27 May 2022

The urban terrain of the Donbas will not easily fall to the Russians

Ben Barry

Russia faces a bloody and grinding struggle even to meet its revised military goals in eastern Ukraine. The battles for Kyiv and Mariupol have shown once again how urban terrain often favours determined defenders and enables them to hold out against superior numbers of attackers.

Superior leadership and battlefield competence enabled Ukraine to repel the Russian advance in the forests and towns north of Kyiv. Its forces made good use of their supplies of US Javelin and UK-Swedish Nlaw missiles and cleverly synchronised them with strikes by mortars and artillery, often
 co-ordinated by drones overhead.

Some successful Ukrainian attacks saw their light infantry using swarm tactics to rapidly strike much more ponderous Russian armoured columns, afterwards rapidly dispersing into cover before the Russians could react.

Russian forces made more progress in the south but still took a very long time to clear the town of Mariupol. Their attack began in earnest on March 12 with some three regiments of about 12,000 troops taking five weeks to overcome most of the 3,000 defending Ukrainian troops. Even now Russia has failed to evict the several hundred Ukrainian troops hiding in tunnels under the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.

The battles remind us that urban combat requires a high standard of leadership and training, especially in combined arms tactics — combining infantry, tanks, artillery and engineers into a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

This, and an apparent aversion to risk, persuaded Russian forces not to emphasise aggressive manoeuvres by tanks and infantry, but instead to use its familiar playbook from Chechnya and Syria of saturating urban areas with artillery, rockets and bombs, leading to collateral damage and civilian casualties.

As Russia’s main effort has shifted to its new objective of conquering the Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, urban terrain will remain an important factor.

Although maps of the region can give the impression that it comprises open agricultural terrain, close inspection of satellite imagery shows that it is much more heavily urbanised. The region contains several large towns, such as Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk, with peacetime populations of 104,000 and 150,000 respectively, and to achieve its objectives Russia will need to control these. This part of Ukraine is also covered with a dense array of small towns, villages and agricultural and mining facilities that dominate the area’s network of metalled roads and are often only a few kilometres apart.

This creates opportunities for the defenders to exploit. Each town, village and farm complex can act as a smaller version of Mariupol, fortified by Ukrainian infantry to allow them to use anti-tank missiles to stop Russian armour, forcing Russian troops to attack to clear the defenders obstructing their advance. The Ukrainians will be able to site anti-tank weapons in neighbouring towns and villages to pick off Russian armour attacking nearby Ukrainian positions.

This mutual support would be reinforced by gun and cannon fire from Ukrainian tanks and armoured infantry fighting vehicles that can both exploit the urban terrain and move around to deliver surprise attacks on the flanks and rear of Russian armoured columns.

So instead of the terrain being a single urban fortress it will become a dispersed network of smaller fortresses, from which it will be just as difficult to evict the defenders. The extensive networks of trenches and fortifications that Ukrainian troops have constructed across the Donbas will also assist their defence.

Such tactics are battle-proven. For example in Normandy in July 1944, an attack by three British armoured divisions, preceded by carpet bombing by Allied bombers, was brought to a standstill by a much smaller German force of infantry and a few anti-tank guns that used these tactics in a network of small villages on Bourgu├ębus Ridge. This unsuccessful attack, known as Operation Goodwood, was extensively studied by the British Army in the 1970s, who practised using similar tactics to stop a Soviet armoured attack among the farming villages and dormitory towns around the German city of Hanover.

Of course, in any war, the enemy gets a vote and fights to cast it. The Russians are doing so. Over recent weeks their tactics in Donbas have featured very limited, short-range attacks by their tanks and infantry, probably seeking to avoid running out of ammunition and fuel and to minimise their casualties. They are making as much use as they can of their own gun and rocket artillery.

This why the supply of modern artillery howitzers by the US, France, Canada and Germany is so important to the Ukrainian army. Ukraine has already demonstrated an impressive ability not only to use artillery in support of their infantry, but also to strike at longer range, often cued by drones, as demonstrated by the recent attack on a Russian battalion crossing a pontoon bridge.

Ninety US-UK manufactured M777 howitzers firing Nato-standard 155mm shells have been supplied by the US and are already with Ukrainian gunners who were trained on the equipment in Germany. These have a range of up to 19 miles. Combined with target data from Ukrainian drones and recently supplied radars designed to locate guns and rocket launchers, these should improve Ukraine’s ability to attack and neutralise Russian artillery and rocket launchers.

Over the coming weeks and months the battle in the Donbas will probably be dominated by artillery, which may well become the main source of casualties on both sides. And civilians who will not or cannot leave towns and villages near the frontline are likely to suffer as well.

But rapidly defeating a layered combined arms defence with a high density of troops well equipped with anti-tank weapons, tanks and artillery would challenge the most effective of Nato armies. With the personnel and equipment casualties it has suffered and the demonstrably lower standards of Russian tactics, training and leadership that led to defeat north of Kyiv, the Russians have little alternative but to continue to mount a series of limited attacks seeking to gradually push the Ukrainians back while using as much firepower as they can to inflict casualties, hoping to force the Ukrainians to withdraw.

Russia will not only attempt to advance from the east but will also attempt to attack from Izyum in the north and the strip of territory it holds in the south, in an effort to surround and encircle the Ukrainian defenders in the east. It will continue its missile attacks throughout Ukraine, particularly seeking to knock out the Ukrainian air force and disrupt supply lines and the flow of foreign weapons and ammunition. And the Russian airforce is likely to mount hit-and-run attacks in the Donbas using unguided “dumb” bombs, mainly against Ukrainian-controlled towns.

There are some additional factors that are, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, “known unknowns”.

One is the number of Ukrainian troops killed or seriously wounded by Russia. Neither Ukraine nor its allies are releasing any figures. International media have not been allowed access to Ukraine’s military hospitals. It can augment its regular army with its Territorial Defence Force militia and with foreign volunteers, but there may be a finite limit to the numbers of these fighters.

Russia will hope that its sheer numbers of artillery tanks and armoured vehicles will eventually tip the scales in its favour. But the ever-increasing amount of external weapons, ammunition and training reaching Ukrainian forces will probably make it increasingly difficult for Russia to achieve its objectives in the Donbas.

The other critical known unknown will be the shape of the battle in the air. Western defence and intelligence officials assess that Russia has not achieved control of Ukrainian airspace. The missiles its air force launches are fired from Russian airspace and Russian fighter bombers seem reluctant to spend more than the bare minimum time in Ukrainian airspace.

As long as Ukraine can maintain a layered network of short and long range air defence missiles and complement it with its fighters, it can probably control most of its airspace most of the time. But if Russia could deliver a knockout punch to a major part of this network, it could gain sufficient air control to better support its ground troops and sever Ukrainian supply lines. So Ukraine is likely to keep up its as yet unfulfilled requests for fresh fighter aircraft.

However, as these two important known unknowns develop, we can expect attrition and artillery to dominate the contours of the war in the Donbas over future weeks and even months.

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