Ukrainian civilians “could turn every street into a trap, into a meat grinder“. Who speaks is the expert in urban battles John Spencer.
This retired Major of the United States Armed Forces has a 25-year military career that took him from the jungles of Panama to the deserts of Iraq, from the Pentagon offices to West Point. He was in Ranger, Parachute, Light Infantry and Mechanized Infantry units…
In this interview with Clarion, Spencer – urban combat specialist at the Madison Policy Forum – explains how the Ukrainians could defend their capital, Kiev, if the Russian invader finally enters the city.
Ukrainian militiamen stand with soldiers at a checkpoint near Kiev. Photo: EFE
-Kiev is a great city, very extensive, with almost three million people, with no other natural barrier than the Dnieper River. Do the Ukrainians have the men to defend it?
-Russia does not have to take the whole city. You just have to get to the center and capture the government. If Zelensky flees and the Russians get to the center and raise their flag, they have what they want. They will not have won the war and the uncertainty will begin the next day. But they will not be able to defend the entire city.
-Are you afraid that if the Russians cannot take the center of the city they will bomb it as they did in Grozny?
-In Grozny the Russians fired about 3,000 artillery rounds a day at first. But they had to increase and they launched 30,000 artillery shots a day to take the city. They did that for two weeks and in the end they had to go in anyway. You don’t win by bombing cities. Unlike Grozny and other cities, Kiev has a huge underground network and defenders could survive a bombardment there. When the Luftwaffe bombed Stalingrad it destroyed 80% of the buildings in the city. He inadvertently created hundreds of places where the Soviets could hide and fight. If you are inside a building when it is destroyed you die. But if not, the rubble of that building becomes a safer place than a bunker to fight.
“The rubble of that building becomes a safer place than a bunker to fight”
urban combat expert
-What kind of weapons do the Ukrainians need? Are they getting the right weapons from NATO for what they are going to face?
-They need everything, but this is a question of the scope of the weapons. They need manpads (Stinger) so that the fighter-bombers cannot bomb freely. They need to destroy the enemy from as far away as possible without revealing their position. The Stingers have a range of a maximum of 5,000 meters. The javelin of a maximum of 3,000 meters. And they need grenade launchers. A javelin is a sophisticated weapon that takes a lot of training. But anyone can fire a grenade launcher.
Ukrainian soldiers on the outskirts of Kiev. Photo: AP
-Arming civilians for an urban battle is useful or will they be cannon fodder?
-Very, very helpful. They have to find a place to survive the bombardment and then get out. They need obstacles to stop the vehicles. The Russians will have to carry everything. Tanks, armored vehicles and infantry. I would arm these civilians with grenade launchers, for example, they could turn every street into a trap, into a meat grinder. Infantry in that scenario is vulnerable. So every weapon counts, the more weapons sent to the Ukrainians the better. Also mines. Every weapon is important.
-The city still has more than 1.5 million inhabitants. In such an urban battle, how many civilians could be killed?
Tens of thousands possibly. But that’s why I think Russia proposes these ceasefires, because it wants civilians to flee and not have limitations. They have to get more than 90% of the population out so they don’t have restrictions on the use of force. But I wonder if the Russians can say they won just by razing the city. When the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Japanese managed to connect electricity in a week because the city is the people. You can’t kill a city by bombing it.
Ukrainian soldiers during anti-tank maneuvers near Lviv. Photo: AP
-Ukraine can win this war?
Yes, but it all depends on what we consider to win. We military strategists define victory according to our objective. Now his goal is to take the capital, overthrow Zelensky and raise the Russian flag. If they do technically they will have won. Let’s say he gets it. The next day the Ukrainians can start a guerrilla war and Ukraine becomes a new Afghanistan, like the one in the 1980s for the Soviet Union.
-No one has won in Afghanistan.
-I don’t think they can control the territory of Ukraine, I think they will create a big problem. If Ukraine becomes that, Russia will eventually have to go. Russian mothers are not going to put up with bodies every day coming home. That is winning for Ukraine. That’s why I say that every day that passes and they haven’t lost is one more day that they are winning.
-Military manuals state that it would take one soldier for every 20 people to occupy and control a country.
-That’s the theory. We in Iraq, not even when we had more men did we reach even remotely those numbers. We paid locals to control the streets and thus increase the number. But we faced an insurgency that did not even reach 1% of the population. If Ukraine were to maintain an insurgency campaign, millions of soldiers would be needed depending on the strength of that insurgency. And if they do, the West will continue to give them weapons as it gave the Afghans to fight the Soviet Union.
Brussels, special for Clarín