A Ukrainian serviceman guards his position in Mariupol, Ukraine. Photo / AP
The tactical nous of Ukraine’s forces has so far resulted in their refusal, by and large, to engage with the Russian bear’s sharpest claws.
Instead, they have bypassed the strongest elements, singling out logistic units some way to the rear – the oil that keeps the whole machine working. We’ve seen it in the 40-mile convoy that sat for a week north of Kyiv, unable to advance for want of supplies. That situation seems to have changed and the Russian assault on the capital looks set to begin.
Park for one moment the idea that Russian troops will probably have to advance along obvious routes (as the logistics vehicles have proved useless off-road) – a boon to Ukrainian artillery and drone units.
Russia’s tactics historically – in Syria and Chechnya, and witnessed to a degree in Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol – is to pulverise urban areas with missiles before any ground assault moves in.
Most of the world hopes that is not going to happen in Kyiv. And so does Russia, assuming it wants to capture the symbolic city largely intact.
But a concentrated ground attack could put Vladimir Putin’s army at a significant disadvantage.
This type of battle, with radio communications severely limited, and the Ukrainian defenders knowing the terrain much better than the attackers, would require much higher standards of training and leadership, especially among junior Russian soldiers. In urban combat, it is imperative to halt armoured vehicles moving at will.
Street blockades built of metal and concrete must be erected. Tank traps – ditches too deep and wide for tracked vehicles to negotiate – must be dug.
If the defences are too flimsy or shallow, tanks and other armoured vehicles will just climb over them or shove them aside.
Knowing the exact size and capabilities of the approaching enemy vehicles is therefore critical. Any defences must be covered by firing points, to destroy tanks snarled up by lengths of barbed wire around the tracks, or the engineering vehicles brought forward to clear obstacles.
In this, Ukraine will have an advantage both in the number of troops defending every street and the sheer quantity of anti-tank weapons that have flowed into the country over the past weeks.
A batch of next-generation light anti-tank weapons (NLAW) which have minimal back-blasts on launch to protect the soldier firing the weapon have been sent to Ukraine.
Last week the British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, said 3615 had been dispatched, meaning rooms in every building on every street could potentially harbour a defender.
That will occupy Russian minds, but may also mean they rely even more on destroying as much infrastructure as possible.
Anti-tank weapons without “soft-launch” mechanisms are still extremely valuable in urban areas. Big open spaces in cities – perfect for “shoot-and-scoot” anti-tank missions – can still be found across parks and rivers or on long, wide streets.NLAWs have a minimum range of 65ft, making them very employable in built-up areas.
A mix of ground troops hunting Russians with anti-tank weapons and Ukrainian tanks and other armoured vehicles will be required.
“The best anti-tank weapon in the world is another tank,” Ben Barry, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said. Ukrainians will seek to hide their own tanks up side streets, firing into the flanks of passing Russian columns while being covered by soldiers on top of nearby buildings.
Urban fighting is gritty, exhausting and confusing, but historically has favoured the defender.
Barry reckons the required ratio of attackers to defenders in urban terrain could be as high as 9:1. Many observers have questioned if Russia has enough soldiers. Even Russian commanders have their doubts. In a post on the Telegram social media app, Igor Vsevolodovich Girkin, a Russian army veteran and former FSB agent, said “the ratio of manpower has already become in favour of Kyiv and this advantage will only increase”.
Girkin, 51, played a key role in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and later the war in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
He said Russia’s early plans now seem “overly optimistic” and that without “partial mobilisations … the war cannot be won even in a few years”. A Russian strategy of encirclement and bombardment means ground troops will not need to be particularly competent, Barry said. “They just have to be sufficiently competent to protect the artillery and rocket launchers.”
Reports overnight of heavy fire on the outskirts of Kyiv could indicate Ukraine is making efforts to repel Russian forces trying to encircle the city. If Russia decides to stay outside the built-up areas and blast Kyiv with artillery, “the excellence of the Ukrainian army’s defence of urban areas would be a touch irrelevant”, Barry said.
Not being able to engage directly but having to suffer siege and aerial bombardment would be the “worst-case scenario” for Ukraine, he said.