By 28 February the spectre of capturing major cities of Ukraine with large populations – Kyiv with 30 lakh, Kharkiv with 10.4 lakh, Mariupol with 4 lakh, and Kherson with 3 lakh – to achieve its political and military aims, was looming large on the Russian army, which is fighting its first major war since 1945. Plan A – to capture Kyiv with “shock and awe” – has failed and it has been forced to regroup after 96 hours to begin executing deliberate operations through Plan B. Russian forces are now poised to storm Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson (which, as per latest reports, has fallen).
Military history is replete with examples of protracted violent battles in major cities that reduced them to rubble and resulted in large-scale casualties that changed the course of wars/campaigns. The Russian army is no stranger to this warfare. Its determined defence during World War II – of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad (with lakhs of casualties) – turned the tide and led to the final defeat of Germany at Berlin, which itself was a major urban battle.
Ironically it was in and around Kyiv that one of the biggest urban/manoeuvre battles was fought from 7 July to 26 September 1941, which resulted in over 7 lakh casualties.
I analyse the rival strategies, current operational situation, and the likely outcome/ consequences of the battle for the Ukrainian cities.
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The Russian strategy
Russia’s political aim is driven both by insecurity due to the likelihood of expansion of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) to include Ukraine and by irredentism because it does not consider Ukraine to be an independent nation but a part of Russia’s civilisational culture. Its short-term political aim is to bring about a regime change in Ukraine by installing a pro-Russian government. Its long-term political aim is to make Ukraine a part of Russia or the neo-Russian federation.
Russia’s military aim is to disarm/destroy Ukraine’s army and resistance movement to facilitate regime change and establish control over the entire country to achieve its long-term aim in due course. Its initial military strategy was to launch a multi-pronged offensive from the north, east and south at a very high tempo to isolate/invest/capture Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson. The aim was to bring about psychological political/military collapse to force capitulation.
Russia’s Plan A was to launch a classic air-land campaign to defeat Ukraine in 72-96 hours by capturing Kyiv and Kharkiv. The intent was to shape the battlefield with massive air, missile, drone, cyber and electronic warfare campaigns to achieve air superiority and destroy maximum logistical/combat potential. The main effort was directed at Kyiv, to capture it with heliborne/air transported operations. Special/heliborne forces were to capture an airfield in the vicinity of Kyiv for air-transported operations. Mechanised forces were to advance along multiple thrust lines, bypass the opposition to establish links and join the effort to capture Kyiv. Similar operations, with/without heliborne/air transported forces, were launched to isolate/invest/capture Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson. The plan hinged on a “shock and awe” strategy to produce the psychological collapse of the Ukrainian military in 72-96 hours and capture the cities before the Ukraine army regrouped to defend them.
As insurance, in case Plan A achieved only partial success, Plan B catered for more deliberate and methodical operations after build-up of forces and logistics to capture the Ukrainian cities and establish control over the rest of the country. In my view, given the capabilities of the Russian army, the military plans were sound.
The Ukraine strategy
The political aim of Ukraine was simple: To preserve its sovereignty and territory, and, as a worst-case scenario, be prepared for a people’s guerrilla war.
Keeping in view its 2,295 km border with Russia and 2,782 km of coastline, it is not practical to defend Ukraine’s territory as a continuous front. Since 2014, the country’s focus has been to man the ‘border’ with the breakaway “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region. There is a huge military capability differential vis-a-vis Russia. The strength of its armed forces is approximately 2.45 lakh with 2.2 lakh as reserve. Due to the conscription service of 1-3 years, there is a large reservoir of trained men and women who can supplement the regular forces and take part in a people’s guerrilla war.
Keeping this in mind, the logical military strategy for Ukraine should have been to prepare the major cities for a siege, fight a mobile battle to delay the Russian advance along the major communication arteries, isolate the mechanised forces by cutting off their logistics, and fall back (on major cities) to fight an urban battle of attrition. As a last resort, be prepared for a people’s war.
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Progress of operations
When the invasion started, both sides were surprised but due to different reasons. The Ukrainians were surprised by the scale of the Russian offensive, particularly towards Kyiv. In my view, Ukraine had expected the 2014 Crimea/Donbas model of limited operations and was not adequately prepared for an all-out offensive. The Russians were surprised by the nationalism, resolve and dogged resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and people. The relative below-par performance of the Russian military came as shock to itself and the world. The reasons were obvious. The Russians were fighting a conventional war after 1945. The training of its conscription-based army is below par. Its rigid command-and-control tactics are ill-suited for modern combat and Plan A-type of operations.
The Russian air/missile/drone campaign and cyber/electronic warfare campaign achieved mixed results. After 72 hours, it had achieved air superiority, but it could not ensure the success of its critical heliborne/air transported operations. Its mobile forces were able to reach the cities in 72 hours, but failed to “rush” them in conjunction with special forces. Russian logistics could not cope with the rapid advance, forcing a tactical pause for build-up.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s armed forces could do very little about the air/missile/drone campaign. They were quick to scuttle the heliborne/air transported operations with counterattacks. Surprised by the scale of the offensive and due to the superiority of Russian combat power, no meaningful delay was imposed on the Russian advance. However, the logistics of the Russian army were disrupted. The major cities of Ukraine had, ab inito, not fortified or prepared for defence. The recovery was quick and forces from the bypassed areas were rushed back to defend the cities along with the people’s militia.
As of 3 March, the Russian forces have regrouped and isolated Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and captured Kherson. The stage is set for the urban battle and bringing the entire Black Sea/Sea of Azhov coast and territory east of Dnieper river under control.
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Battle for the cities
In the past, the worst nightmare for an army was having to clear a major defended city with a large population. Defence of urban areas is organised in concentric circles with fortified buildings and streets acting as killing areas. The mobility of tanks and Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICVs) is reduced because of streets that can be easily blocked. Urban warfare is an infantry predominant battle fought from building to building and room to room. The rubble of destroyed buildings becomes a part of the defence. That is why armies avoid fighting in built-up areas.
However, once the political and military hierarchy of the attacker has the ruthless will to accept large-scale own, enemy and civilian casualties, modern firepower makes urban warfare relatively easy. In my view, Russian political and military hierarchy has the ruthless will and the means to annihilate the city objectives. Keeping in view the long-term political aim, Plan A was based on causing minimum casualties. Efforts will be made while executing Plan B to minimise civilian casualties by predominant use of Precision Guided Munitions, but Vladimir Putin also wants success at any cost.
Unfortunately, the major Ukrainian cities have not been prepared for defence. Troops are inadequate. There are no reserve forces outside the cities to counterattack the attacker. The defenders have limited artillery and reliance is primarily on small arms and improvised explosive devices.
As you read this, the systematic softening of the cities with unprecedented air, missile, drone and artillery firepower with liberal use of precision-guided, cluster, vacuum and thermobaric munitions has begun. My heart goes out to the brave people of Ukraine, but my prognosis is that the fall of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol is only a matter of time.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.