TLDRUpFront: The strategies for conventional attacks on large cities are not the same as in the 20th Century when bypassing, encircling & besieging or direct assault were the order of the day. Now, adopting a belts strategy and Grozny Rules with a goal of turning population centers into feral cities may be the strategy of Russia in northern Ukraine.
Grozny rules can turn once-thriving Ukrainian population centers into so-called “feral cities.”
Hollywood and documentaries have accultured us to the ways in which cities are taken by military, largely from WWII. There’s the bypass and isolate, as in Bastigone during the Battle of the Bulge, the encirclement and siege, as in Stalingrad, and the direct assault taken block by block which was the Soviet Union’s approach on Berlin. Around these are traditional conceptions of conventional engagements as major field battles. But Stephen Kotkin, an expert in Russian and Soviet history and biography of Joseph Stalin, on the eve of Russian invasion to Ukraine offered a different, modern perspective:
“War is not what we think it is anymore. War is not I shoot artillery; you shoot artillery, I shoot a missile, you shoot a missile. War is about making cities unlivable and forcing millions of refugees to flee. It’s about shutting down communication systems transportation systems. War is about eliminating the other society’s ability to function. Not just a battlefield. It’s the society that’s the aim. In a wargame, you don’t invade; you turn a country off. You make a country unlivable…” (1)
This is the second in a three part series assessing the Russo-Ukrainian War at it’s mid-ponit.
In Mid-Game Part 1, I assessed where the conflict is right now in analogy to a game of Go.
In Mid-Game Part 3, I lay out five scenarios for what happens between now and here.
For an audio version of the five scenarios, I joined the Jim Rutt podcast Tuesday evening to discuss them.
But to understand how we get from here to there in many of the scenarios benefits from a refresh on three key terms and the strategies Russia can employ using them in isolation or
Understanding Belts, Grozny Rules, and Feral Cities
In modern, 21st Century warfare, there are few examples of the bypass, encircle & siege, or assault strategies of WWII. Fallujah I and II in the Iraq War were more classical assaults, but that was conducted by one of the most powerful fighting forces in the world (the US Marines) backed by US airpower against non-state actor fighters. In other urban warfare scenarios, especially those where Russia was involved. These terms help explain what might be Russia’s strategy and are key to understanding the scenarios provided in Part 3.
A belt’s strategy doesn’t seek to bypass a city, encircle it for a siege, or even assault it – but instead move the aggressor force into position in the suburbs and exurbs around a city. The boundaries are less well-defended than the city center, and with modern ranged artillery and rockets, still in range to reach downtown. Such a belt’s position provides offensive and defensive benefits to the aggressor. The biggest offensive advantage is that you don’t have to bypass or encircle the city and avoid a costly direct assault. You’ll see statements in the press such as “Russian forces fail to advance for 24hours in Kyiv”, and I believe some of that comes from the perception that if an army’s not assaulting a city directly, it’s not doing anything. Below was a notional map I drew nearly a week ago of where Russian forces would want to occupy the belts of Kyiv:
Emerging belts around Kyiv.
And we now see what may be Russia assuming these positions arond Kyiv in the latest composite detailed maps assembled from OSINT provided by Ukrainian General Staff announcements(5).
Russian forces taking up belts position around Kyiv. Warning: forces NE of the city may be closer than they appear.
A defensive advantage with a belt’s strategy allows aggressor armor and infantry to begin taking up defensive positions and patrolling the area – making it harder to set up ambushes and requiring Ukraine to counterattack in force if it hopes to dislodge.
A belt’s position also plays to Russian strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. Russia has struggled to establish air superiority, and advancing columns have been picked apart by manned and drone flights. Flights over a belt’s occupation will face denser anti-air, SAM, MANPAD, and radar coverage than columns advancing along freeways. Even without air superiority, which Russia has struggled to gain, a fire superiority – controlling the battlespace with artillery, rockets, and mortars –plays to Russian strengths. Occupying belts also allows Russia to consolidate and harden its supply lines rearwards to the corners and sides described above.
Grozny Rules, described previously, complement belts positional approach. In such a position, Putin and his generals can turn the dial on how much damage they wish to inflict on a city ranging from a lull at 0 to full-on bombardment at 11. This dial can be turned on local factors like logistics or supply, ratcheted up or down based on perceived escalatory risk over civilian casualties, and even calibrated to support negotiated settlements and ceasefires.
Combined a belts and Grozny rules strategy is a low-cost option for Russia to continue combat operations in the north much longer than most analysts realize. They don’t need to advance much further than they have, if at all. Logistics and supply chains can be more easily managed. For Ukraine to dislodge them from these belts, involve Ukrainian counterattacks into the prepared defenses of the Russian forces.
It’s important to note that Grozny Rules are the tactics of unrestricted fires on a dense, heavily populated city against civilian targets. But it is not a preordained outcome. Just because Grozny Rules are being employed doesn’t mean every city will end up like Grozny in the Second Chechnyan war, from which the term gains its name. In the Syrian Civil War, Grozny Rules were applied to Aleppo and Homs, combined with mass starvation until the rebel groups capitulated. In this way, Grozny Rules are different from the age-old tactic of razing cities that resist take-over. Grozny Rules are a coldly calculated application of force against a civilian population that cannot defend itself to break the will to resist.
But belts and Grozny rules approach cannot take a city or effect regime change. But there’s a third option that most aren’t considering: to render Ukraine’s northern cities into “feral status.” Feral cities is a new concept only coined by Richard Norton (2) in 2000 popularized theoretically by Kilcullen in Out from the Mountains(3). However, it’s still a new topic, and we’re still learning the many different ways a city can go “feral” (4).
A feral city is a city where through persistent endemic problems, the pandemic, or Grozny Rules-style bombardment; the governmental ability to serve a city’s population through infrastructure and services is weak or non-existent. However, the city continues to function in a quasi-state of ad hoc adaptation, often involving non-state actors filling the roles the government would normally as its people try to get along with lives as best they can. In some military strategies, where no natural barrier exists, a large mega-city can be turned “feral,” which then becomes ungovernable to any side. Too fractured to align with any side, too big to pacify, and create an “urban barrier,” the feral city creates a barrier to advances in either direction.
In Ukraine, Russia can render a band of cities in the north: Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, etc., to “feral” status. Not in the traditional meaning that the city is ungovernable. Instead, sustained Grozny Rule’s devastation of municipal infrastructure, residential housing, and industrial bases eliminate the municipal government’s capacity to effectively function in anything other than a survival mode. It will take years, if not decades, for these cities to rebuild the damage they’ve already sustained. Clearance of unexploded ordinance and landmines scattered by rocket and cluster munitions will last generations. Even when the fighting stops, billions of dollars of international support and humanitarian aid will still be required for years to support the surviving populations and work to return both IDPs and refugees who wish to come back. Many never will.
Turning one city feral creates an enormous challenge to the nation-state. But by occupying the belts and using Grozny Rules, Russia can turn the entire northern arc of cities into feral, and perhaps in that measure, turn Ukraine into a feral state. This is not a knock-on Ukraine – they have shown tremendous willingness to fight and resist Russia. But whether through a negotiated settlement or forced withdrawal, Ukraine is unlikely to return to its previous level of functioning for years if not the decade. A devastated, feral Ukraine serves as the buffer zone Russia couldn’t gain through diplomacy– consuming international aid resources that could be national security defense. It also allows Putin to save face, claiming that such a feral Ukraine has been “demilitarized” and is in no position to threaten the Donbas with genocide, not that it was planning to, and meet some of his other claims.