Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the specter of a new Chechnya advances

(To Nicola Festa)
22/03/22

The war in Ukraine has entered its fourth week. The advance of the Russian troops still appears to have slowed down. The Blitzkrieg, of which many analysts had spoken, recalling to our memory the offensive conducted during the Second World War by the Wermacht in the campaign in the West, which overwhelmed the Netherlands, Belgium and France. In the spring of 1940, Hitler's tanks occupied Paris in less than five weeks after the start of hostilities!

Meanwhile, the Russian forces engaged on the ground have captured Chernihiv to the east, Melitopol and the city and port of Mariupol and Kherson at the mouth of the Dneper River region leading to Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro, have reached the suburbs of Kiev, the scene of intense fighting for the tough resistance from Ukrainian forces. Kharkiv has been under siege for days. Irpin northwest of Kiev is also under siegeWhile Kiev itself is surrounded on three sides by most of the Moscow land contingent.

With Kiev and Mariupol encircled it is not difficult to foresee an imminent assault on the cities. The Ukrainian general staff in a report on Saturday 19 March said that the Russian army is about to launch an attack on the capital.

We are at a turning point in the Ukrainian conflict that began at dawn on 24 February last. The future of the war in Ukraine therefore hinges on the conquest of cities and large urban centers.

An attack by Moscow troops on Kiev and the major centers naturally evokes already known scenarios of urban warfare. Which have seen the Russian army engaged in recent decades. Starting from the conflicts in Chechnya and Afghanistan, up to the recent intervention in Syria, in support of Syrian President Assad.

The initial goals

Indeed, waging urban warfare was probably not originally envisaged in Russian military planning. Their doctrine emphasizes the strategy of massive use of firepower based on artillery, missiles, bombs, along with large tank units, in order to disrupt the command centers, military installations and critical infrastructure of the enemy.

With this in mind, the Russians favored the so-called "Shock and Awe" approach used by the US first in Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom (with little success: the Iraqis were not at all intimidated by the American attack and in fact Iraq capitulated twenty days later), then in Afghanistan, in order to overwhelm and paralyze the enemy's offensive capabilities and his own will to resist.

According to most military analysts, the initial goal of the Russian forces was to quickly penetrate the Ukrainian territory to conquer the most strategically important cities until reaching Kiev, where to oust Zelensky's pro-American government and replace it with a new regime. favorable to Moscow.

This is a new approach to their military operations theorized as "Russian war of the new generation". In this perspective, the goal of a conflict is not victory but regime change. Such a strategy presupposes the favor of a section of the local population and a new leadership ready to replace the overthrown government.

This did not happen. Until today this scenario did not occur for a series of causes, which are essentially attributable to the underestimation of the opponent by the Russian general staff, believing that the Ukrainian armed forces were in the same conditions as in 2014, ignoring that in the last eight years, thanks to US aid, they had massively strengthened their armament and professionalized their army, trained by US "advisers". But also to the erroneous assessment (deliberate or due to inability) of the information services on the loyalty of the Ukrainians to the Zelensky government and on the popular will to resist the invader in arms.

At this point, the conflict turned into a conventional war. In a conflict like this, traditional Russian military doctrine requires the massive use of what are called "combined weapons", that is, the simultaneous and complementary deployment of military devices, such as tanks, infantry, air forces. But up to today Russia has not yet resorted to such a strategy. Nor have Russian strategists yet resorted to their historic offensive strategy of mass fire with the concentrated use of artillery and missiles, along with large tank units. Strategy that remains at the heart of Russian military doctrine. In fact, all Russian military units, including tank units, are equipped with a large number of artillery and missiles that provide high firepower.

The war in the city: the "lessons learned" in the conflicts in Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2000)

To imagine the scenario of a probable next attack on Kiev it is useful to recall the "lessons learned" by the Russians in the wars in Chechnya.

In the introduction, it should be remembered that in the post-war period, according to the doctrine of the Warsaw Pact, the tactics in use included advancing as far as possible into the enemy territory, bypassing the large cities, which had to be conquered at a later time. In fact, the Soviets did not want to get bogged down in long-lasting urban battles that involved huge military resources.

The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, in some way tributary to this doctrine, during the first war in Chechnya instead found themselves facing a ferocious urban conflict for which they were not prepared. Conflict that was resolved by finally resorting to a carpet bombing of the whole city with artillery and air force, indiscriminately hitting friendly and enemy troops, military installations, civil buildings, and even hospitals.

Even the second battle of Grozny 1999-2000, although in this conflict the Russians had innovated in operational tactics and employed new weapons, was eventually resolved by resorting to massive missile and artillery interventions and aerial bombardments directly on inhabited centers, which caused devastation on large scale, even higher than those of 1994-96. The operational plan, in fact, provided for the encirclement of the city, to prevent the influx of supplies and reinforcements and the systematic softening of the defenses. opponents through repeated actions of fire.

The Russians, moreover, during the conflict in Chechnya, faced with the exceptional military capacity shown by the Chechens, brought some innovations on the tactical level and used new weapons. Both solutions proved particularly effective in fighting in urban areas.

The main innovations on the tactical level and in the fighting techniques. The use of new weapons

Tanks, a weapon widely used in urban fighting, in the early stages of hostilities advanced at the head of the columns with the support of the infantry. This tactic led to heavy losses because the vehicles were vulnerable to the portable anti-tank weapons used by the Chechens. In the later stages of the fighting a change was made. Infantry units and paratroopers advanced on foot, with close coverage of armored troop carriers and self-propelled anti-aircraft, while tanks provided protection from greater range. The tanks were relegated to the rear of the deployment.

This change was also implemented because the Chechens used to hit the tanks in the head and tail of the columns blocking the others. Furthermore, the guns of the tanks had an angle of elevation that prevented from engaging targets located in the upper floors of buildings or in the basements from a short distance. On the other hand, the self-propelled anti-aircraft aircraft, such as the ZSU23-4 and the 2S6, proved to be very effective against these targets, which with their 23 mm shells were able to penetrate thicker walls and hit the roofs of buildings, thanks to the elevation of arms.

Innovative methods were also adopted in the techniques of breaking into buildings. The Russians adopted an operational procedure which consisted in employing an assault platoon with the cover of a second platoon equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers and a third platoon equipped with mortars, which provided for the ammunition supply of the other two.

Among the new weapons particularly effective in combat in urban areas, thermobaric weapons were used, such as the RPO-A Sheml shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. These weapons use an explosive aerosol which when combined with oxygen causes an explosion with particularly devastating disruptive and thermal effects, especially when used indoors such as bunkers and underground rooms.

The TOS-12 "Buratino" system was also tested, a multiple rocket launcher mounted on a T-72 tank frame with 30 launch tubes, capable of firing 220mm thermobaric rockets individually or in a single salvo, with devastating effects.

An improved version, called TOS-1A with a range of up to 6 kilometers, according to some sources of information, it would already have been used in Ukraine.

At the beginning of the Chechen conflict, the Russians had deployed BMP2 armored vehicles armed with a 30 mm automatic cannon and capable of carrying a team of six riflemen. The BMP2s proved unsuitable for urban combat, being poorly protected from both RPG attacks and sniper fire. For this reason they were equipped with a front metal plate which however did not block the 20mm armor-piercing shells.

Hence the need for the Russians to have an armored vehicle with the task of providing support fire for the units battleships and those of infantry. A new self-propelled machine was produced, called BMP TERMINATOR, which has undergone extensive modifications over the years.

The last version, BMPT-72 Terminator-2, based on the hull of the T-72 tank, is a heavily armored vehicle both sideways and frontally. Equipped with reactive armor and a new turret, with 2 2A42 30mm machine guns, four launch tubes for counter-tank missiles 9k114 Šturm e 9M120 Ataka, a 7,62x54mm coaxial machine gun and a 17mm AG-30D automatic grenade launcher. Suitable for carrying out multiple tasks, engaging and suppressing enemy units equipped with grenade launchers or counter-tank missiles, destroying bunker, engaging battle tanks (MBT) or infantry fighting vehicles (AIFV) and also as an anti-aircraft contrast medium, the BMPT-72 Terminator-2 due to its characteristics it represents a powerful instrument of destruction to be used in combat in urban areas.

From the two Chechen conflicts, the Russians have learned many lessons about the war in the city, which on a tactical level they will predictably carry out in the continuation of the fighting.

However, to deal with urban combat one must employ well-trained soldiers, and at the moment the Russian army does not appear to have such troops, except of course the rates of special forces, since the contingents mobilized for the conflict in Ukraine are made up of conscripts, who during the conscription most likely did not receive adequate training for urban combat. So much so that the Russians have recruited the Chechen and Syrian militias, particularly trained in this kind of combat.

Conclusion

If the Russians want to avoid urban warfare, they have two options to overcome the resistance of the Ukrainian cities. The first is a prolonged siege of cities to starve the besieged; the second is to reduce cities to rubble. "Those options are not mutually exclusive," says military analyst Gary Anderson.

It is good to remember that the Russians in December 1999, after having completely surrounded Grozny, continued to subject it to an incessant bombardment for another two weeks, before entering the city to conquer it, block after block.

In these uncertain scenarios, the only certainty is that Kiev, in any case a land of ferocious and devastating fighting, will turn into a "concrete hell" and can become a new Grozny.

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