Russian Urban Warfare and the Assault on Kyiv

An apartment block in Kyiv after shelling during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Courtesy of Kyiv City Council / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

An assault on Kyiv will be bloody for both sides. But for the civilian population it will be devastating.

It is only a matter of time before Russian forces reach and complete the encirclement of Kyiv. Russian armoured units have advanced to the northern outskirts of the city, while satellite images show a build-up of 150 attack and transport helicopters in southern Belarus, less than a 100 miles from Kyiv, and large military convoys on their way to the capital. Although there has been confusion regarding the invasion aims, a consensus is emerging among Western officials and commentators that Russian forces will probably seek to secure key government administrative buildings and remove Ukraine’s incumbent government.

If Russian forces assault Kyiv, the Kremlin will be committing itself to the unavoidable risks of urban warfare. Notoriously difficult to fight, urban operations are the worst nightmare for military forces, commanders and political leaders. The likelihood of becoming bogged down in brutal house-to-house fighting is almost guaranteed – and an assault on Kyiv would require a huge commitment in resource and manpower, but more importantly place Russian forces in close contact with legally protected civilian populations and critical infrastructure. Hence, Russian commanders will need to consider in greater detail how they will apply force and interact with the urban population.

What, then, can we expect from a Russian urban operation? How will Russian forces interact with the civilian population? There are no straightforward answers. Russia’s approach to urban warfare – and civilian populations – is highly pragmatic, context dependent and driven by specific operational aims. While the flattening of Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, has, for many, epitomised Russian urban warfighting, it is not immediately clear whether Russia will resort to such destructive tactics in Kyiv.

The Constraints and Challenges of Urban Warfare

‘Urban warfare’, according to Anthony King, ‘has become a central, maybe even the defining, form of warfare in the twenty-first century. In the twentieth century, armies prepared to fight in the field. Today, it seems all but inevitable that they will fight in cities’. Urban operations have been a principal feature of the contemporary experience of Western militaries. During the Iraq War, coalition forces fought prolonged insurgencies in Sadr City, a densely populated suburb of Baghdad, and faced the gruelling task of retaking the city of Fallujah from insurgents in late 2004. More recently, Western militaries have been involved in eradicating the Islamic State in the Battles of Raqqa and Mosul – the latter being one of the most destructive cases of urban combat since the Second World War.

Urban centres are messy environments that are densely populated with complicated physical terrain and infrastructure; they are inherently political and social environments that are comprised of the interests and power relations of divergent and overlapping actors. Hence, despite the many tactical challenges experienced by those operating in the urban environment – the constraints it places on military units from conducting manoeuvre warfare and the limitations that dense urban areas and the subterranean environment place on the ability to see and strike an enemy – it is the presence of the civilian population that is the biggest factor in urban operations.

Kyiv’s civilian population appears determined to resist a Russian assault, with many civilians undertaking rudimentary weapons training and preparing to defend their homes

Given the density of protected populations and objects in urban environments, commanders will need to consider in greater detail how they apply force and interact with the urban population. Minimising the risk to civilians will maximise the legitimacy of the intervening force in the eyes of the urban population, which is integral to mission success in urban warfare. However, urban populations are rarely neutral; they may act to constrain, support or displace military operations.

A Bloody Assault

Russia’s multipronged invasion of Ukraine has not gone according to plan. Ukrainian resistance has been tougher than Russia’s military high command expected, and it appears that Russia’s armed forces are behind schedule in achieving their military objectives. One of these aims is Kyiv, which is Ukraine’s economic, political and strategic centre of gravity. To install a new pro-Russian government in Kyiv, Russia will need to take the city, but this will be extremely risky from a military and political standpoint.

Russia’s assault on Kyiv could play out in two principal ways. The first is to combine multiple levers of national power to coerce, compel and intimidate both the combatant and non-combatant populations. Drawing on Russian military thought, this approach understands civilians as instruments and legitimate targets of operations. In this scenario, Russian forces would target the enemy’s morale by blockading Kyiv and ensuring the control of its surrounding territories in order to isolate and weaponise the population’s access to key public goods, such as food, water and medical services. This appears to have already started with a reported Russian attack on an oil facility south of Kyiv in the early hours of 27 February. Such an attack is designed to deprive the Ukrainian population and military of a vital energy source. And on 1 March Russia bombed Kyiv’s main television tower, killing five civilians and wounding many others. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the aim of the airstrike was to suppress information attacks on Russia, suggesting that Ukraine’s information campaign to delegitimise the ongoing invasion is hurting the Kremlin. This should also be understood as an attempt to isolate Kyiv’s population from the outside world as Russian forces advance on the city.

Next, Russia may employ an aggressive information campaign with the aim of undermining the population’s resolve. These information campaigns can be used to turn the populace against the city’s defence force and to signal that Russian forces are in complete control of the situation. But the success of these information campaigns is contingent on how receptive the population is to Russian strategic communications. For now, Kyiv’s civilian population appears determined to resist a Russian assault, with many civilians undertaking rudimentary weapons training and preparing to defend their homes.

This psychological pressure would be accompanied by sustained long range precision fires to neutralise military positions, economic facilities and seats of political power. The aim is to paralyse the city as a socioeconomic organism and to force the urban population to exit Kyiv.

If less forceful measures fail to produce an effect, the Russian leadership may force themselves into believing that a bloody assault of Kyiv is their only option to secure Russia’s aims

In the eyes of the Ukrainian population, Russia has already lost the battle for legitimacy and a city assault would only reinforce this failure. The targeting of critical national infrastructure would prolong the misery of the civilian population. And, whether Russia uses precision guided munitions or not, the use of force in densely populated urban environments will inevitably result in collateral damage. Instead of eroding the resolve of Kyiv’s population, the use of force could actually stiffen resistance.

The other scenario is the levelling of Kyiv. Politically, this is the least palatable option for the Kremlin given the domestic and international outrage that it would cause. Russian leaders know that the deliberate destruction of civilian populations and infrastructure would be a violation of international humanitarian law. But, disturbingly, the Kremlin has tended to persist with the use of force when it is convinced of the virtue of its own cause. Russia’s recent airstrikes on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populace city, over the past few days indicate that Moscow has decided to conduct the war with higher levels of force in urban areas.

Russia’s experience of urban operations has tended to be at the expense of the civilian population rather than their protection. In the First Chechen War (1994–96), Moscow fought hard to ensure Chechnya remained a part of Russia, no matter what the cost. In utter disregard for the civilian population, many of which took refuge in basements for the duration of the battle, Russia resorted to the pounding of Grozny with mass artillery fire, sometimes at the rate of 4,000 rounds an hour, and eventually retook the city on 20 January 1995. In short, the rebels were punished for violating Russia’s territorial integrity at a time of perceived state weakness.

In Syria, Russia supported brutal siege and starve strategies – which compel non-state armed groups and urban populations to comply with local agreements only after prolonged unlawful sieges and bombardment – conducted among and against the people, with total disregard for civilian life and critical infrastructure. For Moscow, the targeting of populations was considered an acceptable short-term cost for the fulfilment of long-term goals: the preservation of regional stability and order through the establishment of a functioning Syrian state. Russia has used unguided bombs as well as thermobaric munitions, and it is reported that Russian airstrikes have killed between 6,000 and 18,000 people in Syria – although the number is probably higher.

If less forceful measures fail to produce an effect, the Russian military and political leadership may force themselves into believing that a bloody assault of Kyiv is their only option to secure Russia’s operational and political aims. However, this would not fit the political leadership’s narrative of protecting Ukraine’s population from Nazi extremists. In this regard, Russia may be constrained by its own political narrative and, as such, may choose not to use overwhelming force. Moreover, the vicious experience of Grozny, in which Russian forces suffered heavy casualties, will loom large in the minds of the military and political leadership.

One can only hope that continued negotiations between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations will lead to a positive outcome for the population of Ukraine.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Lance Davies

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