When Russia invaded Ukraine a week ago, the world was stunned by the limits of Russian military power.
The widely expected cakewalk to Kyiv turned into an embarrassing failure to achieve virtually all of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military objectives.
Russian forces suffered heavy casualties and appeared disorganized and demoralized. Their morale was low; supply lines and logistics languished under the burden of antiquated Soviet-era technology and tactics.
Kyiv and other major cities targeted by Russian operations remained free. Ukraine’s communications infrastructure continued to function and continuously broadcasted the country’s plight to a sympathetic world.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government remained, intact, in place, and defiant.
Tough economic shocks to Russia’s suddenly fragile economy were matched only by an extraordinary turnabout in international resolve to back the Ukrainians by almost any means short of war.
By the fifth day of the conflict, however, the euphoria began to wane.
Putin accelerated airborne attacks on Ukrainian cities, targeting vital infrastructure and civilians. Russian reservists were called up as strengthened armored units bore down on Kyiv in a much-feared, if now apparently stalled, “40-mile convoy.”
Russia’s revised strategy shifted from Blitzkrieg-style deep penetration maneuvers to the investment of Ukraine’s major cities in what promise to be massive urban battles.
For all their prospective horror, Putin’s renewed gambit is only setting up his forces for greater failures.
Brutal, bloody, and draining, urban warfare is the nightmare of every sensible military strategist.
No recent example augurs well for Russian efforts.
In December 1994 then-Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev promised that one Russian regiment could take control of Grozny, the capital of the break-away Chechnya region, in two hours.
Instead, it took at least 15 regiments six weeks, with advance units supported by tanks sustaining casualty rates exceeding 50% as the city was laid waste. Although the Russians ultimately drove the rebels from Grozny, the immediate result was a ceasefire that left the Chechen rebels in the field and free to fight another day.
That day came in August 1996, when the Chechens returned to Grozny using infiltration tactics, attacked Russian garrison forces more than four times their size, and compelled them to withdraw and concede a new ceasefire that restored the capital to Chechen control.
In late 1999, Putin, then Russia’s newly appointed prime minister, launched another attempt to seize the city and break Chechen resolve. That bitter struggle for the city lasted more than three years, with Grozny earning the depressing designation of “most destroyed city on earth” before another practical settlement traded Chechen local control for fealty to Moscow.
Grachev’s projected two-hour campaign for a small, isolated regional city within Russia’s own territory turned out to be a nearly decade-long national ulcer that could only be resolved through political compromise.
It should be remembered that Russia expended this massive effort to control Grozny, a city of fewer than 300,000 inhabitants defended by poorly armed civilian insurgents who were recognizably distinct from their Russian antagonists and had no external source of supply.
Kyiv, the capital of a country that has been independent for more than 30 years and is now receiving military supplies from at least 17 NATO member-states, is a metropolis of nearly 3 million Eastern Slavs defended by a professional national military and a highly motivated civilian guard armed with field weapons equal, and in some cases superior, to those in Russian service.
Seizing the Ukrainian capital in a house-by-house, street-by-street battle could easily turn into a prolonged, arduous struggle for the already demotivated Russian invaders.
The only recent case of a city of similar size resisting an attacking army in the same way was Aleppo, which held out against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad’s Russian- and Iranian-backed forces from July 2012 to December 2016 — four and a half brutal years of urban warfare — with no external source of military aid and only limited humanitarian assistance.
The scale of casualties is likely to be immense in any of Ukraine’s cities.
Rather than breaking Ukrainian resistance, Russia’s fearsome airborne attacks are actually worsening ground conditions for a future fight.
Every shattered building, torn-up street, collapsed bridge, and pile of rubble creates fresh obstacles for Russian mobile forces, which remain challenged by mechanical deficiencies, overextended supply-lines, and casualties that already reportedly equal or surpass those suffered by the United States in its entire 20-year involvement in Afghanistan.
At the same time, those obstacles provide new hiding places for Ukrainian defenders, who can use them all the better to eviscerate demoralized invaders unfamiliar with their urban topographies.
Accompanied by an extreme localization of combat, which will also make further airborne attacks lethal to the Russian troops in close proximity to Ukrainian defenders on the ground, the effect will nullify whatever technological or logistical advantages the Russians may have.
Meanwhile, their forces are sucked into pitiless urban combat and away from controlling the rest of Ukraine.
Confronting the same conditions at Stalingrad in 1942-1943, German troops sent to capture a devastated foreign city in the middle of enemy territory called their struggle a “rat war.”
That battle raged for more than five months and cost their more sophisticated army half a million men. And in the end, they lost.
Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University. Read more — Here.
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