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With Russia bearing down on Ukraine's cities, the 'real' fighting begins

"The Russians won’t be able to take Kyiv by just bombing it," urban warfare expert John Spencer says.
Members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces train with in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 28, 2022.
Members of the Territorial Defense Forces train in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday.Gleb Garanich / Reuters

Ukraine has been able to slow the Russian advance with a combination of high-tech weaponry such as Stinger and Javelin missiles and sheer determination, but if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces pierce the defenses of the cities, “it’s going to get really ugly.”

“The Russians won’t be able to take Kyiv by just bombing it,” said John Spencer, an expert on urban warfare at the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. “They’ll have to get soldiers in there.”

And these won’t be the poorly trained and, in some cases, demoralized Russian conscripts that the Ukrainian forces have been able to keep at bay in almost a week of fighting.

“These will be their most experienced and well-trained soldiers,” Spencer said.

What could happen to Kyiv, he warned, is a repeat of the 2017 siege of Marawi, a Philippine city where thousands of soldiers fought pitched street battles for months to dislodge several hundred militants pledging allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group who had taken over the town.

ISIS "turned the city into a fortress and every structure got destroyed," Spencer said.

The Ukrainians, outgunned and outmanned, could be forced to sacrifice their ancient capital city to save their nation, he said.

"For the Ukrainians, not losing is winning," Spencer said. "They have shown they are determined to fight. They can make the Russians battle for every street and cause major casualties."

Douglas Lute, a former United States ambassador to NATO, said "we should expect this to be a long, protracted, brutal campaign."

"I mean, if we want an example of what the Russian regime is capable of, we should think back 20 years to the campaign they took to their own Russian citizens in Chechnya," he said on MSNBC.

Putin rose to power in 1999 by vowing to bring that restive republic back into the Russian fold and then launched a military crackdown that left Chechnya in ruins.

Russia has already been shelling Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities, forcing residents to hide in shelters and subway stations. And Ukrainian forces have reported battling and repelling Russian reconnaissance and sabotage units that were able to get into the cities.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian defense of Kyiv is drawing comparisons to two doomed-but-heroic revolts against Germany during World War II — the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, when several hundred Jewish fighters battled the Nazis for three weeks, and the Warsaw uprising in 1944, when some 200,000 Poles were killed during a two-month battle to liberate the city from the Germans.

"The Ukrainians remain and will be badly outgunned," Daniel Markind, a Philadelphia-based lawyer and a former chair of the national legal committee of the Jewish National Fund-USA, wrote in the Times of Israel. "In a sense, they will be reminiscent of the brave Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, who had little with which to face the Nazis except pistols and Molotov Cocktails."

Spencer, however, said there are some key differences.

"The Warsaw uprising and Warsaw ghetto uprisings are different from most sieges because, in those cases, you had civilians in an already occupied city taking up arms to oust an occupier," he said.

"In most cases, an invading force will give the civilians the chance to get out," Spencer said. "Anybody who is left in the city is considered a combatant. I expect that will happen here in Kyiv, too. But in this case, the Ukrainians are not leaving and civilians have already been joining the fight."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government have already refused to leave Kyiv as have most of the city's residents.

Spencer said the final assault on Kyiv is likely to look like this:

"The Russian strategy is to use rockets and artillery to take out key military installations, weaken defenses and get people to leave before sending their own troops in," he said.

Russia is already trying to encircle Kyiv and its forces are trying to "find a hole in the defenses, and then punch their way into the city through that hole," he said. "They don’t want to clear the whole city, because they don’t have the manpower to do that and they don’t need to do that. They will target government buildings, capture or kill key Ukrainian leaders, and raise the Russian flag."

The Ukrainians have several advantages the doomed Jews and Poles didn't have.

First, the United States and NATO were able to get badly needed and highly sophisticated arms to Ukraine even before the invasion started.

"The Ukrainians have been surprisingly effective in their ability to slow the Russian advance, especially is their use of Stinger missiles and the Javelin, which is the most lethal killing machine on the battlefield," Spencer said.

The maximum range of the Javelin is 2 miles, he said. And the Ukrainians have used it successfully to take out Russian armor and attack its supply lines.

Second, while Warsaw in 1944 got mostly moral support from the Allies and no help from the the Soviet army camped on the other side of the Vistula River, the Biden administration has quickly rallied NATO against Russia and imposed crippling sanctions on the country's economy and frozen the assets of Putin and his cronies.

The Ukrainians, Spencer said, "know Russia is running out of time."

"Putin is already facing opposition both externally and internally to this war," he said.

But when fighting erupts on the streets of cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv, "that’s when the destruction really begins," Spencer said.

Lute echoed that on MSNBC.

“And look at the pictures of the city of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, from 20 years ago," he said. "They leveled it. You can imagine that kind of city fighting, mass bombardment, disregard for civilian casualties. That’s what’s bearing down on Kharkiv and Kyiv now.”