‘Street Fight’: Russia’s Block-by-Block Warfare in Ukraine

The U.S. military academy’s top expert on urban warfare is giving Ukrainians a crash course on Twitter.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A military instructor walks past wooden replicas of Kalashnikov rifles delivered for civilians taking part in a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on January 30, 2022.
A military instructor walks past wooden replicas of Kalashnikov rifles delivered for civilians taking part in a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on January 30, 2022.
A military instructor walks past wooden replicas of Kalashnikov rifles delivered for civilians taking part in a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on January 30, 2022. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

If Ukraine wants to fend off the Russian invasion, one of the foremost U.S. experts on urban combat has some advice: Turn the battle into a street fight. 

John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major who saw urban combat up close in the 2008 battle of Sadr City with Iraqi insurgents before becoming the chair of urban warfare studies at the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute, has become an impromptu military advisor for Ukrainians looking to take up arms against Russia as the fight moves toward Kyiv and Kharkiv, the country’s two biggest cities. 

“This will still be an insurgency at a level that, of course, we’ve seen in history, but we haven’t seen in modern history,” Spencer told Foreign Policy. “If Russians achieve their objective, it all falls. They raise a flag. Day two: They’re trying to instill order. They will still die a thousand cuts because of the insurgency.” 

If Ukraine wants to fend off the Russian invasion, one of the foremost U.S. experts on urban combat has some advice: Turn the battle into a street fight. 

John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major who saw urban combat up close in the 2008 battle of Sadr City with Iraqi insurgents before becoming the chair of urban warfare studies at the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute, has become an impromptu military advisor for Ukrainians looking to take up arms against Russia as the fight moves toward Kyiv and Kharkiv, the country’s two biggest cities. 

“This will still be an insurgency at a level that, of course, we’ve seen in history, but we haven’t seen in modern history,” Spencer told Foreign Policy. “If Russians achieve their objective, it all falls. They raise a flag. Day two: They’re trying to instill order. They will still die a thousand cuts because of the insurgency.” 

But to make that happen, the approach of the Ukrainian military and citizenry—who can get weapons from their government just by showing a passport—will have to change, Spencer said. The Ukrainians are not equipped or trained to fight like insurgents, he added, and they’ll have to figure it out as the Russian invasion intensifies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: The Pentagon has said that the Russian military has yet to take any major cities since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a further invasion of Ukraine five days ago, despite initial fears that Kyiv could fall in a matter of hours. What’s gone wrong for the Russian military? 

John Spencer: I think the Russians attempted one course of action that did not work, and now we’re on plan B. I don’t think they have the will or the fortitude to do a siege. You’ve seen an increasing number of protests [in Russia]. That’s probably why the Kremlin wanted to do this as fast as they could: the attempt at a “shock and awe” campaign, some really bold, risky errors trading speed for the force that it takes to do what they tried to do. I think we’re going to enter phase B, not a completely different phase. This is just a sequel to what they thought they could do. It’s going to get a lot worse there than better. Russia has had significant setbacks, but they are not even all in yet. I think Russia is going to double down before they ever think about giving up. 

FP: Ukraine’s military has said that Russia is specifically hitting civilian targets to have psychological impacts on the public and dampen morale among its troops. Is that something that could hurt Ukrainian morale, especially if Russia unleashes thermobaric weapons systems?

JS: Absolutely. The psychological effect of those systems cannot be underestimated or the psychological effect of bombing. Russia has really surprisingly gone very light with firepower with the air campaign in the first stage—and now even with maneuver.

Russian doctrine is, even more so than the U.S., heavily reliant on fires before maneuver forces to get there, both to have the psychological impact on the enemy but also in protecting and supporting what they’re trying to achieve in maneuvering forces to penetrate into the objective. All these other battles in Kharkiv, Kherson, and in Odessa are all supporting objectives to what the goal is, which is to get as big of a force to Kyiv as possible to take the political capital. If [Russia] can punch into the capital, raise their flag, then it’s all over.

FP: You tweeted a series of military tactics that armed Ukrainian citizens can use if the war becomes a street fight over major cities. How long can Ukraine bleed the Russian military in a block-to-block insurgency? 

JS: I honestly believe at this point, [Ukraine] can defeat the Russian military. Let’s say Russia has 200,000 forces. [Ukraine] can defeat that in the urban terrain by turning it into a street fight. It’s called the great equalizer for a reason. 

If Kyiv falls, you know, I think the Ukrainians would immediately transition to an insurgency. Maybe the Russians thought that won’t be the case if they can get in and instill a Russian-friendly Ukrainian government. That was always the goal in Iraq, right? [The United States] had an alternate government to stand up. That was the goal in Afghanistan. That’s the model. It would fail in Ukraine, just like it has failed for anybody else who has attempted it recently. 

This will still be an insurgency at a level that, of course, we’ve seen in history, but we haven’t seen in modern history. If Russians achieve their objective, it all falls. They raise a flag. Day two: they’re trying to instill order. They will still die a thousand cuts because of the insurgency. [But] the approach of the Ukrainian military would have to change. 

FP: How would the Ukrainian military’s approach have to change if the government falls? 

JS: It’s basically enemy-occupied territory at that point. How do you get the right information to resisters? The training provided to the Ukrainian Territorial [Defense Forces] was more classic conventional tactics. Think back to Charlie Wilson’s War, when they’re advising the Afghans on how to resist the Russian army. There are really good popular media clips on OK, I need bicycle bombs. I need IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. I need [rocket-propelled grenade launchers]. You’d have to set up an underground network to start educating people on how to do it. The IED isn’t going away in modern warfare. The IED is a powerful and safe way to resist. It becomes the fight.

FP: How much would the Russian military’s advantage diminish in urban fighting with the Ukrainians?

JS: Historically, urban guerrillas aren’t that successful depending on what their political objective is. It depends on what the Russian goal is. If Ukraine’s goal is just to continue to send body bags home, I think that those cookbooks on how to build IEDs, how to establish ambushes on roads, all of that training is what would need to happen. 

The U.S. Army urban doctrine today says that it takes three to five times more force structure to accomplish a task in urban terrain than it does in any other environment. But think about counterinsurgency numbers: the number of troops in comparison to the population. Even the U.S. never achieved those numbers. The Russians, if they took the entire Russian army and put it into Ukraine, could not achieve the numbers it would take to fight an urban counterinsurgency.

FP: How would the Russian military respond to an insurgency?

JS: The Russian approach would be very vicious and almost like a police state if you can imagine it. They’re going to take out the leadership of any political resistance and install Russian-friendly leadership. That’s the whole narrative, right? This is [about] protecting Russians. It’s heavily reliant on psychological warfare and information warfare but with a strong arm behind it: the nonmilitary police organizations that would be stood up to assist. That’s the type of urban tactics to stamp out a counterinsurgency that would be required. 

FP: The U.S. Defense Department has said that Ukraine’s air defenses are damaged but still standing. How much harder will it make the fighting if the Russian military is able to take control of the skies? 

JS: Every day, every hour, it’s going to get harder to get Ukrainian supplies right. It’s also going to get harder for civilians to flee. The land corridors, especially that Western corridor, is going to become more and more difficult. That’s Russia’s goal, right? That’s not siege warfare; that’s isolation. You want to keep military resupply and supplies from getting to defenders. 

I could foresee Russian checkpoints trying to control the land corridors. If they get air superiority, you’ll see a lot less air resupply capability there as well, whether that’s air dropping or landing supplies.

What I would be doing if I were Ukraine, knowing the possibility that this is coming? Stockpiling and pulling things back into my defensive areas, right? So you may have to trade terrain and give up spaces to pull back forces and supplies to tougher positions before that chance is gone. And we’re talking hours, if not days.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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