Siege Of Cities & Perils Of Urban Warfare The Russo-Ukraine War

"Collateral damage and international repercussions make military operations in such a complex physical environment difficult and restrict the use of the entire spectrum of combat power available to the attacker."

Siege Of Cities & Perils Of Urban Warfare The Russo-Ukraine War

"I believe that at the heart of Russian military thinking is how Marshal Zhukov marched across Eastern Europe to Berlin," a former high-level CIA official told Newsweek in an interview. Zhukov's orders were to "line up the artillery and ... flatten everything ahead of you," he says. "'Then send in the peasant Army to kill or rape anyone left alive.' Subtle the Russians are not."

-William Arkin-


Dr Christiopher Brassford, a well known American military historian has very eloquently summed up the politico-military objectives for starting any war; these may range from causing intimidation; to change in policy, to regime change or for destruction of military potential or for taking a slice of territory or for even complete absorption.

On the other hand, for the defender, the ultimate object of all defense is preservation; and since it is easier to hold ground than to take it, Clausewitz was right in his conclusions about defense ‘that defense is an easier operation of war than attack’. Paradoxically, defense may be the ‘stronger form of war’, but it is the tactic of the weaker force. And if it relates to the defense of a city, the advantage definitely rests with the defender. Again, borrowing a quote from Clausewitz, ‘the acts we consider most important for the defeat of the enemy are destruction of his army and seizure of his capital; (which is) not only the center of administration but also that of social, professional, and political activity’.

Thus far military history had also taught that a large hostile city should not normally be taken as a military objective--bypass, mask, surround, invest, blockade, encircle, isolate; the bottom line being to avoid entering or laying a siege to a city. But conventional warfare and set piece attacks with the standard  3:1 attacker-defender ratio as normally followed in classic battles (open countryside with minimum chances of collateral damage) may not be the norm any longer. Instead, military operations may most likely be conducted in cities and urban environments. The ongoing Russian-Ukraine war reinforces this. Nonetheless, urban warfare involving siege and subsequent capture of a city will still be dictated by the basic  principles governing an attacking force : reconnoiter the objective, obtain a favorable air situation, move to the objective, apply maximum combat power, isolate the objective, secure a foothold, execute a breach, clear the objective, consolidate and reorganize. Whereas the methodology to ‘attack and capture’ remains the same, the application and use of combat power including aerial assets will be substantially different in an urban environment.

Conducting a city assault requires understanding of how to achieve the mission of destroying the enemy forces and seizing the city with the lowest possible casualties to own forces, civilian population and the city’s infrastructure. The ultimate responsibility of feeding and providing medical aid, water, electricity, municipal services and administration then fall on the occupying power. Regardless of mission, cities require militaries to conceptualize ways to operate that are unique to the environment.  Militaries have a long history of fighting for cities, but not in them.

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Urban Warfare-City Fighting

In US military jargon, MOUT or Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain, is defined as all military actions planned and conducted on a topographical complex and its adjacent terrain where man made construction is the dominant feature. It includes combat in cities, which is that portion of MOUT involving house-to-house and street-by-street fighting in towns and cities. The side that controls a major city usually has a psychological advantage, which can be enough to significantly affect the outcome of a conflict.

A well thought out plan with inbuilt redundancies catering for contingencies, logistics backup, linkups with advance forces and a successful ‘conflict resolution plan’ are absolutely necessary when laying siege to a city. In addition, intelligence, interoperability/jointmanship, suppression of AD resources, use of drones and battlefield management are the non-negotiables in conventional and more so in urban warfare. This assumes all the more importance once advancing forces have been halted  or where the time plan of the attacker has been upset. Some of the peculiarities related to urban fighting and capture of a city are discussed in this article.

Locating the enemy strong points in built up areas, especially cities and concepts like identifiable ‘forward lines of own troops’ and ‘secure rear areas’ once you have moved deep into enemy territory are extremely difficult in urban operations. Urban fighting necessitates a particular capability mix of mobility, protection, and firepower, and avoidance of excessive damage to civilian lives and infrastructure thus limiting full application of the attackers combat power.  

Fighting in urban areas is primarily a small-unit, infantry intensive operation. Urban combat requires small-unit leadership, initiative, and skill. Decentralized actions and difficulties in command, control and communications are typically encountered. Built-up areas, close terrain and city fighting are generally considered to be most suited for operations conducted by foot soldiers. Infantry units should be organized, trained and equipped to negotiate urbanized terrain that restricts observation, fields of fire, and mechanized movement.

To say that use of air power, artillery (including tactical missiles and PGM’s) or armoured vehicles cannot be used in an urban battle scenario would be a fallacy. Infact the protection provided by armoured vehicles and their shock effect should be exploited to the hilt, but with a caveat- to be used in close coordination and with protection by infantry. Tanks in support of infantry are potent direct firing weapons with a variety of munitions and can deliver accurate, concentrated and sustained fires to flush out the defenders from buildings and other concrete structures. It has been proven in multiple battles that without the use of armour in urban operations, victory will be long delayed, if not unachievable. Armour must be used and protected well by the other combat arms so that a symbiotic relationship exists, working together to defeat the enemy.

Indirect and long range artillery including MBRL’s too can be used by the aggressor in built-up areas, to isolate the enemy or prevent isolation of own forces and within the built-up area SP; and field/medium artillery can provide direct-fire support. Field artillery in direct firing role with a variety of munitions, combined with infantry and anti-tank teams, can be skilfully employed to facilitate infantry and armour, in flushing out the defenders and for physical and psychological harassment of the enemy.

On the other hand, use of long range artillery, missiles and airpower can also cause problems for the attacker. In addition the huge amount of collateral damage to the city infrastructure like schools, hospitals, residential areas, buildings, communication centers and civilian casualties itself, may cause international condemnation and intervention. The rubble resulting from use of air power, indirect artillery fires and use of missiles to target HVT’s in a city having concrete structures and multi-storey buildings can create considerable obstacles for the attacker while providing the defender with obstacles, materials, cover, and concealment.

Unlike most cities in Asia and Africa, cities of Europe have ‘cities under cities’. There is a vast network of underground structures-- basements, metro networks, tunnels, sewerage lines, maintenance conduits, parking spaces, sub-ways; even World War 2 bomb shelters. These underground passages are often used by the civilian population for protection against bombing and by the defenders to facilitate the transport of weapons, food, medical supplies, ammunition and war material and to hide and move ‘stay behind parties’, or as venues for launching clandestine incursions, tank hunting teams and ‘popping’ out behind the enemy as fighting progresses house to house, street to street and block by block. Advantage- defender.

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The Leningrad Lesson Russia Has Forgotten

As part of Barborosa, Hitler had intended to occupy Leningrad. Consequently Army Group North under Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb advanced to Leningrad, its primary objective.

As the German war machine advanced, towards the end of June 1941, the Leningrad administration, fearing that the Germans would soon lay siege to the city, organized "first response groups" of civilians. In the next few weeks, Leningrad's civilian population of over a million citizens were mobilized for the construction of fortifications. Several lines of defenses were built along the city's perimeter to repulse hostile forces approaching from north and south by means of civilian resistance. A total of 306 km  of timber barricades, 635 km of wire entanglements, 700 km of anti-tank ditches, 5,000 earth-and-timber emplacements and reinforced concrete weapon emplacements and 25,000 km of open trenches were constructed or excavated by the civilian population.

The siege of Leningrad began on 08 September 1941, when the Wehrmacht severed the last road to the city.    Although Soviet forces managed to open a narrow land corridor to the city on 18 January 1943, the Soviet Army could not lift the siege till January 1944. The blockade became one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history, and it was possibly the costliest siege in history due to the number of casualties which were suffered throughout its duration. In the 21st century, some historians have classified it as a genocide due to the systematic starvation and intentional destruction of the city's civilian population.

By 08 September, German forces had largely surrounded the city, cutting off all supply routes to Leningrad and its suburbs. Unable to press home their offensive, and facing defenses of the city organized by Marshal Zhukov, the German armies laid siege to the city for "900 days and nights."

On 21 September the German High Command considered how to destroy Leningrad. Occupying the city was ruled out ‘’because it would make us responsible for food supply." The 872 days of the siege caused extreme famine in the Leningrad region through disruption of infrastructure, utilities, water, energy and food supplies by continuous aerial and ground bombardment. This resulted in the deaths of up to 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians and the evacuation of 1,400,000 more (mainly women and children), many of whom died during evacuation due to starvation and bombardment.

The tenacious Soviet defense of Leningrad cost the attacking Germans dearly in every way and set up conditions for a decisive counteroffensive by the Russians. 75 years later, the Russians appear to have forgotten this battle!

Ukraine-The Russian Experience

‘Sometimes it becomes necessary to destroy the town to save it’, that is how a US army major, during the Vietnam war (some may call it insurgency), described the decision to use massive amounts of firepower, to include aerial bombs and artillery, while attacking approximately 2,500 Viet Cong who were besieging the city of Ben Tre and its surrounding villages. Vietnamese provincial authorities assessed that 85 percent of the city was destroyed and up to 1,000 civilians were killed in the operation.

Applying the same logic to a conventional war between two countries, ‘sometimes it becomes necessary to destroy cities to save them.’ Destructive tactics may be required to 'liberate' a city from enemy forces that choose to defend in urban areas.

In its ‘special operation’ to achieve a politico-military objective by making Kherson, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol and Melitopol as their objectives, Russia has incorrectly let its political objective override its larger military objective (and capability)  in Ukraine. The unexplained stalling of huge Russian convoys of tanks, support and logistics vehicles and the vulnerability of the Russian ground forces and aerial assets to Ukranian drones, man portable anti-tank weapons and AD assets have been seen by the entire world.

With emergency services and a command and control structure battered but largely intact, the Ukrainian defenders have been able to resist and still fight a coordinated battle. Apparently the Russian military has not been able to integrate any of the modern instruments of warfare; electronic warfare, cyber, space, air dominance, use of drones, media, publicity, battlefield field-management—into its overall plan. Elimination of the Ukrainian electronic spectrum to include their early warning systems, radars, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sources along with the degradation of the Ukrainian command and control structure before advancing ‘line ahead’ would have paid rich dividends.  

As per a Newsweek report, American intelligence sources have concluded that while the Russian ground forces have been surprisingly sluggish and uncoordinated, they were also severely constrained in their initial attack by the Kremlin's strategy and objectives. Urban warfare necessitates the need to isolate and destroy enemy forces which have taken defensive positions in the city while causing minimum collateral damage to the city’s infrastructure and population. ‘There's only so much civil infrastructure one can destroy if the intention is occupation of the country (or city).’ The urban terrain reduces the attacker’s advantages in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, the utility of aerial assets, and the attacker’s ability to engage at distance. Conversely,the defender can see and engage the attacker coming, because the attacker has limited cover and concealment.

From the standpoint of the Ukranians, their main effort is to delay and make the enemy approach to the cities very costly. Four weeks down the line the Russian forces have still not breached the cities of Kharkiv and Kiev. At the present point of time, it appears that the defenders of the ‘cities’ appear to have the upper hand.


History shows that the ability of a defender to withstand the siege or capture of a city having a substantial population and a fairly developed infrastructure will largely depend on three variables- firstly, the will of the population and the nation to continue the struggle, secondly a leadership which remains intact and effective to rally the population and to coordinate the national effort, and thirdly the military capability to continue contesting the enemy .

Collateral damage and international repercussions make military operations in such a complex physical environment difficult and restrict the use of the entire spectrum of combat power available to the attacker. On the other hand, the history of urban warfare is full of cases of tenacious defenders using a single building or a series of buildings to hold off far superior attackers. In the 2004 Battle of Fallujah, it was the ‘House of Hell’, where just a few suspected Chechen fighters turned a house into a death trap for the American soldiers trying to take it. During the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, small groups of Russian soldiers held single buildings for months against German tank, artillery, and infantry assaults.

In the end a modern army backed by a large military-industrial complex with the ability to sustain heavy attrition will eventually win the war using its airforce, artillery, tanks, infantry and its overwhelming combat power —but at major costs with its time, space and effort thrown out of gear and at the cost of its reputation and international standing.

We are seeing it happening.

About the Author

Brig D S Sarao, a Brigade of Guards (first in tactics) medal holder from OTA, retired in 2012 after putting in 34 years military service. As an Army aviator, he has flown extensively in J&K and was seriously injured in Op Meghdoot while on a casevac sortie. He has been contributing articles to various magazines regularly. With a diploma in Disaster Management, a post graduate diploma in Business Management and a LLM degree from Pb Univ, he also takes guest lectures in the Dept of Defence Studies and the University School of Open Learning.

(Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)

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