Cities have been the nerve centers of power for millennia. Its relevance has been growing throughout history hand in hand with urbanization processes, and with it its strategic importance in wars has increased. The conflict in Ukraine is no exception. Since the beginning of their offensive, the Russian forces have targeted the main cities as an essential element to fulfill the maximalist political objectives pursued by the Kremlin. To date, the result has been enormous suffering for Ukrainian civilians and a host of setbacks for Russia that have disrupted the strategy of subjugation that Moscow clearly pursued. Ukrainian resistance in the cities is a key factor pushing the conflict into a new dynamic.
The Kremlin sought to subjugate Ukraine by going directly for kyiv, Kharkiv – the country’s second largest city – and other important centers. A month later, despite the enormous effort and the large number of casualties accumulated in their ranks, there are hardly any significant cities to their credit, an essential element to achieve the objective of changing the Government in Ukraine that they undoubtedly wanted. Mariupol resists, in kyiv the Russian forces retreat and consolidate positions instead of seeking to attack, Odessa seems beyond their capabilities. Faced with difficulties, Russia resorts to savage bombing. On Friday he announced a new phase of his offensive, in which he maintains that he will concentrate his action in the eastern region of Donbas.
“Russian forces are deliberately firing indiscriminately, very destructively,” says Anthony King, professor of war studies at the University of Warwick in the UK. “If they wanted only to degrade the capabilities of enemy combatants, the attacks would be more limited. Offensives as destructive as the one in Mariupol show a desire to provoke a psychological effect: to terrorize the population”, says King.
It remains to be seen what the new phase the Kremlin is talking about will actually consist of. For now, the bombardments continue, and have even hit Western areas less attacked so far, such as in Lviv on Saturday, with particular intensity. The kyiv authorities suspect that, given their failure in the maximalist option, Moscow will try to gain control of a large part of the south and east of the country, to split Ukraine in two in a sort of Koreanization. “There are reasons to believe that he is considering a Korean scenario for Ukraine. This is an attempt to create North Korea and South Korea in Ukraine,” said Brigadier General Kirill Budanov, according to the Unian agency.
In any case, the ability of the Ukrainian forces to defend most of the attacked cities is the key strategic element to date. Next, a look at different reasons, objective and subjective, that help to understand the resistance capacity in this first phase of the conflict and the perspectives for the next one.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
Military experts agree that urban warfare places a particularly advantageous position on the defender. The buildings and structures of cities offer extraordinary opportunities to hide and take refuge —especially when they have subway networks— and to strike unexpectedly at enemies who, in order to penetrate, are forced to parade through predictable and limited spaces such as the streets. or avenues. It is a combat so unequal that the manuals advise ratios of 10 attacking soldiers for each defender.
The Battle of Stalingrad—present-day Volgograd, some 600 kilometers east of Mariupol—is probably the epitome of horror (nearly two million people died, according to expert estimates) and strategic relevance (it marked a decisive reversal of the trend in World War II). World War) of modern urban combat. His story offers an anecdote that perfectly describes the consequences of the asymmetry between attackers and defenders in that context.
At the end of September 1942, a platoon of the 42nd Soviet Guards regiment took control of a four-story building in the Soviet city, later known as Pavlov’s House, after the last name of the sergeant in command of the unit. . The platoon managed to resist almost two months in the house against the attacks of the Nazi forces, taking advantage of the building with extraordinary intelligence and courage: its basements to take refuge, ceilings and multiple shooting angles to defend themselves, drilling holes in the structure to facilitate communications and movements. internal. A handful of Soviet soldiers managed to inflict such an enormous number of casualties on the Nazis that, as Antony Beevor points out in his Stalingradthe great commander Vasily Chuikov would later say that more German soldiers died to conquer the House of Pavlov than to subjugate Paris.
The attacker’s dilemma
The Stalingrad episode points to military difficulties that remain in force 80 years later, although technologies have advanced a lot. Given these circumstances, the commanders of a raiding force must decide to what extent to bomb —which softens resistance at immense civilian cost— and from there whether to launch raids —with the threat it poses to troops. The chosen balance point, in a way, defines the level of civilization of the society from which the military force in question emanates.
In this situation, the Russian military doctrine seems to choose to reduce exposure to these fierce hand-to-hand combats and bet on the lamination of resistance via massive bombardments. They did so in Grozny in the 1990s and in Aleppo in the past decade. And in Mariupol the pattern is similar. The city is suffering a very high degree of destruction. Some Russian units have entered the city, but, according to the Pentagon, it is not the bulk of the Kremlin forces in the area.
The destructive and frightening potential of city bombing is enormous, especially if it comes from a force with arsenals like the Russians. Instilling terror and plunging the population into despair is a way of trying to undermine support for the resistance led by political and military leaders. But this result is not assured: the majority of the citizens may react with a desire to fight and take revenge. And furthermore, as King points out, in these offensives the adversary’s military degradation is not equivalent to the degree of destruction achieved.
lack of precision
To militarily weaken the adversary, precision in the information about its location and in the strike is necessary. “Russian forces have been very incompetent in this regard, as evidenced by their failure to annihilate Ukraine’s anti-aircraft defenses yet,” says King. Either they didn’t have good information about their location or they didn’t have precision in their attacks. It is probably a mixture of the two factors. The Pentagon estimates that Russia still maintains a wide availability of missiles in its arsenals, but suffers from a shortage of precision-guided variants.
Another important factor conditioning the prospects for an urban assault by the Kremlin’s troops is the insufficient number of troops. Many military experts believe that, from the outset, the accumulated force for the invasion—estimated at between 150,000 and 190,000 soldiers—is not adequate for a wide-ranging operation in a country with the size and population of Ukraine. The strategy of attacking on multiple axes simultaneously has caused a dispersion of Russian forces and serious logistical and supply problems. “At no time have they achieved true ground force supremacy,” King observes.
In addition to the initial shortages, although the figures are not clear at this point, it is clear that Russia has suffered a considerable number of casualties. Moscow recognizes 1,300 dead soldiers and 3,800 wounded. The Pentagon considers that it has lost more than 10% of its initial combat strength. NATO sources point to even more.
Chain of command
Another important factor is that urban combat requires special sophistication in the chain of command and control. In contemporary military offensives, it is necessary to orchestrate a wide range of lines of action and technology. “Western countries, especially the US, have evolved very sophisticated command structures,” explains King. “In Russia, if you look at the Gerasimov (surname of the chief of the General Staff) doctrine, one would imagine that the Armed Forces would have modernized away from the traditional authoritarian, rigid, top-down model. I thought they had moved to another model. But the last few weeks have shown total ineffectiveness in managing a 21st century war.”
On the other hand, the Russians are facing Ukrainian forces that have so far put up a strong, agile and effective resistance. His willpower has not been broken. The supply of Western weapons – although limited – strengthens their fight, as well as the flow of intelligence information and advice. They have hampered advances by blowing up bridges, engaging airborne spearheads, battering support logistics, or holding out bravely within besieged cities.
All these circumstances determine the serious Russian difficulties in conquering cities, its recourse to the most barbaric version of the encirclement and bombing tactic and the announcement of the opening of a new phase that seems to assume the lack of capacity to conquer all the cities against which they have launched operations simultaneously.
Exclusive content for subscribers
read without limits