Despite large-scale geopolitical analyses depicting it as a ‘new Cold War’ of confrontation between Russia and NATO, the conflict in Ukraine is substantially urban. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the north-eastern, Crimean and Belarusian fronts is heavily targeting the cities of Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second biggest city) and Chernihiv in the east; Melitopol and the ports of Mariupol and Kherson at the mouth of the Dnieper river region leading to Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro; and has taken over the ruins of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The capital Kyiv is being approached from the north by a 65km-long column of Russian artillery and key infrastructures, including the TV tower and Hostomel airfield, have come under aerial attack.
In cities, close quarter fight is more likely than in open rural spaces. In the dense and interconnected built fabric of cities, large-scale geopolitical narratives take shape in people’s everyday lives and spaces. In cities, military strategy is challenged, close confrontation happens, resistance develops and close quarter fighting has the biggest impact on the civilian population.
In The Art Of War, Sun Tzu defines urban attack as the lowest level of warfare that should only be used as last resort. As well as hosting institutional and governmental buildings, cities contain crucial national infrastructures that are often targeted by attackers to disrupt the possibility of military response by the attacked. However, as seen all too often in the past, the damage is more than the sum of individual attacks against different infrastructures. As the International Committee for the Red Cross has long maintained, military strikes in urban areas have a perilous cumulative and long-term impact on the nexus of food/water/health/mobility that sustains civilian life in cities. Damaging a power plant has dangerous ramifications beyond the lack of electricity: it means impossibility of food preservation, lack of clean water or fuel to sustain hospitals and transport. With every destroyed or damaged (and often only partly repaired) infrastructure, it is the entire ecology of the city that becomes degraded and eventually unable to sustain life. As a Russian missile hit the regional administration headquarters and a concert hall in Kharkiv on Tuesday and its residential areas repeatedly and heavily bombarded from the air, attacks against Ukraine’s cities are a hugely problematic grey area between Russia’s view of necessity of war, and what instead constitutes wanton and unnecessary destruction of civilian and cultural property – which is illegal under international law.
Ukrainian cities have so far resisted the attacker longer than expected. From erecting makeshift obstacles in the streets of Kyiv to making Molotov bottles in Dnipro, the peacetime urban built environment has been redeployed for defence. Recently, military expert John Spencer has advised the inhabitants to repel the Russian advance by scattering the city with makeshift barriers to turn Kyiv into a ‘porcupine’: a ground ridden with obstacles, tight and impracticable for military manoeuvre.
Other buildings swiftly change functions and configuration. As in previous cases of prolonged urban combat, like Beirut’s Commodore, Nicosia’s Ledra Palace, and Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, hotels in several Ukrainian cities continue to provide hospitality under emergency to a rather different clientele, including war reporters and humanitarian workers. However, past urban conflict has taught us that it is not all about street fight, but also about adapting homes for survival and continuation of daily routines. Homes are rearranged around the most sheltered rooms such as corridors, staircases, bathrooms, and areas away from windows; basements become shelters; exposed balconies are sealed off. Famously, inhabitants during the siege of Sarajevo improvised utensils from everyday objects that have now been catalogued, complete of specifications and 3D models. Ukrainians have already been advised to move away from windows, take refuge in bathrooms and are daily instructed to descend into shelters. This domestic reorganisation will continue, but hopefully not long enough to lead to reliance on the kind of ‘war design’ the Sarajevan had to rely on.
But what Ukraine’s urban warfare is particularly revealing of, is that Vladimir Putin might have spatially miscalculated the conflict, Russia’s operation can be seen through the metaphor of Chess. It is calculated, hierarchical and planned, but also heavily dependent on sophisticated machinery and large amounts of personnel, and needing wide manoeuvre space that limit how each unit moves. Conversely, the Ukrainian response can be represented with the metaphor of Go. For Zelenskyy’s army and its conscripts and volunteers, tactics and fast reaction matter more. The Ukrainian resistance has no predetermined battle lines and can quickly adapt its tactics to Russia’s moves. It needs little manoeuvre. Above all, the Ukrainian contextual knowledge of the urban ground poses a substantial obstacle to the Russian strategy, despite the lesser number of combatants.
It is early days in the conflict and there is a danger that, unless negotiations succeed swiftly, the current urban combat might transform into a consuming position war. Now that a weakness in Putin's strategy has been revealed, this weakness must be maximised before the Russian army manages to enter the major cities. The support to Ukraine’s urban defence must become a pivot of Europe’s attention and support. However, while Ukraine’s urban resistance and even defiance in front of a bigger enemy is something heroic to be praised, it should not be romanticised. The cumulative damage of war in cities brings long-term and tragic ripple effects on life. Ultimately, the axis of war must be pushed away from cities.