Sun Tzu once said “the worst policy is to attack cities”.
This was when civilians were not seen as an integral part of the mission who must be protected at all costs, and before force protection became such an important objective. His caution applies even more powerfully, then, today.
Yet for the Ukrainian Army at least with regards Donetsk, it might not quite be the worst policy.
The Ukrainian Army could besiege the city.
However, this would be costly, long-drawn out, and bloody. The country’s finances are in a bad way, and the insurgency needs to be quelled quickly. Fielding this Army has been financially costly, and it is the east of the country which is where most of the industry is located. Such a siege may demoralise the Army, which will be attacked by the rebels firing from positions safely amongst civilians.
Or the Ukrainian Army could attack. This article addresses the problems the Ukrainian Army would face in such a scenario.
A counterinsurgency operation in urban terrain represents a mission the Ukrainian Army, a conventional military, was not designed to do, upon a terrain they are ill-suited to.
Specifically, operating in an urban environment conducting a counterinsurgency operation along traditional western lines (not Russian a la Grozny) results in both a lack of firepower and increased vulnerabilities to soldiers which both culminate in the most significant problem, military casualties.
Public support both feeds into this process, restricting the Army and causing greater military casualties, whilst at the same time being negatively impacted by these very casualties.
The Ukrainian Army must operate within parameters set by public opinion in the West of the country. For instance the use of flame is effective in urban combat, yet will not be countenanced.
Perhaps more importantly, it must abide by rules prevalent in the West generally, whose support is vital both for the military operation itself and Ukraine generally. We must remember the environment this counterinsurgency operation is taking place in; the prospect of Russian invasion and interference looms and Ukraine needs all the international help it can get.
Essentially, the presence of non-combatants is not necessarily a problem without the moral concern for non-combatants and the instrumental approach of a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy which the Ukrainian Army must operate within.
Winning the support of the population is highly important, contrary to claims from either side the population of Donetsk does not wholly support nor wholly oppose the Rebels.
The peoples’ loyalty is still to play for.
Winning over the population is considered the ‘traditional’ approach to counterinsurgency, with the British being notable advocates. This is contrasted with an enemy-centred approach to counterinsurgency, for instance in Chechnya, Vietnam, and most recently perhaps in Sri Lanka against the Tamil Tigers.
Clearly, the Ukrainian Government is strongly favouring the former approach. These are its own citizens after all, and support is not just essential for success on the ground but also in the wider battle for Western support against the rebels and specifically Russia.
The local population is the very air the insurgents breathe, and to choke them into submission the population must be won round. They will cease to support them, provide intelligence to the troops, and cease joining their ranks and sheltering them. It would also make any subsequent peace more tenable.
Yet at the same time, Ukraine places a high priority on force protection similar to other Western countries. Even Russia’s “openly-stated tactical principle of the Second Chechen War has been to minimize casualties by fighting at maximum range” (Orr, 2000, p.92).
Yet Ukraine must both limit casualties to its Army and, unlike Russia in Grozny, protect the civilian population as much as possible during the course of the fighting. Following Russian tactics of simply levelling whole sections of the city with indiscriminate artillery fire is not acceptable.
Reconciling the problems of protecting civilians and its own forces is made even more difficult by the nature of close quarters combat.
There are several problems the Ukrainian Army will face conducting combat operations in Donetsk. These stem from the differences between city environments and the rural environments it was primarily designed for; cities are dense in terms of “population”, “structures”, “potential firing positions”, “friendly and enemy forces”, there are “line of sight difficulties” and a “compression of decision times” (Glenn, 2000, p.10).
Deploying artillery and air strikes when fighting in cities is difficult. Units would simply be too close to the enemy much of the time, and Ukraine lacks more sophisticated, precision munitions NATO has. Witness the Chechens who “‘hugged’ Russian forces to avoid Russian supporting artillery fire and airstrikes” (Aldis, 2000, p.101).
However, devastating firepower could still be deployed even within cities; witness the second siege of Grozny or indeed, Dresden or Tokyo during World War II. Non-combatants within cities doesn’t necessarily curtail such use of firepower.
But non-combatants do represent a problem if militaries choose to use restrictive Rules of Engagement.
Whilst city combat “magnifies and intensifies every problem and vulnerability” (Hills, 2004, p.244) of conventional militaries, if they are fighting a similar enemy then presumably similar problems would apply to both sides. An innovative commander might try;
maximizing underground and building-to-building movement, by employing booby traps, chemicals, foam, or other lethal and nonlethal munitions to deny the adversary use of buildings, or via thorough planning that avoids particularly dense concentrations of windows, doorways, and the like. (Glenn, 2000, p.20).
However, using booby traps might prove unpopular with the locals.
Artillery and airpower will be curtailed for the Ukrainian Army, should it wish to protect the civilian population. Tanks and APCs could be used, as they were successfully in Fallujah, but this risks a re-run of Grozny where entire units of Russian tanks and APCs were wiped out.
Supporting infantry were picked off by snipers whilst RPG wielding terrorists fired from within basements or atop buildings, either too low or too high for the Russian tanks’ guns’ elevation.
Given Donetsk is more akin to Grozny with its tall apartment blocks than Fallujah is, and the Ukrainian military closer still to the Russian army than the USMC (and I’m not saying that it falls somewhere in between these two either), Grozny might be the better comparison.
On their own, combat in cities does not lead to a lack of firepower. And similarly with counterinsurgency operations generally.
Early on in the deployment in Helmand, the Task Force agreed to an Afghan request to place troops in platoon houses surrounding faltering local security force bases. British soldiers could only hold these positions by using massive firepower (Bennett, 2010, p.468)
Yet this approach was only possible in rural terrain.
When operating in cities under a population-centric operation such as the Ukrainian Army is pursuing, firepower is severely curtailed and this one big advantage the Ukrainians have is nullified.
Fighting will be close-quarters and manpower intensive. Casualties will be high. This even more so because of the presence of civilians.
City combat sees dense physical and human terrain. The latter infuses the former with added complexity and danger for the counterinsurgent.
Whilst certain physical terrain lends itself well to insurgents to hide in and use as ambush sites, human terrain allows insurgents to become part of the terrain. Human terrain adds increased complexity to physical terrain such as narrow alleys and multi-storey buildings.
Essentially, if the city were empty of civilians it would be hard enough. The Rebels would have an advantage.
But a small room needing clearing is one thing; with people inside who might or might not be noncombatants it is a different kettle of fish altogether. The Rebels will have all the advantages.
What’s more, the local rebels will know the city much better, and be more infused with defending their home than a soldier from Kiev is attacking.
And those Rebels who are ‘volunteers’ from Russia no doubt contain at least an element of Russian special forces. They have had ample time to pass on some of their expertise in city fighting to the others.
To summarise, a Ukrainian Army offensive to recapture Donetsk will be bloody. The Ukrainian Army will not be able to utilise its superior firepower, because this will lead to civilian casualties which would negatively impact domestic and foreign public opinion and of the Donetsk population. What is more, city fighting is unique and has many advantages and disadvantages, but when the mission is to protect the population from rebel forces in and around them, all advantages go to the defending rebels. Attempting to reconcile the competing objectives the Ukrainian Army likely has of protecting the population whilst fighting within an urban area and ensuring as little casualties as possible, will be tough.
Donetsk is much larger than the several other towns the Ukrainian Army has been successful in, and the Rebels are concentrated.
If the Ukrainian Army can win here, it might well break the insurgency’s back. Alternatively, they may simply retreat into the forests and villages, as happened in Grozny where the Chechens simply continued the resistance into the mountains to great effect.
Either way, it will be extremely costly and it is not certain the perpetually underfunded Ukrainian Army is up to the task. Nor might Ukrainian society be, which might oppose an operation involving the loss of too many soldiers. A protracted siege may be the only option, with dire consequences for the Army, the Rebels, the inhabitants of Donetsk, and Ukraine generally.