Small Wars Journal

The Russo-Ukrainian War and the Principles of Urban Operations

Thu, 11/10/2022 - 10:05pm

The Russo-Ukrainian War and the Principles of Urban Operations

Amos C. Fox

The Russo-Ukrainian War provides an overwhelming amount of information for the curious researcher and analyst. Wading through the information is a daunting task because of the surfeit of open-source information. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that much of the conflict’s detailed information, to include policy decisions, military strategies, planning documents, casualty counts, and detailed accounts of battles, are secreted away in secure information storage networks.

Irpin, Kyiv

Urban Warfare Damage, Irpin, Kyiv Oblast, 22 June 2022.

Source: US Embassy, Kyiv, Ukraine (CC BY-ND 2.0)


To not fall victim to the traps of incomplete information, this paper analyzes the conflict’s urban operations at arm’s length and does not over-infer from existing information on tactical activity. This paper broadly examines urban operations in Ukraine through the lens of DOTMLPF-P (doctrine, organization, training, material, leadership, personnel, facilities, and policy). This paper does not examine the entire scope of DOTMLPF-P, but uses the conflict’s character to examine Western doctrine, training, and organization considerations. This paper does not use every urban battle from the conflict, but instead focuses on the battle of Kyiv and the siege of Mariupol as data points.       

Urban operations in Ukraine demonstrate that large-scale conflicts between modern state actors are attritional wars which require one side to strategically exhaust the other to reign victorious. Exhaustion is the aggregated effect operations, resource expenditure, and mobilized bases of power, against a competing belligerent and the international system. The Russo-Ukrainian War demonstrates that strategic exhaustion is hard to come by. Despite suffering over 70,000 killed in action, and thousands of losses in tanks, artillery, and other vital combat systems, Russia continues to vigorously defy the international community, international norms, international humanitarian law (IHL), and the law of armed conflict (LOAC) with its illegal invasion of Ukraine. Conversely, Ukraine’s political and military acumen demonstrates that the identification, activation, and maintenance of power is germane to persevering in an attritional war against a numerically, and resource, superior opponent.    

The battles of Kyiv and the siege of Mariupol are examined to support this paper’s thesis and to link the thesis with reflections on Western doctrine, training, and organization. Before doing so, however, this paper reviews the uniqueness of urban environments because they fuel different tactical and operational considerations than open environments, like in the deserts of the Middle East, or across the plains of central Europe.

Next, this paper asserts that Western militaries must distance themselves from maneuver-centric thinking, resourcing, and organizations because the rigors of urban warfare, require resilient forces, a robust industrial base, and networked sustainment to insulate against quick collapse. Western militaries must invest in doctrine, training, and organizations that account for large resource expenditures in offensive and defensive operations, waging and breaking sieges, and opponents willing to expend vast amounts of men and materiel in pursuit of their political aims.

This paper continues by providing a set of guiding principles of urban operations. The principles of urban warfare provided in this paper are derived from the concerns and observations identified in the Russo-Ukrainian War’s urban battles. These principles are the product of urban warfare’s uniqueness, and from observations on urban warfare from urban combat in Ukraine, and help address doctrine, training, and organization shortfalls in Western military thinking.

Urban Environments

To understand the Russo-Ukrainian War’s urban battles, it is imperative to understand urban environments. At the most basic level, urban environments are incubators of destruction – to military forces, to resources, to the civilian population, and to civilian infrastructure. Urban environments are incubators of destruction because a city’s tight streets, dense infrastructure, and large populations check tactical mobility, truncate a force’s ability to conduct maneuver warfare, and correspondingly increases the likelihood of linear engagements of methodical destruction and positional fighting.[1]

Maneuver Warfare – An Inappropriate Solution for Urban War-fighting 

Urban environments invite positional warfighting and sieges. Urban environments’ canalizing terrain mandates that land forces, when committed into an urban area, operate in a generally deterministic direction linked to an enemy’s location. As a result, determinism in urban battle fetters the potential for tactical maneuver through the denial of the conditions needed for maneuver. For maneuver’s realization, a force must be mobile and able to quickly advance against an enemy along multiple routes. Useful reconnaissance works like a pivot point from which a maneuvering force moves and fights, at distance, as it indirectly works toward the attainment of its military objective at its opponent’s flanks and rear. 

Maneuver also requires quick decision cycles. The speed at which a force can move through transition cycles in affected in large part by the number of variables it must address. Urban environments present a far greater number of variables, as well as the type of variables, for a force to account for. The high number and type of variables slows both decision-making and movement, while increasing the amount and diversity of preparatory work and environmental shaping needed to increase one’s chances for success. 

Aside from confounding maneuver warfare, urban environments stymy brisk offensive action. Military operations in urban areas are ordinarily ponderous affairs because the attacking force must move deliberately to protect itself from the dangers lurking within a city’s complex terrain. Moreover, concerns for international humanitarian law (IHL) and the law of armed conflict (LOAC) cause a law-abiding combatant to temper the speed of their operations and to intervene more cautiously than they would in open terrain.

Dislocation – The Art and Science of Rendering Military Strength Irrelevant

Urban environments dislocate armed forces, especially those that do not intend to fight within a city. Dislocation is the result of making a military force’s strength irrelevant.[2] Military strength is contingent on two dependent variables: war-fighting components and conditions. Components are the tools of war—weapons systems, units, communication networks, sustainment systems, resources, and command nodes. Conditions are environments and situations that favor a combatant’s components.[3]

Dislocation is positional, foundational, temporal, or moral. Positional dislocation is the effect achieved when a combatant cannot overcome the challenges of fighting in a location for which it is ill-suited.[4] Functional dislocation is the consequence when a combatant is unable to successfully compensate for being forced to fight in a method that does not align with how it prefers to fight or for how it was built, trained, and resourced to fight.[5]Temporal dislocation is the repercussion generated when a combatant is unable to overcome the challenge associated with being unable to operate at the pace it prefers.[6] Moral dislocation is the effect caused when a combatant is unable to overcome the unnerving impact of a crestfallen situation.

The forms of dislocation are not exclusive; in fact, perfect dislocation results from a combatant being lured into all four of the concept’s forms. A military unit under siege, like the Ukrainian defenders of the Azovstal industrial plant (discussed later) are an example of perfect dislocation. The Ukrainian forces at Azovstal were positionally, functionally, and temporally dislocated. The Ukrainian force’s dire situation at Azovstal facilitated moral dislocation, which was demonstrated by the surrender of the Ukrainian’s remaining 1,730 defenders.[7]

Nonetheless, perfect dislocation is challenging to generate. This is because significant time, resources, and coordination must come together to cause all four forms of dislocation first materialize, and then to subsequently congeal into an inexorable situation. More often dislocation comes in a combination of two forms. 

Tanks provides a helpful analog to illustrate a practical example of dislocation. Tanks are built to operate in open terrain, move quickly, and fight from afar. The US’s most tactically successful commander, General George Patton, channeling combined arms theory, instructs the student and practitioner of warfare that tanks do not exist to fight other tanks. Instead, tanks must sprint around a combatant’s flanks, get to their rear area, and assail artillery forces, headquarters, sustainment outposts, and other rear area elements.[8]

Open terrain allows a tank to swiftly move and maximize the use of its gun, which can engage opponents up to 3,000 meters away.[9] A tank in an urban environment, however, is limited to slow movement, using its main gun at a fraction of its ideal range, and is unable to elevate its gun to engage targets in buildings greater than one or two floors. When a single tank is aggregated to the battalion, brigade, or division level, an armored organization finds that their capabilities are severely degraded in the urban environment. An armored formation is relegated to slow movement along a definable number of congested routes. Further, an armored formation is unable to maximize the use of its weapons because of the deterministic nature of civilian infrastructure on an armored force. In sum, urban areas often positionally, functionally, and temporally dislocate armored forces. This theoretical concept helps explain many of the problems Russian land forces experienced during their urban battles with light, mobile Ukrainian forces.

In addition to the problems caused for traditional land forces, the urban battlefield decreases the advantages of joint force integration. A panoply of overhead strike aircraft, sensors, reconnaissance drones, and airborne early warning and control aircraft find their jobs considerably more challenging in urban areas.[10] This is because the physical terrain frustrates surveillance, targeting, and the success rate of first-strike aerial and land-based cannon, rocket, and missile strikes.

Nevertheless, a combatant may elect to not enter an urban area. Instead, the combatant may occupy the space around a city and do one of two things. The combatant may opt to encircle the city and wait out the ensconced opponent. Or the combatant may elect to pound its opponent into submission through deleterious bombardment. In each case, the criteria for a siege – encircle and wait, or encircle and bombard—is met.[11]

Lines of Communication Still Matter

An urban environment’s final consideration regards the significance of important infrastructure. Russia, for instance, requires significant railroad exchange points and depots because its logistics network is built on a non-palletized bulk supply distribution system.]12] This necessitates having to push non-palletized materials from Russia via rail and truck to forward distribution points. At those distribution points, Russian supplies are manually downloaded, sorted, and either repackaged and reloaded for movement to further frontline units, or collected to form field depots.[13] As a result, battles materialize in urban areas because rail and highways converge in cities, and not in rural locations.

Further, battles develop in these areas because one belligerent wants to possess the airport, railroad, and highway infrastructure, while the other combatant wants to deny these facilities to the former. The 2014-2015 Donbas campaign’s sieges of Luhansk Airport, Ilovaisk, Donetsk Airport, and Debal’tseve all share this characteristic of urban warfare.[14] The Russo-Ukrainian War’s urban battles reinforce the points highlighted within the section. Thus far, many examples are available to explore the broad category of urban warfare, however, the struggles for Kyiv and Mariupol best support this work’s main thrust.  

Urban Operations in Ukraine: The Battle of Kyiv and the Siege of Mariupol

The Battle of Kyiv

Russia attacked along two fronts—one from Belarus and one from Belgorod, Russia—to seize Kyiv and Kharkiv, respectively.[15] Two additional fronts - Crimea and the Donbas - carried forward from the 2014-2015 campaign. Simultaneously, attacks along Ukraine’s southern coast focused on taking control of seats of local and regional government, and cities where railway and highway networks converged. This situation resulted in significant urban battles in Mariupol, Berdyansk, Melitopol, Kherson, and Mykolaiv.[16]

The battle for Kyiv began in earnest on 24 February with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Official Russian policy and military strategy documents are unavailable to open-source query, but Russia intended to take control of Kyiv within the first 72 hours of the war.[17]  Besides the commonly understood value in taking an enemy’s capital, Kyiv presented a set of valuable logistics hubs, to include ports on the Dnipro River, several airports, and a complex network of railroads and highways which linked Ukraine with Russia and Belarus.

During Russia’s initial thrust at Kyiv, Russian forces attempted to capture the Antonov Airport.[18] Initial reports, captured on live television, pointed to Russian success at Antonov.[19] Ukrainian forces, however, quickly regained their balance and soundly defeated the Russian force that captured the airport.[20] Simultaneously, Ukrainian forces pushed Russian forces from Kyiv and hardened the defense both inside and around Kyiv.[21] Russian forces made several attempts to penetrate Ukraine’s defense of Kyiv, succeeding at small scale penetrations and territorial acquisitions, but generally failing.[22]

Ukraine’s stalwart defense of the Antonov Airport temporally dislocated the Russian operational plan by denying Russia’s attempt to take Kyiv and win the war within 72 hours. By temporally dislocating the Russian’s operational plan, Ukraine’s operations forced Russia to take pause and reconfigure its strategy and its operational plan.[23]   

During Russian land and airborne forces’ feckless push to take Kyiv, Russian forces battered the city with a relentless bevy of artillery, rocket, missile, and air strikes.[24] Russia’s attack on Kyiv quickly demonstrated a disregard for IHL as strikes landed on civilian infrastructures, such as hospitals and apartment buildings, denying the local population access to essential needs and medical care.[25] 

Moreover, fighting raged in Kyiv’s suburbs. In the process, Russian forces inflicted severe retribution on the civilian population. The massacre at Bucha, in which over 500 civilians were tortured, killed, and buried in mass graves, is one of the most notable examples of this situation.[26] In legal terms, the Russian military’s actions in Bucha meet the threshold for war crimes.[27] Since 24 February 2022, Russian armed forces activity across Ukraine represents a clear violation of human rights, international law, international humanitarian law, as well as a wide range of additional war crimes.[28]

The battle of Kyiv demonstrates urban battles can quickly undue an aggressor’s timetable, or temporally dislocate the aggressor, causing significant challenges for their strategy and operational and tactical plans. Battles like that of Kyiv demonstrate that destructive battles of attrition generally accompany urban warfare because dislocation sets the dislocated on the path to destruction.              

The Siege of Mariupol

Strategically positioned along the Sea of Azov, Russian forces quickly sought Mariupol for its maritime importance, but because of the city’s network of railway, highways, and industrial output. Further, Mariupol is the first stop along Russia’s long interest in a land-bridge to Crimea and Odessa. These geographic, military, and economic considerations resulted in the city playing an important part in Russia’s 2014-2015 campaign.[29] 

By March, the United Nations (UN) gauged the fighting in Mariupol as the most hazardous anywhere in the country.[30] In fact, the UN’s Human Rights Council reported that Mariupol was the deadliest location in the country between late February and April 2022.[31] Russian and Russian-proxy forces encircled Mariupol in early March and began an immediate siege of the city.[32] Russian and Russian-proxy forces cut basic utilities to Mariupol in early March, and they used starvation against combatants and non-combatants, alike.[33]

Further, Russian, and Russian-proxy forces, indiscriminately showered the city with what the UN characterized as ‘wide area munitions.’ These munitions included tank and artillery fire, multiple launch rockets (MLRS), missiles, and air strikes. In one of the most glaring disregards for IHL, the Russian air force attacked a theater clearly marked ‘children’ with devastating round of air strikes on 16 March 2022.[34] The attack not only destroyed the theater, but it killed 600 children that were sheltering in the theater.[35] Pleased with the atrocities doled out by Russian proxy forces in Mariupol, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, visited soldiers from the Donetsk People’s Army in April 2022 and pinned decorations on their uniforms.[36]  

The city—its defenders, its population, and its infrastructure—continued to suffer grievously. By the end of April, Russian forces controlled all of Mariupol, except for the Azovstal industrial plant.[37] The Azovstal industrial plant provided the Ukrainian forces one last, defensible position within the city. Surrounded on three sides by water, Ukrainian forces occupied the facility in hopes of breaking the Russian siege against the fortress-like location.

Approximately 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers fortified the plant, holding out for eighty days against 12,000 Russian and Russian-proxy troops.[38] More than 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers were taken prisoner during the siege.[39] By the end of the siege, over ninety percent of the city’s residential buildings, to include sixty percent of its private residences, are destroyed. Out of a pre-war population of 430,000 inhabitants, 350,000 of the city’s people—approximately eight one percent—fled.[40]

In both Kyiv and Mariupol, but also in other occupied regions of Ukraine, Russian forces are pulling Ukrainians from their homes and deporting them to Russia.[41] The UN reports that these attempts ‘Russify’ Ukrainians and ethnically cleanse occupied areas are further illustrations of IHL violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Using the metrics developed by IHL’s progenitor, Raphael Lemkin, Russia’s actions meet the standard for genocide. Lemkin’s baseline standards for genocide include two conditions: a) the destruction of one nation’s national identity by an oppressor, and b) the oppressor imposing its own national pattern on the oppressed nation.[42] Russia’s ruthless effort to eradicate Ukrainian nationality, Ukrainian culture, and Ukrainian people fits the pattern of practice persisted between the two actors throughout the twentieth century.[43] 


Attrition – An Uncomfortable Reality

The destructive urban battles and massive casualty numbers from the Russo-Ukrainian War clearly points to the fact that the conflict is an industrial war of attrition. Nonetheless, many less-than-factual narratives have emerged from the conflict suggesting that maneuver warfare is the reason for Ukraine’s success.[44]Despite the West’s unhealthy infatuation with maneuver warfare, battles like Kyiv and Mariupol represent a far different reality. 

Observers compound this problem by intercalating maneuver-centric tropes into nominal assessments of the conflict and its battles, which distorts the reality of the conflict. For instance, observers use Ukraine’s success to reinforce maneuver-centric advocacy without providing proof of maneuver, when positional and destruction-based warfighting is easy to verify.[45] Ukraine has killed over 76,000 Russian soldiers and wounded over 100,000 more in eight months of combat.[46] Russia, for its part, has killed upwards of 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers.[47] Maneuver warfare, urban or otherwise, is predicated on deft movement and limited destruction. The height of maneuver warfare, in fact, is predicated on forcing the enemy to cognitive paralysis thanks to placing it in such significant positions of disadvantage, that it has little recourse but to acquiesce.

Ukraine is not encircling Russian forces and hauling in massive unit surrenders. In fact, it has been quite the contrary. Words like destruction or degradation, coupled with staggering killed in action and casualty numbers, denote a war of attrition, not slick war of maneuver. Ukraine’s elimination of Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army in September 2022 is a prime example of this point.[48] Through weeks of rigorous combat in the Kharkiv area, Ukrainian forces reduced the 1st Guards Tank Army to little more than a designation on a sheet of paper.[49] The destruction of the 1st Guards Tank Army hard suggests maneuver warfare.

Additionally, the Ukrainian force’s systematic destruction of Russia’s 11th Army Corps during the summer of 2022 is another example that supports the assertion that is attrition is important to appreciate.[50] The 11th Army Corps, originally based on Kaliningrad, participated in significant combat in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. Ukrainian counteroffensives, supported by US-supplied HIMARS, battered the 11th Army Corps into a shell of its former self, causing its remnants to beat a hasty retreat in September.[51] Unofficial Ukrainian reports contend that the corps suffered over fifty percent casualties—a staggering number considering the 11th Army Corps’ personnel strength was likely close to 12,000 soldiers.[52] The Russian 11th Army Corps was not destroyed by deft Ukrainian left hook sweeping around the corps’ main body and triggering cognitive paralysis. The corps’ destruction was the result of the Ukrainian forces’ prodigious, and compounding, body blows against the Russian force.[53]          

Western military must accept the reality of war—attrition is how wars amongst industrialized nations are fought, won, and more importantly, lost. It is high time to elevate this idea from the catacombs of military thought. Attrition must assume its rightful position as a defining feature in the nature of war, otherwise the community of interest will continually be surprised when wars are not fought and won in quick battles of maneuver.

Elimination of Enemies on the Battlefield

Prussia military theorist Carl von Clausewitz cautions the student and practitioner of war to remember that a hostile army in one’s territory is a non-starter to domestic peace. To be sure, Clausewitz posits that, “So long as I have not overthrown my opponent, I am bound to fear he may overthrow me.”[54] With Clausewitz’s dictum as a cautionary guide, Ukraine must not be satisfied with success in only urban battles, because the possession of towns, while a hostile army remains in the field, is not a receipt for strategic success. Ukraine is therefore duty bound to forcefully remove all of Russia’s forces, to include the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and Armies, from its territory. For failing to do so, will result in continued hostility within Ukraine’s territorial borders. 

Principles of Urban Warfare

Reflecting on the Russo-Ukrainian War’s urban operations, the observer can identify an innumerable list of findings and associated recommendations. Attentive synthesis of those findings, however, reveals a set of transcendent principles of urban warfare that extend across urban operations, regardless of the conflict, which are innumerate below. Exhaustion, or the inability of an actor to maintain tactical, operational, or strategic progress toward its corresponding political or military objective, is the theme that unifies these principles.  

  • Principle 1: Urban operations are inseparable from attrition. Urban terrain undercuts the advantage of standoff warfare and the ability to maximize distance between two combatants. Forces required to fight in urban environments must therefore be built for the rigors and destruction of urban environments. Further, Western militaries must begin the uncomfortable move of distancing themselves from fanciful maneuver-centric doctrine and accept destruction-based, and positional, warfighting norms within their respective lexicon. Western nations must also examine their industrial base, and its linkage with the warfighting requirements of forces in attritional wars and modify the network to not quickly bankrupt war stocks once fighting commences.  
  • Principle 2: Polarity. Borrowing again from Clausewitz, it is important to that, “In a battle each side aims at victory; that is a case of true polarity, since the victory of one side excludes the victory of the other.”[55] As a result of polarity, Western military thinking must accept that advantages in urban battle are fleeting, because adversaries will find ways to offset strength and equipment asymmetry, just as Ukraine has done by weaponizing social media. Ukraine’s use of social media, from the outset of the invasion, is a case study in how information operations can assist in garnering support, and growing one’s base of power, in the face of odds that upon initial look are insurmountable.    
  • Principle 3: Ground Lines of Communication (Still) Matter. As Ukraine’s urban battles attest, ground lines of communication still matter. Ukraine’s southern seaboard, for example, is an amalgamation of cities linked by a dense network of highways and railways. For an army like that of Russia, which relies on bulk supply distribution via rail, and micro-distribution to forward fighting locations with trucks, the rail and highway systems, and their major points of convergence, are critically important. As a result, when forecasting potential points of combat, Western militaries must assess the combatant’s logistics distribution system. If a combatant uses a bulk distribution system based on land movement, expect combat in and around areas in which railways and highways converge and diverge. If a combatant uses palletized distribution, expect combat to focus heavily around airports. In both instances, modern industrial warfare is dependent on the logistics network, and logistics hubs almost always reside in urban areas.
  • Principle 4: Proximity and Density. The degree of civilian casualties and collateral damage corresponds to proximity, and density, of civilians and civilian infrastructure on a battlefield. Therefore, if engagements, battles, or campaigns are being fought in urban areas, then the civilian casualties, displaced persons, and collateral damage will be higher than if fought elsewhere. This principle applies regardless of the tactics or munitions (i.e., ballistic or precision) used on the battlefield.
  • Principle 5: Precision Paradox. In urban warfare, the precision paradox ensures that despite the use of precision munitions, battles will result in wide-scale destruction of civilian infrastructure and the loss of life.[56] Additionally, in urban warfare, which is dominated by a never-ending number of hiding places for an absconding combatant, the use of munitions will remain high.[57] As a result, Western militaries must discontinue the practice of thinking and speaking of precision munitions as a panacea, and as a tool that makes war less horrendous. Instead, they must account for the suboptimal effects that inevitably accompany the use of precision weaponry.  
  • Principle 6: Sieges. The siege of Mariupol, and specifically, the Azovstal industrial plant, highlight the recurrent character of sieges in modern urban warfare. In Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia, which bore witness to significant sieges at Ilovaisk, Luhansk Airport, Donetsk Airport, and Debal’tseve in 2014–2015.[58] Due to urban environment’s security from observation and fire strikes, as well as their connection to needed logistics infrastructure, such as railways, highways, and airports, urban sieges will remain a fixture in industrial, wars of attrition.[59] In light of this fact, Western militaries must develop doctrine, organization, and training solutions to account for the siege’s absence in their collective thinking.
  • Principle 7: Mobility. Remaining mobile in urban warfare is paramount for both survival and offensive action. Mobility allows a combatant to remain elusive and hard to kill. Simultaneously, mobility allows an actor to maintain the ability to move, strike, and defend on the move, which forces the other combatant to have to account for more variables than it would against a static, or fixed, enemy. Taking polarity into consideration, offensive and defensive action in urban areas must seek to deny an adversary’s mobility by eliminating the adversary’s vehicle fleets, and fuel and petroleum stores. Denying an enemy movement in an urban area makes it exponentially easier to fix the combatant in place, encircle the combatant, and concentrically eliminate the combatant from the battlefield.    
  • Principle 8: Base(s) of Power. To succeed in urban battles, especially in siege or encirclement situations, a combatant must possess a base, or multiple bases, of power. Accounting for polarity in warfare, strong initial conditions only get a combatant so far. Combatants must activate latent bases of power, and mobilize external bases of power, to maintain pace urban battles of attrition and position. As Ukraine demonstrates, the ability to mobilize external bases of power—such as garnering support from the US, the EU, and NATO members, for instance—has allowed it to overcome correlation of forces and means comparisons that indicated that without support, Ukraine’s forces and weapons stockpiles were not long for the world. 
  • Principle 9: Center of Gravity (COGs) do not exist. As the loss of Russian General Officers and the destruction of field armies demonstrates, modern wars against actors with strategic depth in resources, viable ground lines of communication illustrate, and robust force structure, COGs are an antiquated relic of Napoleon interpretations of war and warfare. COGs reflect a mechanistic character of warfare in which heads of state led their armies on the field of battle, thereby creating a tight coupling between the policymaker and the tactical command of forces.[60] Further, COGs made sense when armies, industrial bases, and sustainment networks were less productive, less connected, and not able to rapidly communicate between one another. In this mechanistic model, eliminating an enemy army from the field of battle had a direct psychological impact on the head of state. Today’s militaries, however, are not prone to shock and destruction like the armies of yore. Today’s militaries consist of redundant communication and sustainment networks that generally account for losses in ways that negate the continued utility of COG thinking.[61] Therefore, Western militaries must discontinue the practice of placing a premium on COG analysis, and instead focus that attention on systems and network-centric thinking.     


The Russo-Ukraine War’s urban battles provide a wide array of insights into modern war. In many cases, the war’s urban battles do not offer insight into new high-tech warfighting, but instead, reinforces many long-understood principles of warfare. Destruction and attrition, for instance, are not bygone ideas from wars of the past. Destruction and attrition—to include sieges—are a defining feature of modern war, which is clearly reflected by the interactions between Russia and Ukraine.

Western militaries must not shun doctrine, training, and organizations built for wars of attrition, but they must instead embrace this reality of war. Similarly, it is high time for Western militaries to begin to take urban warfare seriously and develop comprehensive doctrines, training, and organizations to thrive on urban battlefields. The principles of urban warfare outlined in this paper provide a point to start the discussion and move towards a better appreciation of urban warfare provided by the Russo-Ukrainian War.


The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or any other agency within the US Government.     

[1] Franz-Stefan Gady, “Manoeuvre Versus Attrition in US Military Operations.” Survival. Vol. 63, no. 4. 2021: pp. 136–138,

[2]  Robert Leonhard, The Principles of War for the Information. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1998, p. 62.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  Ibid.

[7]  “Russia: 1,730 Ukrainians Troops Have Surrendered in Mariupol.” Voice of America. 19 May 2022,

[8] George Patton, War As I Knew It. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1986, p. XX.

[9] “Abrams Main Battle Tank,” US Army Acquisition Support Center. 2022,

[10] Stacie L. Pettyjohn, Jeffrey Martini, Alexandra T. Evans, Karl P. Mueller, Nathaniel Edenfield, Gabrielle Tarini, Ryan Haberman, and Jalen Zeman, The Air War Against the Islamic State: The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve.  Santa Monica: RAND Corporation. 2021: pp. 110-111,

[11] Amos Fox, “On Sieges,” RUSI Journal. Vol. 166, no. 2. 2021: pp. 20-21,

[12] Per Skoglund, Tore Listou, and Thomas Ekström, “Russian Logistics in the Ukrainian War: Can Operational Failures be Attributed to logistics?” Scandinavian Journal of Military Studies, Vol. 5, no. 1. 2022: pp. 102–105,

[13] Trent Telenko, “Ammo Railroads, Tyres, and Logistics are Driving Military Strategy in Ukraine,” on Peter Roberts (host) This Means War (podcast). 28 July 2022,

[14]  Amos C. Fox, “The Donbas in Flames: An Operational Level Analysis of Russia’s 2014-2015 Donbas Campaign.” Small Wars and Insurgencies.  18 August 2022: pp. 4–15,

[15] Andrew S. Bowen, “Russia’s War in Ukraine: Military and Intelligence Aspects.” Congressional Research Service. Report R47068, 14 September 2022,

[16] Chris Lawrence, “The Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022 – Day 231 (Ground Actions).” Dupuy Institute, 12 October 2022,

[17] Morgan Chalfont and Laura Kelly, “100 Days of War: Where Ukraine Stands in Its Fight Against Russia.” The Hill, 3 June 2022,

[18] The Antonov Airport has multiple accepted names, to include Hostomel and Gostomel. This paper uses Antonov Airport. 

[19]  “CNN Captures Intense Firefight at Airport Outside of Kyiv.” YouTube, 24 February 2022,

[20] Paul Murphy, “Russian Forces Have Withdrawn from Antonov Airport, Outside of Kyiv, Satellite Images Confirm.” CNN, 2 April 2022,

[21] James Marson, “Putin Thought Ukraine Would Fall Quickly. An Airport Battle Proved Him Wrong.” Wall Street Journal. 3 March 2022,

[22] Alesia Rudnik, “Will Putin Send Mobilized Russians to Belarus for a New Kyiv Offensive?” Atlantic Council. 3 October 2022,

[23] Thomas Grove and Ann Simmons, “Russia’s War Plan is Rocked by Ukraine’s Rapid Gains.” Wall Street Journal, 13 September 2022,

[24]  Shashank Bengali and Marc Santora, “Ukrainian Officials Report Missile Attacks in Kyiv.” New York Times. 24 February 2022,

[25] Carlotta Gall, “At Least 200 Dead in Apartment Hit by Russia, Officials Say.” New York Times. 5 April 2022,

[26] “Russian Federation Disinformation about Its Atrocities in Bucha.” Press Release. Washington, DC: US Department of State. 8 April 2022,

[27] “Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, United Nations, 18 October 2022,

[28] Ibid.

[29] Pieter van Huis, “A Reconstruction of Clashes in Mariupol, Ukraine 9 May 2014.”  Bellingcat. 28 January 2015,

[30] Michelle Bachelet, “High Commissioner Updates the Human Rights Council on Mariupol, Ukraine.” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.16 June 2022,

[31] Ibid.

[32]  “Ukraine: Deadly Mariupol Theater Strike A Clear War Crime by Russian Forces.” Amnesty International. 30 June 2022,

[33] Op. cit., Bachelet, at Note 30.

[34]  Op. cit., Amnesty International at Note 32.

[35] “Investigation Suggests 600 Died in Russian Attack on Mariupol Theater.” CBC. 4 May 2022,

[36] Matthew Loh, “A Soldier Wearing Nazi Imagery Was Given a Medal by a Russia-Backed Separatist Republic for Killing Ukrainian Nationalists.” Business Insider. 6 April 2022,

[37] Op. cit., Bachelet, at Note 30.

[38] Michael Schwirtz, “Last Stand at Azovstal: Inside the Siege That Shaped the Ukraine War.” New York Times. 24 July 2022,

[39] Ibid.

[40] Op. cit., Bachelet, at Note 30.

[41] Erol Yayboke, Anastasia Strouboulis, and Abigail Edwards, “Update on Forced Displacement around Ukraine.” CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies). 3 October 2022,

[42] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Concord, New Hampshire: Rumford Press, 1944, p. 58.

[43] Amos Fox, “Russo-Ukrainian Patterns of Genocide in the Twentieth Century.” Journal of Strategic Security. Vol. 14, no. 4. 2020: pp. 60–68,

[44] Benjamin Phocas and Jason Geroux, “The School of Street Fighting: Tactical Urban Lessons from Ukraine.” Modern War Institute.13 July 2022,

[45]  Ibid.

[46]  “Russia’s Losses.” Kyiv Post. 8 November 2022,

[47] “Almost 9,000 Ukrainian Military Killed in War with Russian Armed Forces.” Reuters. 22 August 2022,

[48]  Jeff Seldin, “Ukraine Advances Further in Northeast as Russian Forces Retreat,” Voice of America, 13 September 2022,

[49]  Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, and Fredrick Kagan, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 18.” Institute for the Study of War. 18 September 2022,

[50] Seth Jones and Riley McCabe, “Mapping Ukraine’s Military Advances.” CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies). 22 September 2022,

[51] Mari Saito, Maria Tsvetkova, and Anton Zverev, “Abandoned Russian Base Holds Secrets of Retreat in Ukraine.” Reuters. 26 October 2022,

[52] “Operational Update for 18 September 2022 (English Version).” Генеральний штаб ЗСУ / General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine via Facebook. 17 September 2022,

[53]  David Axe, “12,000 Russian Troops Were Supposed to Defend Kaliningrad. Then they Went to Ukraine to Die.” Forbes. 27 October 2022,

[54] Carl von Clausewitz, On War. Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Eds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, p. 77.

[55] Ibid. p. 83.

[56] Amos C. Fox, “The Mosul Study Group and the Lessons of the Battle of Mosul.” Land Warfare Paper 130. Arlington: Association of the United States Army. February 2020,; Amos Fox, “What the Mosul Study Group Missed.” Modern War Institute. 22 October 2019,

[57] Joshua Andersen, “The Paradox of Precision and the Weapons Review Regime.” Philosophical Journal of Conflict and Violence. Vol. 1, no. 1. 2021: pp. 17–34,

[58] Op. cit., Fox at Note 11, pp. 10–11.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Amos Fox and Thomas Kopsch, “Moving Beyond Mechanical Metaphors: Debunking the Applicability of Centers of Gravity in 21stCentury Warfare.” Strategy Bridge. 2 June 2017,

[61] Ibid.

Categories: urban operations

About the Author(s)

Amos C. Fox is a Lieutenant Colonel  in the US Army. He is a graduate from the School of Advanced Military Studies, Ball State University, and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of Reading. He is also an associate editor at the Wavell Room and the Deputy Director for Development with the Irregular Warfare Initiative.