Has Putin Heeded Warnings from the History of Urban Warfare?News Abroad
tags: military history, Red Army, Stalingrad, Ukraine, Chechnya, Grozny, Urban Warfare, Guerilla Warfare
History Professor Brian Glyn Williams is author of a history of the Russian-Chechen wars, Inferno in Chechnya, and The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum. The Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime. He worked in Afghanistan for the US Army’s Information Operations and CIA’s CTC and his website can be found at brianglynwilliams.com
Aaron Rawley is Coordinator at the Gore Place Historical Museum, Waltham Mass.
Editor's Note: This article was prepared for publication prior to the recent decision by Russian military leadership to withdraw forces from around Kyiv in what may prove to be be either a short-term tactic or a long-term change in strategy and an abandonment of the goal of capturing the Ukrainian capital. Nevertheless, urban warfare has been engaged elsewhere in Ukraine, and the prospect of this type of fighting will remain significant in the ongoing war against Ukraine.
Soviet troops advance through rubble in Stalingrad, Feb. 1943.
An Enemy at the Gates (Despite Recent Offer to Withdraw Forces)
At first glance Russia’s widely lambasted thrust from Belorussia down to the Ukrainian capital appears to have stalled due to logistic issues that have been compounded by unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian interdiction and ambush attacks since the beginning of the invasion. The Russian repulses from towns to the north, east, and west of Kyiv, such as Irpin, Makariv, and Lukyanivka, in the last week of March have removed their Grad missile strike capacity from the heart of the capital. This has saved the city, for the time being at least, from the almost apocalyptic destruction the Russians have wreaked on the towns of Mariupol and Kharkiv.
Perhaps in recognition of these stunning battlefield defeats by the outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainians, on March 29th Russia announced it would significantly scale back operations near Ukraine’s capital. Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said Moscow has decided to “fundamentally cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv” to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”
But Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky captured the skepticism of many Ukrainians and their Western backers when he said he did not trust the word of the country that continues "fighting to destroy us.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested Russian offers of a pullback could be an attempt by Moscow to “deceive people and deflect attention.” He cautioned “There is what Russia says and there is what Russia does, and we’re focused on the latter.” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby cautioned the U.S. has detected small numbers of Russian ground forces withdrawing from the Kyiv area, but it appeared to be a repositioning of forces, “not a real withdrawal.” It does not mean the threat to Kyiv is over. They can still inflict massive brutality on the country, including on Kyiv.” He also warned "So we ought not be fooling, and nobody should be fooling ourselves, by the Kremlin's now-recent claim that it will suddenly just reduce military attacks near Kyiv, or any reports that it's gonna withdraw all its forces."
Prior to this surprise Russian announcement on March 29th (that many observers see as a ruse that will allow Putin to regroup his battered forces), Britain’s Ministry of Defense warned on March 23 that the Russians were “likely reorganizing before resuming large-scale offensive operations." Tellingly, just before the announcement, Putin asked for reinforcements from his ally and fellow autocrat, Belorussian leader Alexander Lukashenko. The Institute for the Study of War also reported on March 27th “Russian forces have not abandoned efforts to reconstitute forces northwest of Kyiv to resume major offensive operations.”
A March 28th report on the progress of the war similarly stated, “Despite the Kremlin’s announcement that it was shifting its focus to the eastern Donbas region, the Russians do not appear to have given up on their attempts to encircle Kyiv.” Ominously for the Ukrainians, a mass Russian conscription drive, which is expected to bring in reinforcements on April 1, will provide Russia with fresh, new forces to restart major offensives in the country. There are many reasons for the NATO and the Ukrainians not to trust the Russians who famously lied on January 27th just before the invasion claiming “Russia has no plans to invade either Ukraine or any other country. It's a bluff created not in Russia, but in those countries that are now spreading this hysterical message.”
If the Russians, who are currently focusing their efforts on breaking out of the eastern separatist-controlled Donbas region and on crushing the remarkable resistance in the rubbleized city of Mariupol, do manage to achieve victories on these two fronts, it will allow them to commence a pincer movement on the capital (for an updated map of the war see here). Despite their recent claims to be withdrawing from the Kyiv region, the Russians have signaled their intent to continue their bloody war by calling up reservists. They have also begun to transfer thousands of highly experienced, combat-tested Wagner contract troops from Georgia and Syria to Ukraine.
While some in the Russian high command have recently shifted their official war aims from their earlier rhetoric of “de-Nazification” of the Ukrainian government, and now claim Russia’s war aims are strictly about military actions in the eastern separatist Donbas region, it is unlikely that Putin will accept the repulse of his troops. The Russian leader is a maximalist used to achieving victories on battlefields as far afield as Georgia, Chechnya, Crimea and Syria. He may yet push his depleted forces, which have already lost more than ten percent of their combat effectiveness, into a bloody attack on Kyiv if he has reinforcements and battlefield successes in the south and east. And if there is a withdrawal of Russian forces from their stalled campaign around Kyiv, they will most likely be used elsewhere to create breakthroughs that will make an attack on the Ukrainian capital possible in the future.
The Russians’ chaotic February 24th invasion of Ukraine---which I described as “Operation Shock and Awful” in a video history of the first two weeks of the campaign—has clearly failed in its coup attempt to overthrow Volodymyr Zelensky’s democratically elected government in a lightning campaign. But the far more powerful Russian troops are far from finished and they are adapting and probing. Comparing the recent Russian siege preparations around Kyiv to Putin’s siege and tactical annihilation of Grozny, the capital of the breakaway Muslim republic of Chechnya, one analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute has written “I hate to use this term, but I think the ‘Grozny-fication’ of Kyiv has begun.” When asked if Putin could inflict the sort of mass destruction on Kyiv that he used to kill tens of thousands in Grozny and Aleppo, Russian military expert Michael Kofman replied “Yes, this is the guy who could level a city.” While these assessments might be overly pessimistic, especially considering the fact that the stubborn defense of smaller Ukrainian towns might persuade Putin not to storm the massive Ukrainian capital, a Grozny-style mass destruction assault on Kyiv is still possible.
If the stalled peace talks do not make progress on the larger issues of Ukraine’s status and Putin’s “Special Military Operation” does transition to siege warfare in Kyiv this spring or summer, it could potentially lead to the most bloody and intense urban battle since the 1994 and 2000 Russian tactical destruction of Grozny. Considering the size of the Ukrainian capital, a Russian assault on it could easily surpass the Battles of Grozny in its intensity and could become the largest urban battle since World War II. The scale of warfare in Ukraine today of course pales in comparison to the clash of Nazi and Soviet tectonic plates at Stalingrad. But there are plenty of what the military calls “lessons learned” to take away from this titanic 1942-3 battle and the far less studied Battles of Grozny and Mosul, Iraq (2016-17).
Stalingrad is of course a byword for bloody urban warfare and serves as an obvious warning to the Russians who are now logistically over-extended invaders, not firmly-entrenched defenders. But, as will be shown, the remarkable defense of Chechnya’s capital of Grozny by a highly skilled force of Chechen highland fighters and the defense of Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul by a fanatically determined force of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) jihadists also provide cautionary tales for the Russians. The tales of these three cities’ epic defenses provide lessons for Putin on the dangers that await his troops should he send them plunging into a massive “urban forest” battle against a surprisingly resilient NATO-backed Ukrainian defense force (a force that a NATO intelligence source reports has already killed between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian troops.)
Stalingrad. History’s Deadliest Urban Battle.
While most students of history recognize, in general terms, that Stalingrad was a massive defeat for Adolf Hitler, many do not know the details of this battle that ground down the Nazis’ finest army in a maze of rubble on the banks of the Volga River. The Battle of Stalingrad, which pitted the German Wehrmacht’s elite 6th Army (part of Army Group South A) against Red Army defenders of the 62nd Army and other forces from August 23, 1942 to February 2, 1943, saw the highest intensity urban combat in history. The fast-moving Germans, who had already overrun vast swaths of Ukraine, Russia and Belorussia in Operation Barbarossa, began the offensive by turning much of the Stalingrad into rubble. They did so by systematically fire-bombing the city in the second largest aerial bombardment of World War II. The Wehrmacht’s better armed troops then pushed back the Soviet defenders to a 9-mile thin corridor along the Volga River in the heart of the city.
Victory for the steamrolling Nazi forces seemed imminent. But, to their surprise, Stalingrad’s defenders proved to be remarkably resilient and were able to resupply troops and munitions from across the Volga and send in a seemingly endless wave of reinforcements to defend the city and their Rodina (Motherland). The Soviets buried tanks and machine-gun pillboxes in the city’s rubble to surprise the attackers, saturated the streets with landmines, and killed thousands of Germans in the most deadly and sustained sniper campaign in history. One legendary Soviet sniper, Vasily Zaitsev, was said to have killed more than two hundred Germans.
To compound matters, the defenders also used the bombed-out buildings to hide their movements and “hugged” (fought in close quarters) with the Germans to prevent them from being supported by artillery and aircraft bombardments. By the summer of 1941, the previously confident Nazis had become stalled in an urban meat-grinder as their famed ability to maneuver in blitzkrieg fashion and utilize their superior firepower was negated by the city’s terrain and urban defenses. The Germans, whose armies were trained for mobile operations in fast moving open battles like the lightning conquest of France, Belgium and Holland in 1940, were not as adept at urban warfare. This worked to the Soviets’ advantage and they made the Germans fight on their terms in a city they knew well in a style of warfare that did not fit into the Wehrmacht’s playbook. This translated to fighting house by house and street by street to capture terrain above ground. Below the city’s streets, the subterranean resistance in cellars and sewers transformed the war into what the dismayed Germans called “rattenkrieg” (rat war). One Soviet defender left a rare eyewitness account of the result of a Red Army counterattack on the Germans which captured the brutality of the street warfare;
The earth was literally littered with corpses. We surrounded them tightly, and then our "Katyusha" [rockets] opened fire. God, it chopped them up! The Germans there had thousands of trucks, cars - mostly dumped into gullies, as they had neither the time nor the means to destroy them, thousands of guns.
As the Germans became bogged down and were repulsed over 700 times, the Soviets broke out, launched a bold counter offensive on their flanks outside the city, and wiped out or captured their support elements. In the end, the trapped Nazi army was shattered and between 850,000 and 1.5 million German and allied Italian, Hungarian and Romanian troops were killed in the costliest battle of the war. The astounding destruction of Hitler’s most powerful army served notice to the defeat of the once unstoppable German war-machine on the Eastern Front and created a template for the study of urban defensive warfare to this day.
While living in the Soviet Union in the winter of 1985/86, I (henceforth the lead author Williams) was given a tour of the Museum of the Soviet Army in Moscow, and the emphasis there was on the unbreakable fighting spirit of the Red Army soldiers in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ defense of Stalingrad. There is much merit to this argument. In his history of the battle, Antony Beevor wrote, “The biggest mistake made by German commanders was to have underestimated Ivan, the ordinary Red Army soldier. They quickly found that surrounded or outnumbered Soviet soldiers went on fighting when their counterparts from western armies would have surrendered.” As will be shown, Putin’s biggest mistake seems to have been underestimating the Ukrainian Ivans and their remarkable sense of determination to defend their Ukrainian Rodina from his invading forces.
The Ukrainians certainly do not have the resources to throw hundreds of thousands of cannon fodder troops and thousands of tanks into a titanic battle the way the trans-continental Soviet Union did. Nor do they have Stalin’s ability to issue a “no step back” decree calling for anyone who retreated to be executed. And the sheer scale of the Battle of Stalingrad between two totalitarian juggernauts, in which more than a million Soviets died, dwarfs the impending battle for Kyiv, should it occur. But there are lessons to be learned from the epic rout of the Nazis in Stalingrad. For example, the Red Army tactics of “hugging” a more heavily armed invader (to prevent them from calling in airstrikes or artillery that could kill their own troops) can prevent the Russian attackers of Kyiv from calling for mortar, missile, artillery and air support against their opponents in close street fights. In other words, the Ukrainians gain an advantage if they can fight at close quarters with their enemies, instead of attacking them from afar where they can be targeted by Russian suppression fire. The Ukrainian Azov Battalion tactic seems to have kept the militarily superior Russians from seizing the town center of Mariupol for over a month as their troops have been forced to fight street by street, building by building, and room by room against a stubborn enemy in close proximity.
Kyiv also has an extensive subway, sewer and underground system and tunnels below ground which can be used by “rat” defenders the way Stalingrad’s defenders used their tunnel system. Kyiv’s underground was built in the height of the Cold War to double as a bomb shelter and was meant to survive air attacks. Its Arsenala Station is considered to be the deepest in the world. And Stalingrad-style sniping or launching mortars from pre-prepared positions on pre-vectored/pre-prepped attack routes can certainly help the Ukrainians turn Kyiv into a grinding urban street fight the Russian Federal forces want to avoid. Ominously for the Russians, among the Ukrainian defenders are a woman sniper who already has 10 confirmed kills in fighting with Russians in the breakaway Donbas region of the east. And in a sign of things that could come, a top Russian general was killed by a Ukrainian sniper in early March.
Another takeaway from the Battle of Stalingrad is the importance of keeping supply lines open. The Germans were never able to fully surround the besieged Russian city and its Soviet defenders were able to keep supplies flowing to their defenders over the Volga River at night. This lifeline kept their remarkable defense alive. To achieve their objective of “regime change” and the installation of a pro-Russian puppet government in Ukraine, the Russian Federal forces will have to defeat the defenders in Kyiv and gain control of the capital. That will mean cutting off its vital supply lines to the city’s defenders. The Russians today have not been able to deploy armies to encircle Kyiv from the south due to unexpectedly heavy resistance in towns like Mariupol, Mykolaiv, and elsewhere in the south. Thus far, only the northern half of the Russian pincer has closed in on Kyiv and it has been stalled for a month and now recently repulsed.
But even if the Russian Federal forces do overcome the heroic resistance of Mariupol and move north, completing the encirclement and strangulation of the massive city of Kyiv will be a herculean task. Especially considering the Russians’ remarkable ineffectiveness in cutting off the supply lines to the besieged city of Kharkiv, despite having systematically destroyed much of Ukraine’s second largest city with indiscriminate bombardments.
As will be shown below, the Russians failed in the first Chechen War of 1994-96 to cut off the Grozny defenders’ supply lines to the mountains or to prevent infiltration by their skilled enemies. This played a major role in their defeat in that conflict against a small people of approximately a million which stunned and humiliated the Russians. Today, Putin’s invading force of approximately 150,000 does not appear to have the near the number of troops required to wage warfare on several fronts in the north, east, and south and effectively encircle and cut off supply lines to the massive Ukrainian capital. And the Ukrainians, who have blown up strategic bridges, opened dams to flood roads, and attacked and harassed the invaders’ congested supply lines from Belarus, are making progress difficult for the stalled Russian units to the north of the capital.
And then there is the fighting will of the Ukrainian people. As the valley by valley defection of the Afghan National Army and nationwide collapse of the Afghan people’s fighting morale in the face of the Taliban advance in the late summer of 2021 demonstrates, a people lacking the will to fight cannot prevail. The Ukrainians, who have received far less training, hardware, and financial support than the Afghan forces (whose 20 years of training and equipment, including the creation of an air force, cost a staggering $83 billion), are not inclined to surrender their freedoms the way a critical mass of Afghans did to the Taliban in August 2021. The Ukrainians are up against a much more powerful enemy than the lightly-armed Taliban Pashtun tribal force of 80,000 who defeated an Afghan National Army of over 300,000 nominal troops. The Taliban lacked the sort of air force, tanks, navy (of the sort being used to launch missiles from the Black Sea and carry out amphibious operations), rockets, and artillery that Russia has deployed against the outmatched Ukrainians.
The fact that the Pashtun Taliban were able to exploit ties to fellow Pashtuns in the Afghan military to convince them to betray their government en masse and defect proved to be crucial to their surprising success in the summer of 2021 (which I predicted months earlier). But the Ukrainians, many of whom once had close ties to Russia (especially in the east along the Russian border) have been united like never before in opposition to Russia by Putin’s barbaric destruction of their towns (including towns like Kharkiv with large Russian populations). The sense of unity and volunteerism in Ukraine is remarkable. This people, whose army of just 145,000 troops is vastly outnumbered by the Russian army of 900,000, are not only stubbornly standing their ground against larger, better armed forces, they have (by late March) gone on the counter-offensive around Kyiv, in the south around Kherson, and in the northeast around Kharkiv. In their greatest offensive since the war began, they also pushed the Russians on the east of the capital back from 12 miles to 34 miles and liberated the Russian-besieged suburbs of Hostomel and and Irpin.
The Ukrainians clearly share Grozny and Stalingrad defenders’ fighting mettle and resemble the vastly outgunned Finnish ski guerillas who ground down a massive Soviet invasion in the 1939-40 Russo-Finish “Winter War” (and created the first Molotov cocktails to be used against the Soviets to honor Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov). The Ukrainians’ will to fight also resembles that of the Afghans who tenaciously fought to repel the mechanized Soviet 40th Limited Contingent invading force of 100,000 from 1979-89, despite losing over a million people (they were far more united against invading outsiders, like the Brits and Soviets, than against insiders like the local Taliban). One Afghan mujahideen rebel commander, Ahmed Khan, an Uzbek clan leader I interviewed in his northern desert bastion of Samangan, captured his people’s defiance. He did so in terms that certainly apply to the Ukrainians today who are beginning a struggle that could become transgenerational, stating;
When the Urus Kafirs [Russian infidels] invaded our lands, my father the khan led our people against them in jihad. When he was martyred, my uncle led the villagers against them. When he died in fighting the invaders, my oldest was made leader of the resistance. After he was slain in the jihad, I was made commander and am now training my son to continue the fight I am waging against the Taliban invaders from the south.
Ukrainian Anastasiia Lapatina captured her people’s determination to resist the Russians in Afghan fashion for The New York Times writing;
We are defiant. With every act of bravery and courage, Ukrainians show that we are ready to pay the highest price for democracy — ours and the world over. In this battle, we will not surrender and we will not capitulate. Because our freedom is immutable.
The 32-year-old mayor of the small Ukrainian town of Voznesensk similarly proclaimed “Everyone is united against the common enemy. We are defending our own land. We are at home.” In his comparison between the defenders of Stalingrad in 1942 and those in Kyiv today, Robert Fry wrote, “Both were and are animated by a passionate loathing for an invading army given to atrocity, an indefatigable patriotism forged by external aggression and a rare civil/military/political unity. Whether 21st century Ukrainians have the same barely credible endurance and fortitude as the men and women defending Stalingrad remains to be seen.”
But the Ukrainian resistance outside of Kyiv does not remain to be seen and has already been vividly displayed on all fronts. A fighter in the town of Voznesensk’s defense unit that killed more than a 100 Russian troops, shot down an armor-plated Hind 24 helicopter gunship and destroyed 30 of their 43 tanks and armored personnel carriers proclaimed, “We didn’t have a single tank against them, just rocket-propelled grenades, Javelin missiles and the help of artillery. The Russians didn’t expect us to be so strong. It was a surprise for them. If they had taken Voznesensk, they would have cut off the whole south of Ukraine.” Former Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, who has armed himself to fight with the troops on the frontlines, has vowed “Putin will meet hell and the Russian people and soldiers who come here to kill Ukrainians will pay the big price.”
The Ukrainians are currently making the Russians pay a high price for invading their lands, just as the Finns and Afghans did in the 1930s and 80s. They appear to have repulsed or blunted the first wave of Russian assaults in a month of fighting and even succeeded in killing six top Russian generals. But they are also paying a heavy price and, in a sign of things perhaps to come, much of northern Kyiv has already been rubbleized by massive Russian artillery and air bombardments. A Ukrainian living in the northern suburbs of Kyiv described the damage as follows;
Today, with the Russian military trying to establish a foothold there, those cities look like the hellscape of Stalingrad. The Ukrainian military is fighting until the bitter end to prevent Russians from advancing to surround the capital, with all bridges in the city suburbs destroyed
One analyst has written of the Russian transformation of these suburbs into rubble “It doesn’t even matter strategically (as opposed to humanly and morally) if the attacker destroys the city — rubble just creates better defenses.” Urban fighters in these northern districts have already used this rubbleized terrain to ambush Russian forces. Kyiv’s defenders find inspiration in the story of the “Hero City” of Stalingrad’s defense. One Kyivan captured his people’s will to fight and used Stalingrad as a warning defiantly stating “Look, Hitler managed to destroy numerous Soviet cities, laid siege to them but couldn’t not take them…What Putin doesn’t realize is that Kyiv and Kharkiv are his Stalingrads.”
Grozny “The Terrible.” Graveyard of the Russians.
As the Soviet Union unraveled in the early 1990s, the Chechens, a pre-Aryan highlander people living in the peaks of the north Caucasus flank for eons, defied Moscow and boldly reclaimed their ancient independence. In response, in November 1994, Russian president Boris Yeltsin ordered the invasion of their small breakaway mountain republic. The Kremlin thought the campaign would be a “small victorious war” that would help the president in the polls and remove the stigma of defeat from the Soviets’ humiliating defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the fall of 1994, the Russian general Pavel Grachev confidentially invaded the micro republic with a massive mechanized fighting force of 60,000. His tank and artillery columns moved across the northern sub-Terek River plains to capture its capital of Grozny in the foothills of the mighty Caucasus Mountains. The goal was, like America’s subsequent 2003 “regime change” invasion of Iraq and Putin’s current “de-Nazification” plan in Ukraine, to swiftly overthrow the enemy’s government.
As with the Battle of Stalingrad, the Russians first bombed the civilian-packed city of 500,000 relentlessly (killing many Russian inhabitants, as they have done in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city with a large Russian population), in the heaviest bombardment in Europe since World War II. The Russian armor then penetrated the capital and spread out to take control of much of its center after the city had been “softened up” by the air force and artillery. The small defending force of no more than 6,000 massively outgunned Chechen boyeviks (fighters) appeared to be no match for the might of advancing Russian armor, artillery, helicopter gunships and bombers.
But this initial Russian victory, like the Nazi early advance in Stalingrad, was fleeting and misleading. For, as its transpired, the hardy Chechen fighters had merely regrouped to wage asymmetric urban guerilla warfare and were far from finished. As the Russian forces dispersed to occupy Grozny (whose name aptly means “The Terrible”), their tank and armored personnel carriers appeared to be unprotected by dismounted troops. When their large columns broke up into smaller units and advanced without troops to protect them, they were suddenly ambushed and destroyed by highly mobile Chechen hunter-killer teams who struck all over town.
The nimble Chechen units, based on clans or neighborhoods, used machine guns, sniper rifles, and armor-piercing RPG’s (Rocket Propelled Grenades) to wipe out vulnerable Russian armor columns. To compound matters, the Russian tank and armored personnel units were manned by troops who did not have the defenders’ intimate familiarity with the city or desire to fight to the death that the Chechens exhibited. The Russian troops often appeared to be dazed, lost in the city of Grozny, and poorly led, all qualities that the Russian soldiers invading Ukraine today, including several who surrendered for food, seem to share. Writing for the Washington Post, Sudarsan Raghavan reported an interview with a Ukrainian commander in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin;
He said Russian forces don’t know Irpin’s geography. At times, they make wrong turns or end up getting stuck on small streets in their tanks and armored vehicles. That has allowed Ukrainian fighters inside buildings to strike them. The Russians “are disoriented in the city.”…“They don’t have enough provisions, food, water,” he said, recounting reports from residents of Russian soldiers looting houses and stores. “They don’t have a lot of gasoline. They will get tired. And then we will go and drive them out.”
Like the Ukrainian defenders of Irpin today, the elusive and highly mobile Chechens engaged in hit-and-run attacks on the Russians and disappeared before their more heavily armored foes could retaliate with their superior firepower. Military historian Lester Grau has pointed out that the Chechen defenders of Grozny, like the Soviets in Stalingrad, fought up close with the Russians (i.e. they “hugged” them) to negate the Russians’ ability to unleash superior firepower, which could inadvertently kill their own troops. According to this source;
Ambushes [on Russians] were common. Sometimes they actually had three tiers. Chechens would be underground, on the ground floor, and on the roof. The ambushers would concentrate fires against targets when possible. Multiple RPG [Rocket Propelled Grenade] rounds flying from different heights and directions limit a [Russian] vehicle commander's ability to respond. [Chechen] Escape routes were always predetermined. The most common response by the Chechens to the increasingly powerful Russian indirect and aerial firepower was hugging the Russian unit. If the hugging tactics caused the Russians to cease artillery and air fires, it became a sergeant's and platoon leaders war—the level of command at which the Russians are weakest.
The iconic weapon of Grozny’s skilled urban guerillas, the RPG 7 Rocket Propelled Grenade, became known as the “Chechen Atom Bomb.” Firing from the heights of four and five story buildings down on vulnerable columns of enemy tanks with RPGs, the elusive Chechen dukhy (Russian “ghosts”) killed hundreds of Russian troops, many of them disheartened conscript soldiers, in elaborate ambushes. In one Chechen ambush that killed over a hundred Russian troops, a reporter recorded that;
All the Russian vehicles were ablaze, surrounded by dead or wounded soldiers. The Russian armored column was trapped by rebel forces armed with machine guns and shoulder-held anti-tank rockets on the open expanse of the square. A three-hour battle ensued in which the Russians were soundly beaten for the first time in the current war. It appeared that the Russian troops had been sent to their deaths last night in unfamiliar territory where they were ambushed and trapped on the open expanse of the square by the Chechens who know every inch of their battered city.
Although the enraged Russians flattened much of Grozny with indiscriminate artillery barrages, SCUD ballistic missiles, cluster-bombs, and bunker busters in response, this simply transformed the shattered topography into the same sort of prime urban guerrilla terrain that Stalingrad had been for the Red Army. As in the rubble of Stalingrad, the Chechen “rats” stealthily moved through rubble and underground tunnels they knew well and emerged to attack Russians behind their lines. On numerous occasions, Chechen rebels, including prominent commander Shamil Basayev (arguably the greatest urban guerilla and mountain fighter in history), captured disheartened Russian troops. The Chechens then filmed their prisoner of wars’ pleas to be freed and let their mothers travel to rebel bases in the mountains to retrieve them. Basayev asked one soldier, whose mother traveled to his remote mountain rebel redoubt to retrieve her son, “Do you understand what a heroic mother you have?” This is a disheartening propaganda tactic that the Ukrainians seem to be following as they capture demoralized Russian conscripts and film them sending messages to their mothers to shatter Putin’s propaganda of a victorious “war of liberation.”
Compared to the Russian troops in Grozny, who had poor morale and were not inspired to fight a war of conquest in another people’s lands, the Chechen defenders fought with a skill and ferocity to protect their families, homes, and freedom that stunned their enemies. A Chechen fighter who I interviewed told me, “I fought for my sister, to prevent her from being raped by the Russians. I also went to war to defend my neighbors who had nowhere to flee and to defend my nation. I had no choice but to fight.” It was this willingness to fight and die that enabled the Chechen David to take on the Russian Goliath. According to Grau,
Chechens weren't afraid of tanks and BMPs [armored personnel carriers]. They assigned groups of RPG gunners to fire volleys at the lead and trail vehicles. Once they were destroyed, the others were picked off one-by-one.” By contrast, he writes of their often-demoralized opponents, “Russian conscript infantry simply refused to dismount [exit their vehicles to fight] and often died in their BMP without ever firing a shot.
I interviewed Chechen boyeviks who fought in the Battle of Grozny for my book Inferno in Chechnya and found these fierce highlander fighters, who went into battle against far larger forces with their ancient kinjal knives, to have an almost primordial fighting tradition that stood in stark contrast to the casualtyphobic Russian troops. One Chechen stated, “You could say the whole population here is involved in the defense. Every street has provided several groups of four or five volunteers.” While another said of this nation at arms, “They [the Russians] are not fighting for anything, we’re fighting for our homeland—we’re not afraid to die.”
By August 1996, the outnumbered Chechens infiltrated Grozny from the mountains and trapped the Russian occupation force of 12,000 stationed in the city by boldly surrounding their garrisons. The Russians’ inability to cut off Grozny to rebel infiltration and resupply proved their undoing, just as it had been for the Germans at Stalingrad. Pinned down and cut off from supplies, their garrison troops were forced to retreat from Chechnya to prevent a Tet Offensive-style citywide attack on their isolated forces. Astoundingly, the once-confident Russians sustained approximately 7,500 troops KIA (Killed in Action) in just two years of grueling fighting in the tiny Connecticut-sized land of Chechnya. This is roughly the number of troops the US lost fighting in California-sized Iraq and Texas-sized Afghanistan in 20 years of warfare and the minimum number of troops Putin has lost in Ukraine in just a month of fighting according to American intel sources (the Ukrainians put the number at 14,000).
But in 2000, as tensions spilled out over a Chechen incursion into the Russian Muslim province of Dagestan, ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin chose a new prime minister to confront the breakaway republic. The relatively unknown former KGB/FSB officer chosen by Yeltsin gained popularity after vowing “if we find them [Chechens] in the toilet, we’ll exterminate them in their outhouses.” His crude comments, which resonated with an increasingly nationalistic/xenophobic/Islamiphobic Russian population, came following a bombing spree officially blamed on Chechen terrorists (but most sources blame on the Russian FSB as a “wag the dog” false flag provocation to ignite war frenzy in Russia). In a mysterious case that caused widespread distrust in Russia, FSB agents were arrested by local police in the town of Ryazan on the eve of the war in 1991 while planting a bomb in an apartment filled with Hexagon (the same outdated World War II-era explosive used in several previous apartment bombings blamed by Putin on “Chechen terrorists.”)
Having created a false pretext for war on the Chechen nation, the new and completely unknown prime minister chosen by Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, then sent a much larger force of over 100,000 troops to wipe out Grozny and its small bands of defenders. He ordered an indiscriminate artillery and air bombardment with cluster bombs, thermobaric bombs/missiles (also known as Fuel Air Explosives for spreading flammable gases that sear the skin of humans hiding in bunkers or shelters), wildly imprecise SCUD and Tochka ballistic missiles, and Uragan (Hurricane) and Grad multiple rocket launchers that killed thousands of trapped civilians. These weapons pulverized the city into what became known as the “Caucasian Hiroshima.” Tens of thousands of Chechen civilians were killed and you could literally see Grozny burning from space for months on Google.earth in satellite photos at this time. It was described as “the most destroyed city on Earth.”
The small band of 3,000 massively outgunned Chechen rebel defenders trapped in the ruins of the city, however, fought back with great determination and held off the Russians for six months against all odds. They then stunned the encircling Russians by breaking out of the encircled city and fighting their way through a “ring of steel” consisting of armor and artillery. As Russian artillery pounded them, the small units of Chechens led by Shamil Basayev fought their way through Russian lines and across a minefield at night. Remarkably, they managed to escape to the safety of the mountains in the south. From their remote Caucasus mountain bases, they waged an insurgency for years to come. But ultimately, Chechnya was “pacified” and lost not only its bid for independence, but as many as 300,000 people from a pre-war population of just over a million in a war that was Putin’s first act of genocide (Aleppo was his second).
As I demonstrate in a previous article, Putin repeated the indiscriminate mass murder bombing tactics used to flatten Grozny and kill tens of thousands to support the genocidal Syrian dictator President Bashar al Assad in systematically destroying his country’s largest city, the Sunni rebel-held town of Aleppo. In this internationally condemned Guernica-style airborne slaughter, which involved intentionally “destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians,” Putin deployed massive strategic bombers flying from the Caucasus and Iran. Russia’s Tupolev Backfire supersonic long-range bombers flew alongside Assad’s aircraft, which dropped chemical munitions and massive barrel bombs on hospitals, neighborhoods, and schools, to intentionally kill and displace tens of thousands of Sunni civilians. The fear in Ukraine today is that if Putin is defeated on the battlefield, he will use unconventional weapons, including chemical and biological weapons, to kill tens of thousands of civilians to punish the Ukrainians for repulsing his forces on the battlefield.
Putin’s waging of genocidal total air war in both Grozny and Aleppo shows that he does not feel bound by the Geneva Conventions and is indeed a war criminal, as President Joe Biden recently described him. The Russian leader considers the Dresdendesque destruction of civilian-packed cities to be a valid tactic in achieving his political and military objectives, not a war crime. Grozny and Aleppo were both annihilated and these beautiful cities turned to an ash-covered ruined landscape to defeat rebels operating in them. Putin has done the same thing to Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkov and to the southern town of Mariupol. Based on these four precedents of “citycide,” he will have no compunction about doing the same to the famed Ukrainian capital that has overlooked the Dnieper River for a millennium and a half should his forces make breakthroughs in the east and south.
The Battle of Mosul. The Largest Urban Conflict Since Stalingrad.
The largest urban battle since Stalingrad, was the 2016-2017 battle to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city with a fluctuating population of between one and three million, from approximately 5,000 diehard ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) fighters. Prior the battle, the Islamic State defenders spent two years transforming their greatest prize into a defensive stronghold. They “terraformed” the earth with massive berms, dug hundreds of underground communication and supply tunnels, and blasted “mouse holes” though apartment buildings to facilitate the movement of their urban fighters. They also barricaded streets with piles of cars, T-wall concrete barriers, and rubble to prevent the penetration of the city by Iraqi security forces. In addition, ISIS fighters also tripwired houses and turned them into HBIED (house borne improvised explosive devices).
The Islamic State defenders also collected thousands of tires from cars to be used to burn and create smoke clouds to deny Coalition aircraft visibility and kept the city’s population as human shields in one of the largest hostage takings in history. But ISIS’s most deadly tactic was the mass deployment of VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices), armored cars and trucks. These resembled Mad Max war wagons and were used in the largest suicide campaign since the Japanese Empire’s deployment of kamikazes in World War II. The highly adaptive defenders also developed a fleet of “off the shelf” quad-rotor drones with GoPro cameras on them that tracked their terrified enemies and rained deadly IEDs down on them from above.
The much-anticipated Battle for Mosul began in mid-October 2016 when predominantly Shiite Iraqi Army troops probed the city from the south. But these troops were repulsed by determined ISIS resistance in the rural outskirts of the city and it was left to the US-trained Iraqi Special Operations Forces’ (ISOF) legendary “Golden Division” to penetrate the heavily-defended city from the east. These elite forces, driving their signature black, armor-plated Humvees and armored bulldozers, an iconic weapon of the war, punched a peninsula-like breach through the heavily defended towns on the east of Mosul. When they stopped to rest, they urgently used bulldozers to construct earthen berms around their positions to protect themselves from the constant waves of suicide car bomb attacks.
Having taken the eastern suburbs, they then fought their way into the relatively modern east Mosul. But their progress was costly as fanatical ISIS car bombers surged out of side alleys and garages to ambush the Iraqi Special Forces and blow up their vehicles. The Islamic State defenders also used drones to monitor the Golden Division’s movements and guide mortar fire down on them. Weary Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, who I visited in their forward positions at Mosul dam in 2016, told me of the toll the constant hovering of lethal ISIS drones above them and steady blood drip of massive car bombs took on the morale of their soldiers. It is difficult to comprehend the fear that the entrenched, innovative, fanatic Islamic State enemy instilled in their enemies who were tasked with retaking the suicidally defended metropolis.
As in Grozny, in Mosul small Islamic State squads armed a machine-gun, sniper rifle, anti-tank guided missiles, and RPG gunner shadowed the Iraqi Security Force attackers’ movements and engaged them in constant harassing fire fights and ambushes. The fighting was hellacious and a Western journalist who embedded with the hard-fighting Iraqi Special Forces Golden Division as it determinedly fought street by street to retake Mosul, Michael Giglio, recorded in his harrowing account of the battle that many Iraqi Special Force battalions lost more than half of their members.
As the highly disciplined Iraqi Special Operations Forces fought their way deeper into eastern Mosul, the ISIS defenders’ sophisticated defense networks began to take a toll. Through the strategic use of underground tunnels and passages smashed between the walls of buildings, Islamic State fighters were able to move like ghosts, easily getting into position to ambush advancing troops, and then retreating to concealed fallback locations. Colonel Falah Al-Obaidi of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Forces explained how his troops, like the Germans in Stalingrad and Russians in Grozny, were fighting two wars in two cities, one above ground and one below. He stated “There’s the war on the streets and there is a whole city underground where they are hiding…Now it’s hard to consider an area liberated, because though we control the surface, ISIS will appear from under the ground, like rats.” One account of the battle for east Mosul captured the intensity of this harrowing urban warfare as follows:
The Salahudin Regiment’s column—comprising of vulnerable Humvees with just a couple of MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) among its 30-odd vehicles—was isolated. It came under sustained attack in narrow streets for more than 24 hours, losing all but three of its vehicles. Islamic State fighters targeted the front and rear of the trapped convoy, firing RPGs from rooftops and sending suicide bombers on motorbikes and in cars. In an effort to counter the threat of VBIEDs, military bulldozers hastily erected barricades of cars and other obstacles. The Islamic State fighters were an agile attacking force with intimate knowledge of the local environment, and they made up for numerical inferiority with complex attacks focused on areas where conventional forces struggled to reach.
An Iraqi commander grudgingly acknowledged the ISIS fighters’ tenacity and bravery stating, “these guys are not cowards. They kill as easy as they breathe.” The Islamic State also achieved an important goal for much of the Mosul battle, they forced the separation of enemy tanks and infantry in the street-to-street fighting. And most importantly, the jostling 100,000-man Kurdish, Iraqi Security Forces, Shiite militia force attacking Mosul was never able to completely isolate the city. This meant the city’s defenders were able to keep supply lines to towns like Tal Afar in the west open. This prolonged the siege by months and the defenders were able to resupply on fuel, food, and ammunition. In their analysis of the ISIS defense for West Point, William Knights and Alexander Mello write “it is difficult not to be impressed by the confident defense that the Islamic State has mounted in Mosul.”
But for all their determination to defend Mosul, ISIS’s main enemy, the famed Iraqi Special Operations Force fought with tremendous courage and determination, despite sustaining loses that would have crippled a less determined force. By January 2017 they had retaken east Mosul in brutal street fights that cost them thousands of their comrades’ lives. The battle then extended to the warren of old west Mosul where the fighting was even more costly. Suicidal ISIS fighters often had to be bulldozed into the houses they were trapped in and destroyed by close air strikes.
It was this last tactic of close air support that proved to be decisive in defeating the entrenched, fanatical Islamic State defenders who fought to the death in the rubbleized streets of Mosul to defend their “Caliphate’s” most prized possession. Almost instantaneous support airstrikes were delivered by F-18 Navy Super Hornets, Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier Jump Jets, Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-22 Raptors, and larger B-1 Lancer and B-52 Stratofortress bombers. So called “dynamic strikes” were conducted at short notice by aircraft on overwatch missions flying near enough to answer frantic calls from Iraqi forces to strike threatening positions or “targets of opportunity” spotted by drones. Michael Giglio records in his frontline account seeing explosions on the flanks of his Iraqi convoy as American Special Forces ground spotters embedded with it called in airstrikes on fast-approaching ISIS car bombs or on insurgents targeting them.
By January 2017, after 100 days of grueling battle, US Central Command explained that the United States and its allies had assisted Iraqi forces in Mosul with 558 airstrikes which involved the deployment of 10,115 munitions against ISIS targets. Remarkably, these munitions destroyed at least 151 ISIS VBIED car bombs, most as they were spotted racing towards their Iraqi Security Forces targets. To defeat the ever-present threat from VBIEDs, ground troops often called in “terrain denial requests” to Coalition airpower, which would effectively strike an area and crater streets to inhibit the flow of ISIS car bombs in advance of Iraqi Security Forces thrusts. In the case of densely packed neighborhoods, where armored VBIEDs came surging at ISF columns from side alleys, garages, and covered driveways, advancing Iraqi forces began to “fortify-in-place,” block by block, as they proceeded.
The American Special Forces JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) or ground spotter “combat controllers” worked in conjunction with Iraqi forces to support their advances with both aircraft and precision HIMAR satellite guided multiple launch rocket systems. When the Iraqi advances were halted by stiff ISIS resistance, they could always rely on instant support from laser and satellite-guided air or artillery munitions. This truly was a novel form of urban warfare as the Coalition, for the first time in history, provided almost instant, precision “air artillery” or satellite-guided precision artillery support (fired from a base forty miles south of Mosul at Qayyarah West) to facilitate the advance of a conventional army into a vast, civilian-packed urban theater of action.
It was this rapid reaction air support that helped mitigate ISIS’s equally novel VBIED tactics and saved countless members of the attacking ground force’s lives. In close-quarter urban combat, with the Iraqi forces working in conjunction alongside on-the-ground Special Forces forward air controller spotters, the results of such air and artillery support were decisive. Even though the ISIS militants themselves showed a remarkable ability to endure and adapt in the face of such formidable countermeasures, they were methodically defeated by an attacking force that had superior precision technology/munitions and a fighting determination that matched their own.
On July 8, 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi formally announced the city’s liberation after 266 days of the greatest high-intensity urban battle since World War II. But the jubilation in the victory was tempered by the fact that thousands of Iraqi servicemen had sacrificed their lives fighting in the streets of Mosul fighting and tens of thousands more were wounded. The U.S. Department of Defense estimated that Iraq’s Golden Division suffered 40 percent battle losses in the fight for the city. The U.N. would report that nearly 2,000 members of this elite force were killed in November 2017 alone and 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces died in the battle.
As I show here, however, the conquest of Mosul did not destroy ISIS any more than the Russian conquest of Grozny destroyed the resilient Chechen rebellion. After the capture of Mosul, Islamic State fighters scattered to remote hideouts in Iraq’s Hamrin Mountains and redoubts in the vast Syrian Desert and continue to wage a deadly terrorist insurgency to this day.
There are many lessons to be learned by the Ukrainians from the 2016-17 Battle of Mosul which took the lives of 10,000 attackers and from the larger war on ISIS (see my overview of the war here for HNN). With a small force of 5,000 dedicated fighters, ISIS defended an urban area of approximately 50-60 square miles against an encircling Kurdish, Iraqi Security Forces, Shiite militia army of approximately 100,000. But this suicidally determined, adaptive Islamic State fighting force was ultimately defeated by highly disciplined and effective Iraqi Special Operations Forces. The Golden Division was organized, equipped, and trained by US Special Forces to help rebuild the Iraqi military after the United States invaded the country in 2003. There is perhaps no force in the world with more urban warfare combat experience than the Iraqi Special Operations Force.
The legendary Iraqi Golden Division Special Forces fought with a level of skill and determination that the Russian army invading Ukraine, which suffers from collapsing morale, frostbite, and desertion, is clearly lacking thus far as they are stalled and even repulsed on two of their four fronts. The Iraqi Special Operations Forces’ skills are something that the Russians, who have not fought in sustained urban combat since the Battle of Grozny in 2000, appear to be lacking. Russia’s legendary Spetsnaz Special Forces and airborne troops famously failed to seize Kyiv’s strategic Antonov Airport in a surprise attack launched on February 24th, the first night of the invasion. Their airborne forces, which were trying to create an air bridge for troop transports carrying tanks and troops, were repelled by Ukrainian Rapid Reaction Forces. This defeat was historic and crucial as it prevented the Russians from storming the Ukrainian capital in an early surprise attack and rapidly overthrowing the government. And Russian regular troops, pro-Putin Chechen mercenaries, and Special Forces have thus far not been able to capture Mariupol, a town of just 400,000, in a month of fighting against vastly outnumbered Azov Battalion Ukrainian Marines, despite the fact that this southern town is located near their bases in Russian-occupied Donetsk-Luhansk and Crimea.
Another distinction is that the Iraqi troops received constant close air support rendered by some of the 5,000 US troops made up of Special Forces air combat controllers or spotters, Marine artillery men, and Air Force personnel who acted as “accelerants” or “force multipliers” to their Iraqi allies. The American had honed the creation of synergy between local proxy forces ever since Green Beret Special Forces were inserted into the rebel-controlled Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan in October 2001. The techniques of calling precision airstrikes to support local Uzbek warlord General Dostum’s anti-Taliban horsemen, which he described to me as “lightning strikes” rendered by a “death ray,” had proven as decisive in that campaign as they were in the urban battle of Mosul.
The Russians, by contrast, have not been able to successfully integrate their air and land forces and have not been able to effectively use their air force to support their ground offensives or protect their columns from Ukrainian attacks. Part of this deficiency stems from the fact that the Russians do not have the same JTAC Special Forces ground-spotter precision targeting capacity to provide immediate suppression air support to their advancing forces that America has. Guy Plopsky, a defense analyst specializing in air power and Russian military affairs, has said of Russia’s inadequacy when it comes to close air support guided by combat controllers;
The Russians use FACs (forward air controllers). But their kit is heavy and leaves much to be desired (communications and target acquisition-wise)…Historically, coordination between Russian air and air defenses has been poor, especially with air defenses fielded by the Ground Forces. To this day, joint training between the VKS [Air Force] and Russian Ground Forces air defenses remains very limited.
The Russians also do not have the sort of total air supremacy that is required to provide the sort of close air support given to Iraqi forces in the Battle of Mosul. And in fact, it is the Ukrainians who seem to have had the most success in coordinating attacks between their drones and ground troops. This can be seen in this video where a drone filmed an ambush on Russian tanks by anti-tank missiles or this one where Ukrainians destroyed a tank in close fighting as a drone monitored the enemy’s movements for them. The Ukrainians seem to have also been most effective in using drones, especially the Turkish-built Bayraktar UAV that fires laser guided missiles. This advanced 20 foot drone was filmed bombing and destroying Russian aircraft in the Russian-captured town of Kherson. The Ukrainians have also used small observation drones, to take a devastating toll on their enemies. Like the ISIS defenders of Mosul, the Ukrainians have skillfully used drones to direct ambushes and precisely direct mortar or artillery strikes by their surprisingly resilient and skilled ground forces. The Ukrainians have also shared video footage of their troops using small quadrotor drones to drop grenades on the Russians, much as ISIS did in Mosul.
It is also not clear if the Ukrainians have preemptively “worm-holed” their way through buildings in Kyiv to provide attack and escape routes for urban guerilla warriors. But they have certainly used such ISIS tactics as burning tires to cover their movements from Russian air observation and blocked streets with everything from buses, concrete barriers, and large World War II style spiked metal caltrops. To prevent an attack on their capital from the suburb of Irpin, previously seen as the potential main staging position for Russians north of the capital, the Ukrainians demolished the bridge over the Irpin River (which connected the town to Kyiv) and barricaded the road to the city every 100 yards with concrete blocks, tanker trucks, tires and sandbags
And, while the Ukrainians do not have the suicidal jihadi fanaticism of the Mosul defenders, who deployed hundreds of “up armored” VBIED suicide car bombs against their enemies, they have fought with a ferocity that has stunned the Russians who thought they could overthrow Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in a swift two-day “small victorious war” operation. But the greatest battle, the struggle for the capital, which is the center of gravity in Ukraine, is perhaps still yet to come. If it does unfold, it will be decisive in deciding whether or not Ukraine becomes an autocratic pro-Russian puppet satellite like Belarus, or remains free.
Stalingrad on the Dnieper
Kyiv, which was established in 482, is the cultural heart of Russia and was the capital of the first Russian state known as Kievan Rus from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Putin’s destruction of this cradle of Russian civilization, known for its Medieval gold-domed churches and vibrant culture, in the name of liberating Russia’s Ukrainian “little brothers” from “Nazi genocide,” while committing mass slaughter and culturecide, may be too much for many Russians. But the Russian people have been heavily propagandized to blindly support Putin’s “de-Nazification” invasion of their democratic neighbor and the Ukrainians have taken measures to protect some of their greatest architectural treasures from their Russian “liberators.” They proclaim they are prepared to defend their great city at all costs. But can they turn their capital into Fortress Kyiv and successfully defend it from Putin “The Destroyer of Cities?”
The Soviet defense of Stalingrad, the Chechen defense of Grozny, and the ISIS defense of Mosul certainly can provide some valuable lessons for Kyiv’s defenders. The Chechens, who had a population of roughly a million, were able to defeat the trans-continental Russian Federation in the 1994-96 Chechen War largely because they became a nation at arms. It was average Chechens, who streamed from their remote mountain auls (villages) and their plains towns into Grozny with their weapons to defend their ancient freedoms in 1994, that were able to humble the Russian giant. As mentioned in the first section, a similar mass, spontaneous mobilization is occurring in Ukraine today. Putin’s bloody invasion has mobilized tens of thousands of Ukrainian volunteers in an inadvertent recruitment drive for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces. Tens of thousands of assault rifles have been given to these citizen fighters, breweries are now making Molotov cocktails, Chechen-style neighborhood militias have been formed to protect them from teams of Russian saboteurs, and there is a new sense of solidarity in this once-divided country (where millions had deep, but now often sundered, ties to Russia). A reporter for The Economist described the Ukrainians’ sense of unity in their defense preparations for the defense of Kyiv as follows;
Checkpoints constructed by the Territorial Defense (TD), Ukraine’s new second-line defense force, now stop traffic to check IDs along all major roads and intersections. With each day that Kyiv remains unconquered, TD checkpoints and barricades become more fortified. Trucks are moving around the city delivering concrete blocks to reinforce them. Firing positions are being built; trenches dug. At one barricade a wall of tires has been covered with piles of Soviet-era books, including v.v. Alyoshin’s “Vegetation of the USSR”, published in 1951. If and when the time comes, the books will act as kindling for the tires, and black smoke will rise to obscure the view of the attacking Russians.
A Ukrainian captured the way average citizens in his country, like the Soviets at Stalingrad or the Chechen teips (clans) in Grozny, have rallied to repulse the invaders;
Many citizens have gone a step further in their support and joined territorial defense units. As of Feb. 26, two days into Russia’s invasion, 37,000 Ukrainians were signed up. Now journalists, artists, musicians, TV hosts, comedians and thousands of others are patrolling the streets. Using conventional arms and Molotov cocktails — which have become something of a revered national weapon — they have apprehended saboteurs, shot down drones and stopped enemy tanks. In the defense of our country, they have been indispensable.
Due to the stubborn defenses across the country, the Ukrainian citizen fighters and military have had the time to fortify their capital and turn it into an urban fortress. A CNN war correspondent reported of the heavily defended city;
Trenches run deep into the woods that surround the highway leading in Kyiv from the south. Fortified fallback positions are ready for whatever comes next. Huge metal anti-tank barriers known here as "the hedgehogs" because of their spiky shape are placed at regular intervals along the road. And makeshift blockades made of sandbags and huge concrete blocks stand at every exit…The people of Kyiv are determined to defend their city.
The Ukrainians see Kyiv as the perfect asymmetric battlefield for taking on their more heavily armored opponents in a setting filled with perils for the Russian invaders who do not have mastery of the terrain or walls or underground tunnels to protect them. Andrew Kramer has reported after interviewing Ukrainians fighters, “For the Ukrainians the strategy will be to ‘draw the enemy into the city,’ where armored vehicles are channeled into streets, rather than spread out in fields.” A Reporter for The New York Times reported on the ongoing defense of Kyiv’s northern suburbs;
After three weeks of fighting in the suburbs, Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers, who are operating in loosely organized small units and relying heavily on ambushes, are growing more confident in the city’s defense. Part of their strategy is to make the assault so costly for the Russian army in lives that it will exhaust or demoralize its troops before they reach the city center. “There’s no talk of capitulation for Kyiv,” said Lt. Tetiana Chornovol, the commander of an anti-tank missile unit operating on the outskirts of the city. “Everything is going far better than we thought.”
While it is an adage that tanks do not operate well in urban combat (especially now that they are so vulnerable to drone munitions), they can be effective, as shown in the tank-led US assault on the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in 2004. But the Russians, who are ostensibly a tank army led by a leader obsessed with tanks, have written the book on how not to deploy tanks in cities in their campaign in Grozny. Writing for the US Army on urban tank warfare, Kendall D. Gott states;
When properly employed, well-trained and well-supported units led by tanks are decisive in urban combat. The reverse is also true. Chechen rebels taught the Russian army and the world a brutal lesson in Grozny about what happens when armored units are poorly led, poorly trained, and cavalierly employed in a city.
Russia’s armor in Ukraine appears to be so poorly led that the country has been described as a “tank graveyard” for the Russians. Putin’s forces have lost more than 230 of their heavily armored tracked vehicles since they invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to Oryx Blog, a site that tracks military-equipment losses. The Ukrainians claim to have destroyed more than 400 Russian tanks and many more armored military vehicles. One American expert estimates Russia has lost 10 percent of its tanks in Ukraine. This represents the greatest loss of tanks in battle since World War II. In that war, it was other tanks that destroyed tanks, as in the famous Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history.
But in Ukraine today, it is not tanks that are doing the killing of Russian armor, it is portable anti-tank missiles delivered by the US and it is NATO allies. Many of these Russian tanks have been destroyed by Ukrainian soldiers, like Tetiana Chornovol who drove her car to an ambush site and killed a tank, as described by war correspondent Andrew Kramer;
When the command came to open fire, she used a laser to lock in on the tank, pushed a button, then watched as the tank lit up in flames before she rushed back to her car to escape return fire. “I shoot at armor,” she said, when asked about the human toll. “If they climb inside, it’s their fault.”
There has never been a more robust, rapid, massive and effective transfer of asymmetric weapons to another country’s fighting force in history than that which is taking place in Ukraine today. The Biden administration’s delivery of billions of dollars in support and thousands of weapons far surpasses Ronald Reagan’s 1980s Operation Cyclone arming of the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahideen rebels in its scale. The US and NATO-supplied Stinger anti-aircraft and Javelin anti-tank weapons will help the Ukrainian military and citizen soldiers turn Kyiv into a hornet’s nest for the invading Russians should they attack it. There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of these shoulder-fired infra-red or heat-seeking tank and aircraft killing weapons in Kyiv. These hi-tech weapons will be the bane of any Russian Sukhoi/Mig/Hind pilot or T-72 or T-90 tank or BMP/BTR armored vehicle driver attempting to penetrate this deadly urban fortress. For pilots used to having air supremacy, of the sort Russian Aerospace pilots had as they remorselessly murdered Aleppo’s civilians, the Ukrainians’ lethal “man portable” anti-aircraft Stingers (which downed over 300 Soviet helicopters and more than 100 fighter jets in Afghanistan in the 1980s) are the ultimate nightmare. They mean the Russians cannot fly low on bombing runs for precision support of ground operations the way US pilots did over Mosul as they will be easily shot down. Kyiv will be swarming with Ukrainians who will continue to film the destruction of massive Hind Helicopter gunships, as seen here, or Sukhoi fighter bombers, as seen here or tanks as seen here.
It is the NATO-supplied equalizer weapons that will level the field in the Ukrainians’ uneven battle with the approximately 150,000 better equipped, but seemingly demoralized and poorly led, Russian troops. The US and its NATO allies have shipped thousands of American-made Javelin, British-manufactured NLAW and German Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons to the outgunned Ukrainians since the invasion began. These weapons have been skillfully used by Ukrainian defenders, who surprised both Western military analysts and the Russians with their remarkably organized, stiff and effective resistance. The now iconic Javelin missile (dubbed “St. Javelin” by the Ukrainians) has already become essentially the “Ukrainian Atom Bomb.” While not as lightweight and portable as the Chechens’ legendary RPG-7 tank-killer, the far more advanced Javelin uses a thermal system to shoot a warhead that can penetrate any armor in the world. These weapons are created to come down on the tank’s turret where its armor is weakest. The internet is filled with images of burning Russian tanks destroyed by Javelins.
Another threat the Russian tankers should be concerned about is the Biden Administration’s recent decision to import small Switchblade 300 and 600 “loitering-ammunition” to the Ukrainians. The five-pound, tube-launched Switchblade 300 can be fitted into an urban fighter’s backpack and launched as a remote control drone with a camera in it to fly and hunt enemies. When the switchblade controller identifies a target on his handheld monitor, he then directs the so called kamikaze drone, which is laden with explosives, into it. The larger Switchblade 600 can destroy any tank with its payload. The prospect of being hunted by these futuristic Terminator movie-style smart weapons and killed remotely by urban guerillas cannot be appealing to Russians should they be given the unenviable task of storming the Ukrainian capital.
Should the Russian armor, which was so haplessly deployed in Grozny, attempt a US-style “thunder run” reconnaissance by force into the heart of massive Kyiv, the odds are high it will be decimated by urban defenders who will pick of tanks the way the Chechen boyeviks did in Grozny with an array of unprecedentedly advanced anti-tank weapons. The remarkable Ukrainian drone imagery of a Russian tank column being ambushed and attacked with anti-tank missiles in the village of Brovary on Kyiv’s eastern outskirts is reminiscent of the Chechen destruction of vulnerable Russian tank columns in Grozny in 1994/95. The Washington Post was to report of the extraordinary attack on Russian armor at Brovarny, that saw Russian tankers running for their lives into nearby woods;
The tanks and other military vehicles were crawling slowly on the open highway, making them an easy target. They also were bunched up close to each other, which allowed a single artillery shell to knock out multiple vehicles. What was also surprising, analysts said, is that some of the tanks were generations old and not well-equipped, including the T-72, a Soviet-era tank that first entered production more than 50 years ago. “It’s kind of bizarre seeing this,” said Lee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Kyiv is the decisive mission, the decisive objective, and yet they are sending in some very old units to take it.
Like the Russian tanks that were destroyed with armor-piercing RPGs in Chechnya, the outdated Russian tanks in Borvary seem not to have been protected by dismounted troops. This speaks to a failure of tactical planning, leadership, and potentially, courage. It does not bode well for Russians preparing to launch an attack on the Ukrainian capital, which will consist of hundreds of Brovarys. Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer has warned “In storming cities, the main thing is not just pounding them with bombs, you also need infantry to move in while the defenders are still in shock. If you don’t, you don’t get anywhere. Will the Russian infantry be good enough to the same? I don’t know.”
The Grozny template, where terrified Russian conscripts refused to leave the false safety of their BMP armored personnel carriers to fight Chechen attackers and were burnt alive in their hundreds in their “iron caskets,” seems to set a precedent that should be concerning to the Russians. This may explain why the Russians, who were staged in the west, east, and north of Kyiv in striking distance, did not launch any bold “thunder runs” (of the sort that small units of less than a hundred Abrams tanks and Stryker attack vehicles successfully launched into the heart of heavily defended Baghdad to seize it in April 2003). Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor at the King’s College Department of War Studies, in London, said in a recent blog post, “The lack of any serious movement into the major cities is notable, and it may be that the Russian high command is concerned about pushing reluctant troops into urban warfare for which the Ukrainians have made elaborate preparations.” The Russian military should be concerned about pushing troops into Kyiv, considering the fact that, in five weeks of intense fighting in the Ukrainian towns of Kharkov and Mariupol, they have been unable to subdue either of these far smaller and far less heavily defended towns.
In addition to the well-known perils of deploying armor in urban areas, another one of the main problems facing the Russians that bodes ill for an attack on Kyiv has been logistics. This problem is best demonstrated in the shocking standstill stall of their forty-mile column north of Kyiv that was unable to make the 100-mile push from the Belarus border down to the Ukrainian capital. In 2003, by contrast, the US Army’s Third Infantry Division in Iraq stormed over 400 miles through blinding shamal sandstorms, Fedayeen insurgent-filled towns, and vast deserts and into the Iraqi capital of Baghdad (population 8 million) and captured it…in just three weeks. The stalled Russian column apparently ran out of fuel, a logistic problem that the blitzing Army and Marine columns in America’s “Shock and Awe” invasion overcame, despite the fact that they were operating far farther from their home than the Belorussia-based Russians.
The epic, and widely discussed, transformation of the 40-mile Russian invasion column into what was essentially a stalled parking lot of easily targeted vehicles speaks to a shocking lack of logistic capacity for a force that was expected to storm into the capital and do a Baghdad-style regime change coup in just two days. As legendary World War I general John “Black Jack” Pershing once said, “soldiers win battles, logistics win wars.” Based upon the Russians’ striking inability to supply their over-extended and retreating troops thus far, it seems improbable that they will be able to supply them farther to the south in Kyiv for a sustained meatgrinder battle that will demand vast resupply capacities. Their famously congested northern army appears to have already outstripped its supply lines without even beginning a resource-inhaling, high-intensity urban battle of sort the Iraqis fought in Mosul.
The small number of 150,000 already depleted Russian troops involved in bogged down efforts to control the ten percent of Ukraine they currently occupy also points to real problems for conquering, never mind occupying and holding, Kyiv and its hinterland support towns. As I show in my history of US operations in Iraq in my book Counter Jihad, it took 168,000 US surge troops, working in close conjunction with 100,000 pro-US Sunni Anbar tribesmen and over 200,000 Iraqi Security Forces, to subdue the Sunni insurgency in Baghdad and its Sunni suburban “belts” in 2007.
In contrast to the Russian army, the American military is a professional all-volunteer fighting force with far superior leadership, weaponry, training, intel, and discipline than the corruption-riddled Russian military that has many untried 18 year old conscripts in its ranks. But it still took new American weapons (such as massive MRAP Mine Resistance Ambush Protected armored vehicles) and tactics (such as Joint Special Operation Forces night raids), and inventive leadership by generals such General David Petraeus (who invented the COIN Counter-Insurgency Strategy) to win the Battle of Baghdad. It is improbable that the rigidly doctrinarian Russians, who have little autonomy of decision in the lower non-commissioned officer ranks, will creatively adapt the way the flexible American soldiers of all ranks did to the insurgency in Baghdad and the Triangle of Death in 2007.
But even if the Russians do somehow overcome their crippling logistic issues and tank vulnerability and A: indiscriminately pound Kyiv into rubble with the so-called “God of War” artillery; B: storm it in a bloody urban assault; C: decapitate the Ukrainian government; and D: place an unpopular puppet government in power, this would only commence a new round of conflict. The Russian occupiers would then have to keep their puppet regime in power and occupy the city and surrounding lands in an indefinite forever war (the democratically elected Ukrainian government would most likely flee to the western Ukrainian town of Lvov to continue the resistance). As US Central Command learned in Operation Iraqi Freedom---after George W. Bush famously declared an end to military operations in Iraq” under a banner that announced “Mission Accomplished” in April 2003---Phase IV or occupation is far harder than Phases II and III involving conquest. Soon after Bush’s hubristic announcement on an aircraft carrier of the coast of San Diego, Iraq broke out into a full-scale insurgency that cost thousands of American troops their lives and came perilously close to succeeding.
General Eric Shinseki famously warned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who sent in a far too small a “transformational” army to occupy Iraq, that he needed up to 400,000 troops for the task (Rumsfeld deployed just 130,000 troops). The long established US military doctrine, which Rumsfeld famously rejected to the detriment of US forces who did not have the number of troops needed to occupy a hostile country of over 30 million, called for one US soldier for every 40 citizens in an occupied land. In US-occupied post-World War II Germany this translated to an occupation force of some 400,000 in the American zone---or one U.S. soldier for every 40 Germans. When NATO forces occupied Kosovo in 1999, they followed the same proven formula: 50,000 troops for a population of 2 million, or one soldier for every 40 inhabitants.
Following this tried and true formula, to effectively occupy Texas-sized Ukraine, the largest country fully in Europe, which has a population of somewhere between 37 and 42 million, the Russians need an occupation force of approximately 400,000. Their current, already drained, troop level is at 150,000, or less than half the number required. The occupation of Kyiv, which currently has population of around 2 million, will consume many of those troops in draining urban guerilla combat.
If the highly mobilized Ukrainians continue their stiff resistance, and the US and its NATO allies continue to support them with weapons and funds on a historically unprecedented scale, both of which seem likely, they could turn Kyiv into an urban occupation quagmire on a scale that dwarfs the US counter-insurgency imbroglio in Operation Iraqi Freedom. That war in Iraq, which was promised to be a swift in-and-out regime change operation by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, ended up costing the US almost 4,500 US troops’ lives and costing taxpayers over two trillion dollars during a time of recession. While the Russian military doctrine is not as concerned with losing soldiers’ lives as that of NATO countries, Russia’s collapsing economy (which is suffering from the most severe and devastating sanctions ever imposed in world history) cannot afford an exorbitant Operation Iraq Freedom-style investment of trillions of dollars. It should be recalled that the Soviet Union never recovered from the financial strain of its costly nine year “regime change” quagmire in Afghanistan, which incidentally cost it roughly the number of troops Russia is estimated by some US government sources to have lost in the month-long war in Ukraine (approximately 15,000).
All of the above history of costly urban meatgrinders in Stalingrad, Grozny and Mosul should provide ample incentive for Putin to consider an end to his campaign in Ukraine and to accept an off-ramp peace treaty. Based upon these stark precedents where the Wehrmacht, Russian Federation Army, and Iraqi Security forces were decimated in urban warfare, he should accept a treaty that allows him to save face, and Russian soldiers’ lives, by annexing the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk (which are already de facto Russia) while accepting an offer of neutrality from Ukraine (which would mean Ukraine not joining NATO, but having security guarantees from the West). But the recent history of Putin’s military adventurism in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Crimea, and the Donbass makes one thing clear, he only knows how to escalate, he does not have a reverse gear. And this means that any forthcoming temporary ceasefire agreement or talk of withdrawing troops from the Kyiv region will most likely be nothing more than a ruse.
The major problem with the idea of Putin accepting “lessons learned” from his defeats thus far in taking towns like Kharkiv and Mariupol is that he has personalized his war on Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and this makes him reckless. In this sense, he is following the footsteps of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi Fuehrer famously overrode his generals---who warned him to bypass Stalingrad and aim for the vital oil fields in the Caucasus---and ordered an attack on the strategically un-crucial city to humiliate the Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, for whom it was named. This personalization of the war cost him his nation’s greatest defeat and hundreds of thousands of German lives.
Putin is similarly hellbent on capturing the prize of Kyiv and toppling his nemesis, Zelensky’s “genocidal Nazi” government and eradicating a country he does not believe technically exists. This obsession continues, despite the devastating toll his war is taking on his troops and people (Russia’s economy is facing a collapse under US-led sanctions and has fallen from the 11th largest economy to the 22nd). The whole point of his shambolic “de-Nazification” decapitation invasion was to capture Kyiv and quickly put his anti-democratic puppet regime in power before the West could react and impose sanctions. Anything short of the overthrow of Ukraine’s government represents an obvious-to-all defeat for an arrogant autocrat who has shown himself as incapable of accepting the humiliating proposition of a negotiated retreat as Hitler was. It will be hard for the Russian propaganda machine to spin the invasion as a great victory over “Nazism” (as he proclaimed it would be to an ecstatic crowd at a recent Nazi Nuremberg-style war rally in Moscow) if he does not overthrow the hated pro-Western democracy in Kyiv.
But the Ukrainians may yet force Putin to the negotiating table with their remarkably ferocious defense of towns like Mariupol and villages like Voznesensk. The defiance the defenders of these much smaller locales have displayed against overwhelmingly superior enemy numbers may yet dissuade Putin from trying to storm the much larger and far better defended Ukrainian capital. If he does back down from an assault on Kyiv, it would be the ultimate testament to the Ukrainians’ courage and a total humiliation for Putin who has risked so much on his backfiring gamble of NATO disunity and Ukrainian weakness. If Putin backs down, the “Hero City” Mariupol and its brave band of defenders will have saved Kyiv from an assault with their example stiff resistance for over a month against much larger enemy forces.
But that hopeful outcome seems elusive for now as Russia is requesting support troops from Belorussia and the Assad regime in Syria and sending in more reinforcements from across the country, Georgia, and Syria to restart its stalled and repulsed invasion. There is strong possibility that Putin will double down on his remorseless war of attrition despite the March 29th offer to withdraw forces from the Kyiv region. The Ukrainian capital may yet join the list of storied cities that have undergone bloody sieges over the centuries, from ancient Tyre’s epic thirteen-year siege by the Assyrian Empire to the Serbs’ bloody, four-year siege of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.
Kyiv has had barbarians at the gate before and was sacked by the Mongols in 1241 and attacked by the Nazis in the largest encirclement by enemy troops in history. While first living in the city as a Russian language student in 1986, I was shown relics of these previous wars against foreign invaders by my Ukrainian hosts. Among them were remnants of the mighty city walls that for centuries repulsed nomad steppe attackers like the dreaded Crimean Tatars. Another was an epic metal statue known as the Mat Rodina (Mother of the Homeland), built as a memorial the Ukrainian defense of the homeland in World War II, that majestically towered over the city with a sword in her hand. One day the Kyivans will doubtless build a monument to the repulse of the Russians, perhaps one featuring a destroyed Russian tank like the remarkable memorial I found in the Afghan city of Herat to commemorate their defeat of the Soviet invaders.
Ukrainian history is full of epic stories of battles against invaders, and I admired the Kyivans I befriended in Soviet Ukraine who spoke to me even then of shaking off Moscow’s rule and achieving independence. One of my Ukrainian friends recently told me of her eighty-one year-old father’s decision to join the Territorial Defense Forces instead of evacuating in the face of the second attack on Kyiv in his lifetime. There is something unexpectedly resilient in the Ukrainians that is quickly placing them in the ranks of the greatest defenders in history, such as the equally outnumbered, but heroic, Spartans, Scottish highlanders, Masai, Finns, Gurkhas, Zulus, Apaches, and Chechens.
A pantheon of national icons is being created in the war, including one Vitaly Skakun Volodymyrvich, who was charged with slowing a Russian advance across a bridge so outgunned Ukrainian troops could withdraw. The bridge was mined, but the Ukrainian military did not have time to detonate it remotely with Russian forces advancing. Volodymyrovych contacted his retreating troops by radio and told them he would do it himself manually. He then sacrificed his life for his comrades and nation by blowing up the bridge. Another of the nation’s heroes is its young and untried president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who, when asked by the US if he needed evacuation from the capital, gave the most famous quote of the war “I don’t need a ride, I need ammo.”
This is a message of determination to fight, not flee by helicopter as the Afghan president did in August 2021, that the defenders of Kyiv share. They are going nowhere and are prepared to fight for their country’s capital to preserve their cherished democracy for themselves and for new generations to come. In light of the ferocious Ukrainian defense of their families, homes, and nation, there is little to no chance that Putin can achieve the regime change objectives of his special operations mission “non-war” (you can get fifteen years in prison in Russia for calling it a war). His world-uniting bloody rampage in Ukraine is a strategic catastrophe on every conceivable level and destroying Ukraine’s historical capital will not salvage it or Russia’s stained reputation.
Siege warfare is never a good proposition for an attacking force, even when not against a defiant city like Kyiv which covers 325 square miles and is filled with thousands of massive, ambush-ready concrete structures, like the ones used by Chechens to pick of Russian invaders in the much smaller city of Grozny. The 6th century Chinese philosopher general Lao Tzu famously warned;
The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The [besieging] general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.
For all of his stunning defeats in the last few weeks, Putin, like Hitler at Stalingrad and General Pavel Grachev in Grozny, is still capable of launching his cannon-fodder troops into a heavily defended urban fortress like “swarming ants.” Many of his troops, including whole units who were not told they were invading Ukraine until they crossed into it, will be sacrificed on the altar of his unbridled ego should they assault the massive Ukrainian capital. And, while he may destroy this beautiful city with the same sort of indiscriminate bombardments he has used to smash the once-vibrant cities of Grozny, Aleppo, Kharkiv and Mariupol into body-filled rubble, history tells us one thing about city destroyers like Russia’s genocidally inclined dictator; It is easier by far to destroy a people’s homes, hospitals, theaters, schools, playgrounds, churches, universities, and cities than it is to break their fighting spirit.
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