were more akin to finance officers than infantry officers. Nonetheless, this small group had the enormous responsibility to defend the airfield.

Ukraine possessed the largest ground-based radar-guided air defense network in Europe, which it had inherited from the Soviet Union. This consisted of three brigades and two regiments of S-300PS/PT (SA-10) systems, a brigade of S-300V1s (SA-12), two brigades of Buk-M1s (SA-11), a few modernized S-125 systems (SA-3), and a mix of Osa (SA-8) short-range air defense systems, with reconditioned Tor (SA-15). The air defense network, combined with the skill of the operators, was arguably the most capable yet encountered by an air force in recent decades. The Russian Air and Space Forces were responsible for degrading and neutralizing this network, but analysts believed the aerospace forces were generally weak when it came to the dynamic targeting of enemy air defense systems and timely battle damage assessment of those systems. Consequently, they employed a static engagement plan, firing on pre-determined targets at pre-determined times. Thus, many of the Russian missile strikes on the morning of the assault struck fixed sites and predetermined targets, missing many of the Ukrainian air defense systems that began moving the day before. As a result, we believe the initial Russian attack was probably far less successful than the military had expected. 

The Russians commenced their attack on February 24th with pre-assault strikes across the city, the airbase, and the infiltration corridor. Two 3M14 Kalibr cruise missiles struck Hostomel airport around 6 or 7 a.m. but proved ineffective. One missed the barracks and instead cratered a nearby parade field; the second missed a nearby residential building. The Russian aerospace forces, however, were effective at suppressing some Ukrainian air defenses. Other elements targeted Ukrainian command and control, leaving the Ukrainian air force to contest the sky that morning. 

The Russian Aerospace Forces created a corridor for the air assault by successfully jamming some Ukrainian radars and damaging or suppressing two major air defense sites responsible for screening the Dnipro River north of the city. With Ukrainian air defenses weakened, Russian helicopters crossed the Belarusian border and entered Ukrainian airspace at approximately 9:30 a.m. They conducted a low-level, “nap of the earth” infiltration along the Dnipro River to avoid any Ukrainian radars that might have remained operational. They remained undetected until they neared the dam at the Kyiv hydroelectric powerplant just north of Kyiv around 10:30 a.m. After being spotted, Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles downed two of the lead helicopters near the dam. A damaged Ka-52 crash-landed near the river’s shore while a destroyed Mi-24 crashed into the river. Trailing helicopters fired their flares and avoided further losses.

Around 11 a.m., the attack formation neared Hostomel airport. As they approached, the attack helicopters broke to the north — to engage targets on the airfield — and the transport helicopters broke to the south — planning to land and secure the airfield’s barracks and facilities. The Ukrainian Commander, Maj. Vitalii Rudenko, was unaware of approaching helicopters until he heard the chopping of the helicopters’ rotor blades. Minutes later, the sounds of the rotors were drowned out by the sounds of rockets and machine gun fire from the attack helicopters.

But the Russians faced stiffer resistance than they expected. Rudenko had deployed his small force to defend the airfield earlier in the morning. Roughly 20 Ukrainian National Guard soldiers defended the radar at the northern end of the airfield with the ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns while the rest — which included a couple of squads of National Guard reinforcements that had been sent to help defend the airfield earlier in the morning — defended the airfield from battle positions at the airfield’s south. The Ukrainian military had also moved large trucks and other vehicles onto the airfield to make it unserviceable for fixed-wing aircraft until after the vehicles had been moved. 

 

 

It did not take long for the National Guard conscripts to make their presence known. As one of the KA-52 Alligators was making a strafing run, a soldier attempted to engage it with his 9k38 Igla (SA-24) infrared-homing surface-to-air missile system, but the Russian helicopter was too close. As it passed, he reacquired the attack helicopter in his sights and fired. The direct hit brought the helicopter careening onto the runway, fortuitously creating another obstacle. This successful engagement provided a morale boost that quickly spread across the Ukrainian fighters. The rear echelon conscripts started to believe that they could actually succeed in fighting the Russians. It was the first, but not the last, helicopter that these soldiers would bring down. Over the next two hours, the National Guard defenders appear to have downed two more KA-52s and one Mi-8s using a mix of man-portable air defenses, anti-aircraft guns, and small arms fire. 

Despite the resistance, the Russians eventually inserted the roughly 300 airborne soldiers onto the airfield in two waves of 10 helicopters each. Once on the ground, the soldiers — armed with just small arms, machine guns, and man-portable anti-tank weapons — moved out to secure the airfield and adjacent structures. Although these specific elements of the Russian airborne regularly trained for heliborne assaults, there is no evidence that the Russian units involved knew the plan sufficiently in advance or had time to rehearse it. The flat airfield also offered little cover or concealment for the Russian soldiers, whose numbers were too few relative to the force required to control an airbase of that size. 

Running low on ammunition, the Ukrainian National Guard soldiers had consolidated near the cantonment area just prior to the Russian insertion and were preparing to withdraw after exhausting their basic load of ammunition. For whatever reason, the National Guard conscripts failed to carry or cache the ammunition necessary for an extended fight.

Regardless, the Ukrainian National Guard soldiers conducted a deliberate withdrawal down a relatively narrow street on the airbase and were able to escape, largely unscathed. The Ukrainians claimed not to have suffered a fatality or a significant casualty during the battle. The fact that they were able to withdraw so easily leads credence to this claim, as they did not appear to be slowed by the evacuation of any litter patients. The 20 or so conscripts guarding the radar at the northern end of the base, however, were not as lucky. Surrounded by nothing but fields offering no concealed escape routes, they were among the first prisoners of the war. 

Around 1 p.m., nearly two hours after the battle’s start, the Russians finally secured the airfield, but they were left in a precarious position. The helicopters had returned to Belarus, and the airborne soldiers — lacking tanks and artillery — had to defend the airbase with only limited air support, possibly consisting of two Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack jets, until reinforcements could arrive. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces were mobilizing manpower and had a decisive advantage in fires around the capital.

The first Russian reinforcements were supposed to arrive by air. This force consisted of approximately 1,000 soldiers that had staged from an airbase in Pskov, Russia, approximately two hours (by air) from Hostomel. This force had loaded onto 18 Il-76 transport planes earlier in the day and appeared to be en route to Hostomel before the mission had to be aborted midair when the Russians failed to rapidly seize and secure the airfield. This was a pivotal moment in the then-nascent fight, but the reason why the Russian airborne abandoned their reinforcement plan is unclear. It may have been due to Ukrainian artillery fire targeting the airstrip, rendering it unusable, or it may have been the general inability of the Russian airborne to control the airfield. Alternatively, the Russian military may have been concerned about losing Il-76s due to residual air defenses after having lost 6-7 helicopters during the assault. 

The second set of Russian reinforcements were the mechanized and armor forces that were advancing toward Kyiv from Belarus on the west side of the Dnipro River. After the initial Russian mechanized forces crossed the Ukrainian border at 4 a.m. on the morning of February 24, they only had to drive 79 miles by road to reach Kyiv. The Russian plan likely assumed that either the transport planes or mechanized forces would reach the airport by late afternoon, but neither was the case. The advancing mechanized forces were encountering their own difficulties while fighting along the narrow corridor through Chernobyl and Ivankiv, meaning the Russian Airborne forces would be on their own through the first night. 

The Counterattack

The Ukrainian military recognized the strategic importance of Hostomel Airport. If Russian forces could hold the airfield and establish an airbridge, the capital would be at grave risk. Thus, Ukrainian military leadership immediately ordered a counterattack to retake the airfield with elements from the 80th Air Assault Brigade, 95th Air Assault Brigade, 72nd Mechanized Brigade, and the 3rd Special Purpose Regiment of the Special Operations Forces (SSO). Volunteers, consisting of veterans and other Ukrainian citizens, also took up arms to support the counterattack and defend Kyiv, as they did throughout the country in the early hours and days of the invasion. The air assault forces launched from Zhytomyr utilizing helicopters, while mechanized forces moved by land from a military base at Bila Tserkva, approximately 60 miles south of Hostomel.

Around 3:30 p.m., President Volodymyr Zelensky declared, “The enemy [airborne soldiers] in [Hostomel] have been blocked, and troops have received an order to destroy them.” Yet the attack would not begin until closer to sunset (around 5:30 p.m.). Around 4 p.m., CNN reporter Matthew Chance was surprised to be greeted by the Russian airborne soldiers establishing blocking positions on the perimeter of the airfield. Shortly before sunset, the Ukrainian counterattack started with strikes from artillery and Su-24 bombers to soften the Russian defenses. As the ground assault commenced, some of the Ukrainian soldiers noted that the Russian airborne soldiers failed to occupy good defensive positions and found it fairly easy to dislodge them. One Ukrainian soldier described engaging the minimally protected Russian forces on the airfield as being like “playing a video game, just shooting and knocking them down from our positions outside the airfield.” 

Before the night was through, Ukrainian soldiers claimed to have retaken the airfield after killing many of the airborne soldiers; the remainder having retreated into the woods to the airfield’s west. By 9 p.m., the 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade posted an image on their Facebook page of soldiers celebrating the victory, but their stay on the airfield would also be short-lived. The Ukrainians knew that the Russian mechanized forces were closing in from the north and that they lacked the combat power to hold the airfield, so they withdrew. But as they were withdrawing, the Ukrainians used artillery and aerial bombardments to crater the runway to make it unusable as an airbridge for Russia’s invasion.

The following morning, February 25th, Russian ground forces reached the airport and took control again. The Eastern Military District’s grouping of forces was intended to screen the Russian airborne operation, encircling the city from the west and preventing reinforcement. Ukrainian officials initially denied claims that Russia controlled the airport, but by the end of the day Ukrainian officials admitted that Russia controlled the airport after the Minister of Defense declared that the airfield was too damaged to be used. 

The Aftermath and Lessons Learned

The battle of Hostomel was arguably the most critical battle of the Russo-Ukrainian war to date. Although the Ukrainian military was unable to maintain control of the airfield, the National Guard conscripts delayed the assault long enough to prevent Russia from immediately using Hostomel airport as an airbridge. Ukrainian forces north of the city also delayed the mechanized battalions advancing south from Belarus long enough to create a window for Ukrainian forces to counterattack and deliberately crater Hostomel’s runway enough to make it unusable. 

The failure at Hostomel was compounded by the slowness of the Russian advance from Belarus, which forced the Russian troops to attempt to seize the capital without the element of surprise, days behind schedule. But based on how events played out over the next month — through a series of seemingly haphazard and uncoordinated attacks in Irpin, Bucha, Moshchun, and other Kyiv suburbs — it appears that the Russian leadership had not developed a serious alternate plan. Ukraine lacked suitable defenses and defensive forces on the city’s western side during the first week of the war, but the Russian military failed to adapt, sticking with the original plan to assault from Hostomel into the city center. They also failed to complete an encirclement of the city, which allowed Ukrainian forces to reinforce the capital. 

Having failed in establishing an airbridge and the abortive attempt at a rapid victory, the Russian military was forced to fight Ukrainian forces entrenched in the urban sprawl around Kyiv. Russian units, which privileged maneuver warfare with mechanized formations, lacked the training and failed to adequately prepare for combat in dense urban environments. Airborne units, without the preparation and training to effectively operate in urban environments, were not more elite than the regular Russian infantry. Beyond the challenges in the city, the Russian military also faced challenges to its supply lines. Ukrainian forces strangled the narrow ground lines of communications that ran from Belarus by blowing bridges, flooding rivers northwest of the city, and conducting ambushes. The Russian sustainment problem was born not of a general logistical failure, but of effective Ukrainian efforts to stymie the Russian advance from Belarus, including destroying bridges and flooding rivers.

Over the next month, Ukrainian forces steadily attritted the Russian forces, ultimately decimating the best trained components of Russia’s airborne, Spetsnaz, and special forces units. On March 25th, the Russian military announced a withdrawal from Kyiv (having never penetrated the city’s limits), and by April 1st, Russian forces had pulled out of Hostomel, giving up on their goal to seize the capital and win the war quickly. By April 6th, Russian forces had completely withdrawn from Kyiv Oblast. The lack of trained infantry and the losses suffered in the early weeks of the war would have a lasting impact on the Russian campaign in 2022, which suffered from a structural deficit in manpower, especially forces capable of fighting in urban terrain.

This battle offers many lessons: It demonstrated the necessity of having sufficient supporting fires — from artillery and/or aircraft — for deep strike operations. Lacking this vital asset, Russian forces were vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery fire coming from the capital, with no ability to counter their fire since no artillery had been included in the air assault. As a result, the airborne forces failed to seize and secure the airfield quickly enough to support the assault on the capital. 

The battle also demonstrated the importance of attaining and retaining air superiority early on. The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) had some initial success when it came to jamming radars and suppressing fixed sites, but were not effective at dealing with mobile air defense systems once they deployed. In the opening days of the war, they forced Ukrainian air defense systems to displace to survive, but a few days later, Ukraine’s ground-based air defense systems came back online and began to close the skies to Russian airpower. When the initial invasion plan failed, the Russian VKS found itself without the capability, experience, or the plan to take on Ukraine’s air defense network. Although it had success in the short term in initially taking on Ukrainian air defenses, the Russian VKS did not prioritize training to destroy ground-based air defenses as a key mission, given that NATO militaries banked on attaining air superiority and had divested ground-based air defense in their force structure. Having failed to achieve a knockout blow to Ukraine’s air defense, Russian forces were not able to gain the air supremacy or air superiority that they likely expected to enjoy for the duration of the war. 

This pivotal battle also illustrates the primacy of political assumptions in shaping the concept of operations and military strategy — in this case, to detrimental results. Russian forces attempted a high-risk operation, which could and did, go wrong. Had they invaded Ukraine as a joint force operation, assuming a prolonged conventional campaign and extensive resistance, the outcome would be uncertain at best. Yet while many of the Russian assumptions behind the invasion plan were fundamentally incorrect, the initial assault was not doomed to failure. A stubborn defense and counterattack by Ukrainian forces at Hostomel was decisive in scuttling Russian attempts to conduct a decapitation attack. Had the Russian operation at Hostomel gone differently, and Russian forces entered the capital in those early hours, it may have had a cascade effect on the course of the overall invasion. 

The details above remain an early and at best imperfect attempt to capture this history. What they should illustrate is how contingent history truly is, and the importance of agency. The actions of individual commanders, soldiers, and citizens can and did have a profound impact in a pivotal battle that would help decide the course of the war.

 

 

Liam Collins, is executive director of the Madison Policy forum and a fellow at New America Foundation. He was the founding director of the Modern War Institute at West Point and served as a defense advisor to Ukraine from 2016 to 2018. He is a retired Special Forces colonel with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and South America. He is co-author of the book Understanding Urban Warfare.

Michael Kofman is a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment. His research focuses on Russia, specializing in Russian armed forces, military thought, capabilities, and strategy. Previously he served as Director of the CNA Russia Studies Program, along with prior research fellowships at Modern War Institute, Wilson Center, Center for New American Security, and National Defense University, Department of Defense.

John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute, codirector of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project, and host of the Urban Warfare Project Podcast. He served twenty-five years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq. He is the author of the book Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connection in Modern War and coauthor of Understanding Urban Warfare.

Image: Kyiv City State Administration

Correction: An earlier version of this article mis-identified the commander of the units defending Hostomel airport. The article has been updated with the correct name.

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