Russia’s Urban Warfare Predictably Struggles

Fighting in cities is hard for any military.

By , an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and , an assistant professor at James Madison College at Michigan State University.
An armed Ukrainian serviceman stands on a deserted city street.
An armed Ukrainian serviceman stands on a deserted city street.
A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard near a burning warehouse hit by a Russian shell in the suburbs of Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 24. FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

The Russian military’s abysmal performance is one of the major surprises of the Ukraine war. Rather than a near-peer competitor to the United States, this past month revealed Russia to be a poorly trained and demoralized force reliant on antiquated equipment and weighed down by corruption and failing leadership.

But in fixating on Russia’s failures without acknowledging the challenges all militaries face in urban warfare, U.S. policymakers and observers risk falling into the very same trap that tripped the Russians: overestimating their own capabilities while underestimating the difficulty of the fight ahead.

The complications Russia has encountered in urban conflict in Ukraine’s Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kyiv are not simply a function of Russian incompetence. They’re a reflection of the difficulties any military would face in urban warfare.

The Russian military’s abysmal performance is one of the major surprises of the Ukraine war. Rather than a near-peer competitor to the United States, this past month revealed Russia to be a poorly trained and demoralized force reliant on antiquated equipment and weighed down by corruption and failing leadership.

But in fixating on Russia’s failures without acknowledging the challenges all militaries face in urban warfare, U.S. policymakers and observers risk falling into the very same trap that tripped the Russians: overestimating their own capabilities while underestimating the difficulty of the fight ahead.

The complications Russia has encountered in urban conflict in Ukraine’s Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kyiv are not simply a function of Russian incompetence. They’re a reflection of the difficulties any military would face in urban warfare.

Since 2008, Russia has spent billions of dollars modernizing its armed forces, updating Soviet-era systems, developing and buying sophisticated military equipment, and professionalizing its troops. Large-scale Russian military exercises showcasing integrated air defenses, heavy artillery, and sophisticated electronic warfare capabilities as well as the intense and destructive air campaign Russia carried out in Syria and the hybrid tactics it has used in eastern Ukraine since 2014 all display a battle-hardened, professional military that many expected would quickly overwhelm the Ukrainians.

The rudimentary mistakes the Russians are making are therefore baffling. Media coverage of Russian movements shows failures in basic tactics, such as lack of infantry support for tanks and its inability to coordinate air support with ground movements as well as its failure to properly plan for resupplies of food, fuel, and ammunition.

Russia’s equipment losses are hard to estimate, but internet sleuths surfacing images of abandoned armored vehicles and burned tanks as well as posting daily counts of destroyed equipment are painting a dire picture of battalion-level collapse. Military fatality numbers are even harder to count, but NATO’s recent assessment of up to 15,000 Russian troops having been killed in four weeks is higher than the total number of U.S. service members killed during the 20 years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Russians are taking a beating—but urban warfare has humbled far superior forces, including the U.S. military.

As a rule, militaries prefer to avoid fighting in cities, knowing full well that an urban fight is bound to be brutal, costly, and time-consuming. Cities favor the defender, who has the advantage of local knowledge. Dense urban terrain full of multistory buildings, narrow roads, and underground spaces also limits the use of concentrated armored vehicles, forcing militaries to disperse their soldiers and leaving them vulnerable to sniper fire and ambushes.

Then, of course, there is the civilian population that must be protected under the laws of war. The very presence of civilians in large numbers affects the types of weapons and tactics militaries can effectively use in cities and makes urban fighting inherently different from conventional warfare in open terrain or expeditionary operations in rural areas. That said, Russia showed little regard for abiding by humanitarian law while fighting in Chechnya and Syria, and the most recent reports coming out of Bucha in Ukraine indicate deliberate war crimes.

Although the scale of Russia’s military casualties seems staggering, heavy losses are the norm in urban warfare. The Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004, for example, was the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War for U.S. troops, with 82 people killed and another 600 people wounded in 47 days. Meanwhile, of the estimated 10,000 Iraqi forces killed fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, it is possible that as many as 8,200 were killed during the nine-monthlong Battle of Mosul.

Data from 17 historical case studies of urban combat between 1939 and 1995 also shows the evacuation of the injured is often “dangerous, slow, and delayed,” meaning that those wounded in action have a lower chance of getting the medical attention they need to survive.

A lot has also been said about Russia’s logistical failures slowing down its invasion of Ukraine, particularly the massive armored convoy stalled on its way to Kyiv for three weeks now, lacking food, fuel, and spare parts. These logistical problems as well as high losses in equipment are made worse by the fact that Russia is executing a simultaneous offense on multiple cities.

Although information about the specific locations of Russian losses is difficult to verify, some of the most intense battles have taken place in or around cities. Early in the invasion, Russia took control of Kherson, a Ukrainian port city of almost 300,000 people, and now seems to be fighting to keep it. The destructive siege of Mariupol, whose beleaguered and trapped population is estimated at around 130,000 individuals, continues despite intense Ukrainian resistance.

In their push to capture Ukraine’s southern coast, Russian forces continue to shell Mykolaiv, a Ukrainian city of almost 500,000 people, many of whom have fled the attack. And despite recent Russian statements about the strategy shift to focus on the Donbas, the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv is under near-constant attack and there is an ongoing bombing campaign against Kyiv, a city of more than 2.8 million people, including the suburbs, which are currently taking the worst of the fighting.

That the Russian military is even attempting a campaign of this scale with this many urban fronts shows it had not anticipated an actual fight. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who cut his teeth as a wartime leader during the Second Chechen War, has now ended up repeating the mistake his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, made 27 years ago when he started the First Chechen War.

Yeltsin, on the advice of his hawkish cabinet, expected a “small, victorious war—like the United States had in Haiti” that would surge his ratings in the upcoming elections. Putin, it seems, was convinced that the Ukrainian military would also collapse in the face of a superior Russian force, and his trusted defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, the man in charge of modernizing and professionalizing Russia’s armed forces, did not argue otherwise.

Then, as now, misguided political assumptions precipitated a flawed strategy: dividing the invasion force on a multipronged attack and expecting to easily reach and take the capital. The poorly trained and ill-prepared Russian troops, however, were met with organized, fierce resistance they certainly did not expect to encounter. And in Ukraine, as in Chechnya before it, having failed to secure a quick victory, Russia resorted to its one sure advantage: firepower.

Given this historical context—watching the Russian military fumble basic tactics while pummeling apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, and other civilian targets to cause sufficient destruction and force the Ukrainian military into submission—it is tempting to ascribe Russia’s poor performance to this signature mix of incompetence and brutality.

Yet Putin’s prediction of a quick victory was not that different from the U.S. intelligence officials who expected that Kyiv would fall to Russia “within days.” Doctrine and experience are clear about the hardships of urban battle. But the tendency to dangerously underestimate the challenges of taking a city is evidently not a uniquely Russian predicament.

During the Iraq War, the U.S. military learned some of its toughest lessons fighting in the brutal street-by-street, house-to-house style of urban warfare. Having reliable and actionable intelligence was critical but continuously hard to get.

Shortly after arriving in Baghdad, U.S. forces realized their technologically sophisticated intelligence systems, such as overhead imagery collection and electronic reconnaissance, were ineffective in the urban environment, forcing a difficult transition to a human intelligence-centric system that relied on an extensive network of Iraqi informants—a solution with dubious long-term results.

In Fallujah, Iraq, U.S. soldiers and Marines saw some of the worst fighting, having to “clear and reclear houses, deal with ambushes, and cope with [improvised explosive devices], indirect fire, and snipers,” according to the Rand Corporation. When clearing houses of insurgents by fighting room to room led to too many casualties, U.S. forces adapted by relying more on armor and firepower to destroy buildings with enemy fighters inside. Having to manage the information environment was a continuous struggle, especially with increased media coverage of growing civilian casualties and the destruction of urban infrastructure.

 More recently, it was the United States’ Iraqi and Kurdish coalition partners who took the brunt of the street-by-street fighting and suffered the majority of the casualties trying to dislodge the Islamic State from cities in Iraq and Syria. In the Battle of Mosul, for example, Iraq’s premier fighting force—the U.S.-trained counterterrorism service, which was primarily designed for special operations—was often used as a regular infantry force to make up for ineffective Iraqi conventional forces; ultimately, the service suffered a 40 percent loss of its overall capacity in terms of both personnel and equipment.

And in these cases, U.S. and later coalition troops were fighting against nonstate actors. Except for approximately one month in 2003, the U.S. military has not fought a ground war against the standing military of an independent state since the Gulf War.

The war in Ukraine is a conventional war between the professional armed forces of two independent states. The Ukrainians are making effective use of asymmetric tactics and are heavily reliant on its civilian population for support. But their fighting force is nonetheless a state military that is relatively well trained and, with the help of the West, exceptionally well equipped. Conventional wars have historically had a high rate of battlefield deaths; when adding the urban dimension, the difficulty and brutality of the fight multiply.

As the war enters its second month, Russia is adjusting its strategy and repositioning some of its forces away from Kyiv to focus on its campaign in the south and east of the country. Attacks on the capital city, however, are likely to continue—in part to prevent the Ukrainian defenders in that area from moving to counterattack elsewhere. This shift also raises the stakes of taking Mariupol, though it is unclear whether this revised strategy aims to redouble efforts against the strategic port cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa.

Concentrating the campaign closer to Russian territory, limiting goals, and consolidating forces could potentially help alleviate the logistical problems Russia is facing. But the political costs of retreating from the cities may be too steep for Putin. The Ukrainian military and its civilian resistance are motivated and steadfast, bolstered by extensive Western military support and the advantage defenders have in urban warfare. The war, then, has all the markings of a battle of attrition.

The unexpected disintegration of the Russian military and surprising effectiveness of U.S.- and NATO-trained Ukrainian forces are reportedly imbuing the U.S. Defense Department with “newfound confidence” and inspiring think pieces about Ukraine’s impending victory. A sober assessment of Russia’s military failures is more than appropriate. But any such assessment must account for the massive challenges all militaries face in urban warfare—or risk learning the wrong lessons.

Nearly six years ago, then-U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley noted that the character of war, especially ground war, is “on the cusp of a fundamental change,” and that in the future—specifically, in “the quarter of a century between 2025 and 2050”the “American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas.” Milley reiterated that to prepare for this future, the U.S. military needs to “man, organize, train, and equip the force for operations in urban areas,” saying U.S. forces were “not organized like that right now.”

Since Milley’s remarks, the U.S. Army has implemented some changes to its urban operations doctrine and training. But urban warfare experts as well as Congress remain concerned that “the Department of Defense is not prepared to operate in complex, densely populated urban cities which are the likely terrain of future major conflict.”

Some experts have questioned whether the U.S. military needs to focus heavily on urban combat given the shift from counterinsurgency to strategic competition with China and other adversary countries like Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Trends in urbanization and patterns of armed conflict, however, all point to the urbanization of violence—from riots and protests to terrorism and insurgency to major conventional military operations. Whatever the future brings for U.S. military operations—offensives; defensives; against peers, hybrid, or nonstate adversaries; counterterrorism; humanitarian assistance; or security cooperation and assistance—chances are these missions will require fighting in cities.

Two months ago, few observers believed Putin would launch a large-scale ground offensive into Europe’s largest country after Russia, and fewer people still expected the Russian military to attack cities. Yet cities have incomparable political, psychological, and logistical value, and the political goals of war often compel militaries to target these centers of power. The lesson U.S. policymakers should draw from Russia’s military blunder is not that urban warfare should be avoided. It is that urban warfare is unavoidable.

Margarita Konaev is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Twitter: @RitaKonaev

Kirstin J.H. Brathwaite is an assistant professor at James Madison College at Michigan State University. Twitter: @KirstinJHB

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