In the snow-dusted woods outside Kyiv a column of Ukrainian troops moves, identifiable by the soldiers’ yellow armbands.
In the rare footage, captured by Maryan Kushnir, a journalist with the Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe, one of the soldiers says they are going to clear an unidentified village of “orcs”– slang for the Russian troops now rapidly encircling the Ukrainian capital – who have occupied it with armoured vehicles. A commander warns that two tanks are coming, and as the men appear to fall back to a better position, there is an exchange of heavy fire. The video’s ending is as sudden as it is inconclusive.
Other videos to have emerged in recent days show similar scenes. Soldiers in urban settings crunch through debris, or traverse the darkened countryside for a planned ambush that is viewed through night-vision goggles, their friendly-force beacons flashing ghostly green on their helmets.
The images are of a piece with many others circulating on social media and elsewhere, and important for what they depict.
They show Ukrainian troops in combat, usually on foot, exploiting tangled woods or streets to set their ambushes, armed inevitably with anti-tank weapons, including British-supplied NLAWS and German Panzerfausts.
And with Russian forces significantly tightening their siege of key Ukrainian cities in recent days, including concentrating about 21-22 battalion tactical groups around the capital Kyiv, it is footage that demonstrates how the conflict has rapidly become a tale of two very different ways of waging warfare.
On the Ukrainian side – in tactics reminiscent of the Finnish resistance during the Winter War of 1939, when the Soviet forces were fought to a standstill by largely outnumbered Finnish troops – Kyiv’s successes have relied on highly mobile hit-and-run attacks on the slow-moving and congested Russian military columns.
And as more anti-tank weapons have poured in from the west for Ukraine’s defence, Russia’s tactics have switched to a slow and brutal kind of siege warfare in response, designed to encircle and break Ukraine’s cities and to force Ukraine’s military into a more static defensive positions where they can more easily be overwhelmed.
In a warning of what Russia’s new military tactics might mean for Ukraine’s defenders, Andrzej Wilk and Piotr Żochowski of the Warsaw-based thinktank, the Centre for Eastern Studies, noted the emerging challenge to Ukraine’s defenders in their most recent daily update on the war. “In most directions, Russian offensive operations have turned into positional combat, in which the aggressor attempts to encircle Ukrainian forces in the main urban centres and displace them from the smaller towns.
“[The Russians] will strive to fully close the encirclements of towns and cities where this has not yet happened, and to push the Ukrainian troops all the way into the built-up areas, regardless of how many losses they [Russians] suffer.”
Whether that succeeds – and how Ukrainian forces adapt – may well be defining.
One already grimly familiar model of what the coming phase of the war predicted by Wilk and Żochowski will look like has already been provided by the almost two-week-long Russian siege of the southern port city of Mariupol where at least 1,500 people have died in a constant bombardment that has trapped defenders and civilians in basements. On Saturday, as Ukrainian officials reported that Russia had shelled a mosque where 80 people were sheltering, the UN humanitarian office offered its latest update on the status of the city. “There are reports of looting and violent confrontations among civilians over what little basic supplies remain in the city,” the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. “Medicines for life-threatening illnesses are running out, hospitals are only partially functioning, and food and water are in short supply.”
As the UK’s Ministry of Defence warned on Friday that Russian forces could target Kyiv in a few days, evidence of the feared coming storm saw artillery pound the city’s northwestern outskirts on Saturday. as two columns of smoke – one black and one white – rose in the town of Vaslkyiv after a strike on an ammunition depot.
New commercial satellite images also appeared to capture artillery firing on residential areas that stood between the Russians and the capital. The images from Maxar Technologies showed muzzle flashes and smoke from big guns, as well as impact craters and burning homes in the town of Moschun, 20 miles from Kyiv, the company said.
The inequalities of the fight have also been underlined in different ways with American defence officials saying Russian pilots – despite well-documented losses – are averaging 200 sorties a day, compared with five to 10 for Ukrainian forces.
And there is growing evidence that the scope of the war is widening. Until recently, Russia’s troops had made their biggest advances on cities in the east and south, while struggling in the north and around Kyiv. Last week, however, Russian forces also started targeting areas in western Ukraine, where large numbers of refugees have fled, with Russia saying on Friday it used high-precision long-range weapons to put military airfields in the western cities of Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk “out of action.”
Russian airstrikes also targeted Dnipro, a major industrial hub in the east and Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, with about one million inhabitants. One person was killed, Ukrainian officials said.
Facing the challenges of the new Russian reliance on siege warfare, some analysts believe Ukraine’s defenders will have to adapt again to confront the new threat that poses, amid grim warnings that an already terrible conflict could yet turn darker.
“It’s ugly already, but it’s going to get worse,” said Nick Reynolds, a warfare analyst at Royal United Services Institute.