The million-dollar question: Will the battle for Ukraine mimic the first or the second Russo-Chechen War?

At the end of the second week of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, one thing has become clear to analysts. What is popularly known as the “Gerasimov doctrine,” or the Russian school of hybrid grey-zone military subversion, has failed in Ukraine. As a result, Russia has returned to its traditional military thinking rooted in the Soviet era. This school of thought is centred on employing overwhelming fire-power and bringing in columns of robust armour. At the time of writing, Russia is amassing elements from massive units, such as the 41st and 20th combined arms armies and the 1st Guards Tank Army, to besiege the capital Kiev.

It appears that a repetition of the Russo-Chechen wars is approaching. The million-dollar question is, will the battle for Ukraine mimic the first or the second Russo-Chechen War? The former saw Russian combat formations melted in the urban terrain of Chechnya, while the latter saw the barbaric use of brutal and indiscriminate firepower by Moscow.

During the first war (1994–1996), the chief of the Chechen defence, Dzokhar Dudayev, was a former Soviet general who had served in the strategic air service. Dudayev knew well the chronic shortfalls of the Soviet legacy in the Russian military, particularly its hurdles in urban operations, and craftily took advantage of that. 

Overall, assessments explain that Chechen units “hugged” their adversary with very close firing positions to avoid powerful Russian artillery; built strongpoints in key positions like important bridges, buildings, and streets; set frequent sniper positions for ambush; deliberately avoided reactive armours of the Russian tanks when launching their rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and kept their small mortar units constantly moving to avoid being targeted. 

The Russian casualties were immense, including one important unit, the 131st Maikop Brigade, being eliminated as a whole, manifesting bitter defeat. The result was a total embarrassment for Moscow, which eventually led to the return of the security and intelligence elite, the Siloviki, to power. A former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, eventually ascended to the Kremlin.

Having learned their lesson well, the Russian military unleashed hell onto Grozny during the second war in the late 1990s. TOS-1 thermobaric weapon systems, incendiary bombs released by the air force, as well as Grad and Uragan multiple-launch rockets, pounded Chechnya until its devastating collapse. The Russian-hammered Grozny was later called “the most destroyed city on Earth” by the United Nations.

As the Russian campaign moves to besiege Kiev, the end-game is likely to mimic either the first or the second Russo-Chechen War.

On the one hand, the Russian war machine has accelerated its buildup and is moving to isolate the Ukrainian capital. The northern sector of the Russian push has been trying to cement its lines of communication. It is also likely that Kharkiv and Kiev may witness large-scale, simultaneous ground assaults. Recently, Russia’s use of indiscriminate fire-power has intensified and extended to civilian evacuation centres in Sumy. This trend in the north, unfortunately, is reminiscent of the second Russo-Chechen War.

In the meantime, Moscow has been making more tangible gains in the south. At the time of writing, Mariupol is totally besieged and set to fall. If or—more likely—when that happens, Ukraine will lose its access to the Sea of Azov. Then, most probably, the Russian offensive will focus on the Mykolaiv axis, along with a possible amphibious landing to the Black Sea pearl of Ukraine, Odessa. Pursuing a synchronised strategy, the Russian General Staff could even simultaneously launch the Kiev and Kharkiv offensives in the north, along with the amphibious push for Odessa in the south.

More importantly, recent Russian diplomatic rhetoric has been voicing some alarming themes revolving around bizarre biological and chemical weapons allegations. This parlance could mark the early signs of a false flag operation to be exploited for running a deeper incursion into Ukraine. Overall, Ukraine is in trouble.

Could Kiev become another Thermopylae?

Defence writings suggest that while the backbone of the Russian core military force, the Battalion Tactical Group, is a potent fighter, it comes with a notable deficit. Combined arms tactical battalions are not built for urban warfare, and such heavy armour can have a hard time in the Ukrainian urban terrain. This is probably why Russia is immediately fielding its principal pacification force, Rosgvardia (the National Guard,) and its OMON (special police units) anti-riot detachments in captured population centres such as Kherson. Rosgvardia and its OMON units are mainly tasked with internal security, counter-insurgency, and crackdown missions.  

Having seen the giant approaching its beloved capital, the Ukrainian military is trying to lure the attacking force into urban traps and hitting Russian logistics in the meantime. Ukrainian artillery and Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2s drones have been doing a good job so far. Likewise, Western-transferred anti-tank weaponry, such as the US’ Javelin and the British NLAW, scored important armour kills.

Despite Russian army's pressure, many Ukrainian cities continue to resist Moscow's offensive.
Despite Russian army's pressure, many Ukrainian cities continue to resist Moscow's offensive. (Elif Cansın Senol / TRTWorld)

In concepts of operations (CONOPS) terms, the Ukrainian stand showcases a good application of what doctrinal works call “mobile defence,” albeit at the tactical level. Briefly, mobile defence is a complex form of coordinated manoeuvring of defensives, based on falling back to advantageous positions, halting the adversary’s push by a “fixing force,” and waging systematic counter-attacks to target the adversary’s overstretched lines. 

Executing this defensive operation course at the strategic level would necessitate large reserve forces to send in when necessary, excellent command and control architecture to ensure high-end synchronisation of the dynamic defensive, and robust intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

At the strategical level, the Ukrainian military cannot sustain such an effort via large formations against the Russian military attack. However, at the tactical level and by using smaller groups, the Ukrainian defence has succeeded in inflicting heavy casualties on Russia. 

The conflict has entered a critical stage. Moscow is opting to rain fire onto Ukraine, while the Ukrainian military has been preparing for prolonged urban warfare. Should the conflict continue, it is almost guaranteed that the end result will be a bloody one with very high casualties on both sides. 

The ghosts of Grozny haunt Ukraine now. And just like Grozny paved the ground for the Soviet intelligence and security elite’s political comeback, the Ukraine campaign will likely determine the fate of the same ruling clan.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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Source: TRT World