By Samir Puri
March 17, 2022
The argument that cities have become the main battleground in armed conflicts has been granted further credence in the first three weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s armed forces have advanced via three main axes of attack into north, east and south Ukraine. As of 16 March, Russia’s advance on Kyiv comprised of three components in a bid to approach the capital city from multiple angles. Russian forces also sought to envelop Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv; to overwhelm the southern cities of Mariupol and Kherson; and to expand the separatist republics that are centred around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The control of major cities is the clearest indicator of military progress for both sides. Contestation of urban control remains the primary dynamic of the ground war. Evacuating civilians from besieged cities has duly been one of the war’s major humanitarian concerns.
Why are cities the focal point of this war? Regime change was Russia’s initial war aim, as expressed by President Putin ahead of the invasion, necessitating a Russian push for Kyiv. Another reason is that cities are the focus of Ukrainian civic life. Although much of Ukraine’s vast expanse comprises of relatively flat land (the Carpathian mountains in south west Ukraine have not featured in the ground war), and despite the importance of seasonal farming, urbanization prior to the invasion was around 70 per cent.
According to a World Bank study of Ukraine’s cities, “Ukraine’s urban system is mainly composed of a large number of small towns and cities but most of the urban population lives in cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants”. In other words, Russia has invaded a country in which control of the cities equates to control of the country. There are no commanding heights to seize or natural resource fields to conquer that can compete with the criticality of taking over Ukraine’s cities.
Besieging and bombarding cities
Three weeks into the invasion, one surprise in how the war has developed is related to the type of urban combat being most fought. Close-quarter battles in which cities are assaulted street-by-street have not featured as prominently as might have been expected. When Russia’s armoured columns first started rolling towards cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv, it was reasonable to expect that intensive battles inside these cities would follow. While this has episodically materialised, for instance when Russian paratroopers landed in Kharkiv in the first week of the invasion, protracted street-by-street fighting is the exception and not the rule in this war so far.
Why has this been the case? As has been exhaustively discussed, Russia’s campaign has been sluggish and beset by setbacks. The reasons for Russia’s military woes are legion: overly optimistic campaign planning by the Russian General Staff; poor logistics in support of increasingly stretched supply lines; poor morale and lack of readiness among some Russian soldiers; a lack of close air support to cover Russia’s ground advances; a relative lack of cyber and electronic warfare support; and the doggedness of Ukraine’s armed forces. Putin’s original regime change objective has been stymied and Russia’s armed forces have been left at the gates of numerous Ukrainian cities, often daring not to enter in force but to bombard from a distance. When Russian troops have entered Ukraine’s streets, they have been hunted by Ukrainian forces armed with western-supplied anti-tank missiles.
Fears of an approach akin to the Siege of Leningrad, in which cities are encircled by Russians forces and left to suffer and starve, has animated Ukrainian President Zelensky. The southern port city of Mariupol has suffered terribly in this way, control of which Russia seeks due to its location linking Russian-annexed Crimea and the Russian-backed separatist republics in the Donbas. According to city officials, over 2,200 residents of Mariupol have been killed since the start of the invasion.
The positional value of different cities is why some and not others have been targeted in the Russian advance. It remains to be seen whether Odessa, another port city, is targeted in a Russian bid to cut off Ukraine’s coastal access. Cities containing nuclear power plants old and new have also been targeted, and early in the war Russia captured Chernobyl in the north, while Zaporizhzhia in the south became the target of a reckless Russian attack around the nuclear power plant.
Exploiting the defender’s advantage in urban war
In a conventional interstate war of this scale the battlefield situation will likely remain dynamic for some time. As of 15 March, the cities of Mariupol, Kherson, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia were all under Russian siege and varying degrees of direct Russian control, but this could just as readily change as Russia consolidates its forces and refines it battlefield objectives.
Kyiv is a much tougher prospect for the Russian forces to fully encircle and successfully assault. Kyiv’s pre-war population of 2.8 million was nearly twice the population of Kharkiv and three times that of Odessa. Kyiv has several naturally defensive properties according to Ukrainian General Andriy Kryschenko: it is a large and sprawling city that is divided by the Dnieper River and its tributaries. The iconic city locations of Khreshchatyk Street, the Verkhovna Rada (parliament), Maidan (independence) Square, and Sophia’s Cathedral are all on the western side of the Dnieper.
No doubt, Kyiv’s defenders are planning numerous defensive scenarios in case Russian forces enter the city in force. But this simply does not seem operationally feasible for the Russian armed forces as the situation currently stands. Ukraine’s armed forces have so far exploited the defender’s advantage to maximum extent in several of Ukraine’s other cities, exploiting their knowledge of the terrain and their occupation of the high ground to lure in and separate the advancing Russian armoured columns.
According to Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko, the Ukrainian capital “has gone into a defensive phase. Shots and explosions are ringing out in some neighbourhoods saboteurs have already entered Kyiv. The enemy wants to put the capital on its knees and destroy us”. As Klitschko further reflected, “I can’t recognize my own city, with all the emptiness, barricades and blocks,” warning that Kyiv has resources for “maybe two weeks” if it is completely cut off. The defence of Kyiv may well be where the ultimate military fate of the Russian invasion is decided.
Whether Kyiv’s defences, supply reserves, and public morale are tested by a direct Russian assault on the city itself remains to be seen. Regardless, the atrocious toll of suffering inflicted on Ukraine’s urban dwellers in its many besieged cities will remain an enduring legacy of this war, no matter the course it now takes.
Dr Samir Puri is IISS-Asia Senior Fellow in Urban Security and Hybrid Warfare, and a former ceasefire monitor in east Ukraine.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Word on the Street blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Violence Research Network.