We can expect more pressure to be applied on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities and probably an increase in urban warfare, writes Dr David Murphy, Department of History 

Armies don’t like fighting in cities. In terms of how armies are designed, equipped, and trained, the preferred mode of warfare envisages combat with other conventional forces in wide open spaces, away from cities.

Every Western army is equipped to fight in this way and its leaders and soldiers are trained to engage in manoeuvre warfare in open country.
But over the past 20 to 30 years, we have consistently seen warfare concentrated in urban centres and this has always come with high levels of devastation and casualties. As a reflection of this reality, there is an increasing amount of attention among Western armies in developing capacities in FIBUA: "Fighting in built-up areas".

Since the Second World War, this has been recognised as the most difficult environment to operate in. Urban battles result in high casualties on both sides, widespread destruction, and, due to the presence of the local population, large numbers of civilian casualties. There is a sad catalogue of cities that have been devastated by war in recent times, such as Grozny (2000), Fallujah (2004) and Mosul (2017), among many others.

We are all aware of images of urban destruction on our TV or social media but, as these usually occur in far flung places, we in the West have not been overly concerned. But unless ceasefire talks between Ukraine and Russia succeed, we now face the distinct possibility of seeing modern European cities being reduced before our eyes.

During the 1940s, the then Red Army developed a method for modern manoeuvre warfare that we refer to as "Deep Battle". It incorporated the use of airpower, armour, mechanized units and intense artillery bombardment in order to launch massive assaults on the forces of Nazi Germany. This was a high casualty operational method, but it succeeded in pushing German forces back to Berlin.

While the preferred method was to fight in open country, the fighting inevitably focused in urban areas and saw incredible destruction. Indeed, one of the key battles of the Eastern Front during WW2 was Stalingrad, which descended into a long-drawn out visceral contest. Similar scenes occurred during the battle for Berlin in 1945.

The Deep Battle concept remained factored into Soviet planning during the Cold War and its methods are still factored into modern Russian army doctrine. In recent years, there has been much discussion of Russian cyber and hybrid methods and capabilities, but planning for ground operations still contains Deep Battle elements.

In the last week, we have seen the Russian ground operation grinding to a halt due to a combination of fierce Ukrainian resistance and poor planning and logistics. Russian airpower has been conspicuous by its absence, while there was also a sinister reference to deploying nuclear capabilities. But even the most casual observer could see that the invasion of Ukraine had not gone to plan. It would seem that there has been a profound misjudgment at the strategic level regarding the capacity of both the Ukrainian forces and people to resist.
What is likely to unfold in the coming weeks? After an unplanned pause, it would seem that Russian forces are on the move again. In recent days, we have seen increasing artillery and missile attacks on Kyiv and now other cities. In the context of the ceasefire talks, this activity will continue in an effort to break the moral will of the Ukrainian government and people. To Western states, the EU and NATO, this is very clear messaging not to become further involved in Ukraine’s cause.

Reports would suggest that the opening negotiating points of the Ukrainian and Russian delegations are totally irreconcilable. The one million or so Ukrainians who have fled Westwards are a reflection of this and the population now knows what is about to unfold.

In that context, we can expect increasing pressure to be applied in the coming weeks in Kyiv and other cities. Russia will use artillery and missiles and some level of airpower and it seems likely that thermobaric weapons will be deployed. In an urban setting, none of the above are precision weapons.

It is worth remembering that the Russian army historically has never been sensitive to casualties and has an incredible capacity to both endure and inflict suffering. To refer to the Grozny (1999-2000) example again, the Russians reduced this city to an urban wasteland in the course of their campaign. There were several thousand casualties among both combatants and the civilian population. All of these aspects were deemed acceptable by the Russian high command and the end result was advertised as a success, despite the medieval levels of violence that had been witnessed.

At this point, any rational regime would invest in the ceasefire process in the hope of not allowing this situation to descend into the bloody shambles that is urban warfare. However, it would seem that Vladimir Putin is "all in" at this stage. He has initiated this invasion and has personally identified himself with it.

There has already been significant human suffering in Ukraine, while the Russian people are already being hit by the sanctions. In the international strategic context, Putin has acted aggressively, yet his forces have shown themselves to be less than competent. By any rational strategic criteria, this can only develop into a "lose lose game" but Putin must remain committed to his own plan to survive politically. Unless there is some dramatic intervention from either the international community or from within Russia itself, it is difficult to see how a further escalation in an urban setting can now be avoided.

This article first appeared in RTÉ Brainstorm
Photo courtesy of José Pablo Domínguez on Unsplash