TLDRUpFront: Ukraine is holding its own as the Russian military continues to struggle. But President Putin appears ready to unleash “Grozny Rules”: a systemic approach of targeting dense populated areas with conventional and unconventional attacks. Used in Aleppo, Syria, and Grozny, Chechnya the goal is to crush resistance from a standoff range without having to take a city block-by-block.
Less next-generation warfare and more OK Boomer belligerence.
Every morning President Zelensky can walk around Kiev ‘by the dawn’s early light’ is a bad morning for Russia. Carrying his selfie-stick camera, the Ukrainian President calmly addresses his people and military forces he conveys: A) he’s still in Kiev, B) he’s still in command, C) Ukrainians are still resisting, and D) the internet is still on. (1)
Putin is failing at additive complexity…
Zelensky’s stroll occurred after Russians again tried an airborne assault with paratroopers landing in Vasylkiv south of Kiev and, after heavy fighting for several hours, were repulsed. (2) Additionally, two IL-76 military transports, with up to 120 Russian paratroopers on board, were shot down over and around Kiev, indicating that the capitol’s air defenses are still active and effective. (3)
This was the tale of the tape around the country on February 26th as no major Ukrainian city fell, and Russian forces were besieging Chernihiv, Konotop, and Kharkiv. Even the breakout in the south from Crimea was slowed. Russian forces finally broke out of Kershon in the southwest towards Mykolaiv on the road to Odesa. They split in a fork around Melitopol in the southeast to attack Berdiansk. This is along the road to Mariupol, which is already under attack from the east out of the Donbas and may soon be facing encirclement.
Things only seem to be working in the south.
Whatever claim Putin had to wage a new style of warfare known as additive complexity featuring sophisticated multi-dimensional operations against the land, cyber, economic, information, and political landscapes to collapse an enemy is gone. Putin is close to losing ~1,000 armored vehicles, two and a half dozen aircraft, and between 500-4,000 soldiers killed or captured. Ukraine is also taking losses, with 150 military vehicles destroyed and several hundred soldiers killed. Civilian casualties are mounting, with close to 1,500 civilians killed or wounded and nearly 150,000 displaced, though those numbers are expected to rise significantly. (4)
The Ukrainian air defense can still bring the spice – ask the Il-76s, and only today were significant internet disruptions reported in major cities in Ukraine. (5)
This is looking less like next-generation warfare and more like Ok Boomer Belligerence.
…so he may revert to Grozny Rules.
But Putin has escalation options to change the tide of offensive operations. Europe has not had a major state-on-state conventional war in decades, and many in the west weren’t paying attention to Syria or Libya. They might look at the current Russian military actions that result in civilian casualties and make mistakes for the extent of the possible. But Putin’s dial of civilian attacks goes all the way to 11, at which point he unleashes something called “Grozny Rules.” This is a combination of encircling cities to starve them while using ranged attacks to demolish a city described in this Historical Mullet from 2016, marking the eight-consecutive day of unrestricted conventional and unconventional bombardment of Aleppo:
“A city blasted into rubble, its civilians fleeing, hiding, or simply dying in the ruins while a world looks on in horror. Bombs spilling from Russian warplanes and shells and rockets thundering from Russian guns and launchers. Today this is a portrait of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Not long ago, it was Grozny, the capital of Chechnya…Like Aleppo, Grozny was battered not just by conventional artillery and air power but also the TOS-1 “Buratino,” able to fire salvos of 24 rockets armed with thermobaric munitions, whose devastating blasts are second only to nuclear weapons in their capacity to level city blocks and blast houses to rubble.”(6)
What 8 days of unrestricted bombing can do to a major city.
And there are multiple reports that TOS-1 units are now moving into position around Ukrainian cities from Kiev (X) to Tokmok in the southern strip. (7)
Drone footage taken in Aleppo after eight days of Grozny Rules shows just the kind of damage that Putin can and will unleash on a city. Although it’s hard enough to see a 10 story apartment building with a hole in it from a rocket attack, that’s far better than the building being flattened. (9)
The Chechens are Coming!
In addition to maneuvering the assets in place to begin bombardment, President Putin’s ally Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Chechnyan region, confirmed today that Chechnyan troops are deploying in Ukraine alongside Russia. (8) The internet’s been aswoon with speculation on whether the “fighting character” of the Chechens will be able to turn the tide.
I doubt it.
Chechens have a fierce reputation for combat, and Grozny Rules were invented there. But there’s only so much “fighting character” that matters in conventional warfare. In small firefights or isolated battles with high asymmetry – the kind the Americans of the United States have become accustomed to in the Global War on Terror, such fighting character may make a difference. And, elite military units stiffening local efforts, as the US Special Forces worldwide or Iranian Qods in Syria, can create impact.
But in a conventional theatre-wide slugfest like Ukraine – where both sides have access to airpower, artillery, rockets, and stand-off anti-vehicle weapons like the Javelin – there’s a limit. First and foremost, getting to the battlefield intact is no longer a certainty. How are the Chechens moving through the country? Hope it’s not on an Il-76. And even when they arrive, the Chechens will be facing a mix of “Go F— Yourself” Snake Island Sass and OG Grandmother Sunflower Seeds ready to plant some gardens.
In a conflict measured in hundreds of thousands on either side, the aggregate performance matters: average experience, discipline, morale, equipment, and logistics support. And these are in areas where Russia is already showing weakness, on average, against Ukrainians. Russian troops are generally conscripts with little experience, while many Ukrainians either in the military or defending their home have had eight years of exposure to conflict.
Ethics of Escalation
If Grozny Rules come to Ukraine, they will not look like the current fighting of plucky Ukrainians going toe-to-toe with the Russian military. Instead, Russian military units will stay at range – using multiple rocket launchers, thermobaric rockets, artillery, unrestricted bombing, and incendiary munitions on cities. Targeting is less concerned with military targets than aiming for hospitals and schools. The goal of Grozny Rules is not to defeat the opponent militarily in block-to-block fighting but to crush the will to resist to effect a military outcome of a cities surrender. In this case, he may want to force Zelensky to the negotiation table, perhaps to take concessions in scenarios #2 or #5, or at least give him something to record on his morning selfie-walks.
If that scenario unfolds – what are the ethics of escalation in the face of a conventional fight that shifts into systemic war crimes?
Even though neither the US nor its NATO or European allies have forces in Ukraine, it’s not true that we’re sitting this one out. Although I’ll yield for the sake of discussions, sanctions have a mixed record – we have been sending Ukraine’s military Javelins and other military aid, Turkey’s supplying them with drones. That’s probably the right level of involvement in this. It supports the defenders inflict all those losses on Russian armor and air units. We’re also supplying humanitarian aid and logistics coordination for the refugee outflows. But more importantly, not sending troops or airpower preserves the local agency – that this is a fight between Ukrainians defending their home against Russian imperialism. Given that they seem to be winning, that’s an excellent narrative to not interfere with.
But if Russia does escalate to Grozny Rules or other systemic war crimes, it raises the question of whether the US and its allies should escalate our involvement. That’s a tricky ethical and strategic question and one I hope to cover in a post tomorrow.