Why Putin will struggle to control Ukrainian cities

Anthony King outlines why cities matter for the current conflict and the difficulties they present for the Russian invasion

7A Koshytsia Street, Kyiv, 25 February 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushnyak / UNDP Ukraine via flickr.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues into its third week, the fighting is increasingly focused around Ukrainian cities. In this blogpost, I outline why cities are so central to contemporary armed conflict in general and the ongoing war in Ukraine in particular. I argue that the Russian military is likely to face significant long-term difficulties in taking and holding Ukrainian cities due to the high cost of urban warfare. This is the case because today’s Russian military remains limited in scale when compared to twentieth century armed forces and is thus unlikely to be able to sustain long-term control over Ukrainian urban centres.

Why cities matter in twenty-first century warfare

Urban and siege warfare has been a major part of armed conflict since antiquity. However, in the twenty-first century, urban warfare has become increasingly common. Commentators have identified two central causes of the proliferation of urban conflict. First, urban areas have expanded; in 1960, 0.5 billion people lived in cities, now 4.2 billion do. Second, the urban environment offers optimal cover against advanced surveillance, targeting and precision strike technology, especially for non-state forces.

Crucially, there is a third reason why urban warfare has become so common today. Armed forces have contracted. In comparison with the twentieth century, military forces across the world are now very small, with western militaries being about a half to one third of the size they were in the Cold War. This has fundamentally changed the geometry of military campaigns. Because contemporary land forces are smaller, they cannot form the fronts which were typical of interstate warfare in the twentieth century. Consequently, conventional forces tend to converge on the battlefield. In rare cases, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh War, armies meet in the field. However, overwhelmingly, forces tend to converge on decisive operational objectives. These objectives typically include political centres, critical national infrastructure, communications and transport nodes, as well as population centres. These are all overwhelmingly concentrated in cities.

Even in counter-insurgency, this arithmetic has played an important role. In the twentieth century, many insurgent groups operated or tried to operate inside cities. However, at that point, state forces were large enough to be able to drive insurgents out of cities — or prevent them from operating there in the first place. This situation has radically reversed in the twenty-first century. Today, states lack the personnel to control urban areas. In this gap in the security architecture, insurgencies have once again found the city an excellent environment in which to operate.

Cities in the Ukrainian war

The Ukraine War illustrates these dynamics. The Russians have deployed a large force. 190,000 soldiers were stationed on the border before the conflict. There are over 150,000 soldiers in Ukraine at time of writing though the precise number remains unclear. Yet in comparison with the twentieth century, when the Red Army and then the Warsaw Pact had millions of soldiers under arms, it is a very small contingent — especially given the size of Ukraine.

Russian forces have taken swathes of land in the north and south, but their advances have not been frontal. Rather, they have focused on key strategic locations and concentrations of Ukrainian defenders. Typically, these foci of combat have been located in and around urban centres which the Russians need to take in order to advance. The Russians have engaged so far in a series of quasi-siege operations in Kharkiv, Kershon, Mariupol, Chernihiv and Kyiv; they have attempted to encircle, bombard and assault these locations. In subsequent days and weeks, we are likely to be transfixed by the battle of Kyiv and its potentially appalling human cost. It is possible that Putin will be unable to subdue Kyiv; it will certainly be very costly for both sides and devastating for the civilian population.

Cities and the long-term conflict

However, even if Putin is able to defeat the Ukrainian government in conventional interstate warfare, it remains unclear what will happen next. It seems probable that much of the Ukrainian population will oppose a hostile occupation. A protracted and urbanized insurgency thus appears likely.

Even after a mass refugee exodus, Ukraine will still have a population of about 40 million people. Although very large, Ukraine is also heavily urbanized. Kyiv is a city of 3 million, Kharkiv 1.4 million, with many other major urban centres. The opportunities for insurgency will therefore be legion if Ukrainian resistance continues. Counter-insurgents typically work on a force ratio of 1:50. In the intense phase of a counterinsurgency operation, one member of the security force — a soldier or armed police officer — is required for every 50 citizens. Consequently, if there is major resistance, Russia will require 800,000 security personnel to control the population: over four times the total number of Russian troops initially massed for the invasion which has already faced logistical setbacks. In Kyiv alone, they will require 60,000 troops: a corps. These are worrying numbers for Putin.

In the light of these force ratios, it is almost certain that any Ukrainian insurgency will be highly urbanized. It will be very difficult for Putin’s regime to control urban neighbourhoods in Ukraine’s major cities. Kyiv, like Baghdad or Aleppo, might become a base for non-regime forces. In those spaces, local insurgents and militias are likely to challenge the regime and to attack Russian forces.

Russian attempts to hold Ukrainian cities are therefore likely to face significant long-term obstacles even if their ongoing attempts to take major Ukraine’s urban centres prove successful. Sadly, it appears the Ukrainian War may have only just begun.

Anthony King holds the Chair of War Studies at the University of Warwick.

His article ‘Urban insurgency in the twenty-first century: smaller militaries and increased conflict in cities’ was published in the March 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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