The battle for Kyiv is coming and it will be brutal unless we act now

Zelenskyy challenged Biden in ‘powerful’ address to Congress: Kellogg

Bret Baier, Dan Hoffman and Gen. Keith Kellogg (Ret.) weigh in on President Zelenskyy’s appeal for help in his virtual address.

It’s coming, and it’s going to be ugly. Urban battles often are – Stalingrad, Berlin, Hue, Sarajevo, Ramadi. The casualties will be tantamount to World War II levels, the atrocities will be numerous, and the outcome will haunt the Western world for decades knowing we could have done more to prevent it.  

The Battle for Kyiv – the heart and soul of the country, will become Ukraine’s Alamo, with similar results unless we do something now.

The parallels to the Alamo are uncanny. A numerically superior force besieging a city that will eventually overwhelm well-entrenched, determined and fiercely patriotic defenders who are prepared to give their lives for their country and their independence. In the military, we call this a Die in Place (DiP) mission.  

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a modern-day James Bowie; Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is President General Antonio López de Santa Anna. One will fight to the death for the values we as Americans hold dear – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the other will simply give the orders, from sanctuary, to attack and destroy the city, at all cost. 

It will be a heroic last stand. Then Putin will become our problem.

Russia continues to shape the battlefield, slowly and at tremendous cost, but the Russian Army is closing in on Kyiv. Putin has what Zelenskyy needs – time, numbers and artillery, lots of artillery. This will be a four phase operation: Phase I – Build Combat Power; Phase II – Condition Setting; Phase III – Assault the Objective; and Phase IV – Secure a Destroyed Kyiv.

The Ukrainian fighters are intuitive, adaptive and formidable. With the right weapon systems, sustained logistics and intelligence, they can take the fight to the Russians. 

We’re currently in Phase I, as the Russian military continues to lumber toward Kyiv. During this phase, we’ll see the formation of artillery groups capable of punishing Kyiv from a distance, the maneuver units – battalion tactical groups will move into their assault positions, and a much-improved rear area security force will be emplaced to protect their logistical points and routes.  

Putin has become increasingly frustrated with his military’s inability to secure Ukraine.

Throughout Phase I and Phase II, we’ll continue to see the build-up of combat power (personal, equipment, supplies) to replace the troops/units that were rendered combat ineffective. If Putin does introduce foreign mercenaries from Chechnya and Syria, we’ll observe their arrival in this phase. Their presence on the battlefield will become a key indicator in the location of the main effort.

KYIV, UKRAINE – MARCH 11, 2022 – President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pictured during his regular address to the nation, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. The head of state said that we had already reached a strategic turning point and were moving towards our victory. The custom-size photo is courtesy of the press service of the Office of the President of Ukraine. 
(UKRINFORM/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

The siege of Kyiv begins in Phase II. The Russians will begin with a siege, an operation to deny Kyiv’s defenders food and water, resupply of ammunition, and communications to the outside world. They will knock out the power grid, the water supply, and communication nodes (television/radio stations, cellphone towers, relay sites). Lines of communication (roads, railways, waterways, airfields) into and out of the city will be severed and secured.  

The defenders will be isolated and the rationing of supplies will begin. Reconnaissance and probing of the Ukrainian defenses will be relentless, keeping the defenders in a constant state of alert. Next, the artillery preparation, at a scale not experienced since World War I – Verdun and the Somme. It will be devastating, and will level the city. It will, however, provide the surviving defenders excellent defensive fighting positions during Phase III.

The key to success for Phase I and II is the amount of time given to set the conditions for success in Phase III. Putin has become increasingly frustrated with his military’s inability to secure Ukraine; he is not a patient man. 

Putin so far has not listened to his generals’ advice on setting conditions. Will he continue to ignore their cautions or will he command them to take the city at all cost with the forces they have?

At the conclusion of the artillery barrage, we’ll see the initiation of Phase III. The ground force will begin their assault on the city, and it will be a slug fest. The fighting will be intense – street to street, house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, above ground and below ground. Booby traps, improvised explosive devices (IED), grenades, snipers, Molotov cocktails, bayonets, hand-to-hand, and more.  

Conventional military tactics dictate a 5:1 ratio of attacking soldiers to defenders. Putin isn’t likely to have that number, and must rely upon his artillery bombardment to make up for the shortage. The casualties will be staggering. Despite his assurances on March 8 to Russian mothers who accused him of “using their sons as cannon fodder,” he will use conscripts during the initial assault. He can’t afford to lose his professional soldiers, nor his mercenary force. They will exploit success, but not be exposed to urban warfare conditions.  

The fighting in the city will be intense, and the loss of life will degrade Russian capability, but the cost in human capital of securing the terrain that was captured will also significantly reduce combat power as the Russian Army assaults Kyiv. Failure to secure the terrain exposes the assaulting forces to attacks from their rear. Furthermore, a sizable force must be left outside the city to prevent additional Ukrainian fighters and supplies from entering or exiting the city.

The shortage of manpower could be offset by other means – not consistent with the laws of war. War crimes have not been a deterrent during this conflict, or in Syria, where Russia employed chlorine gas, and it’s not likely to prevent him from using illegal chem-bio agents again to gain a tactical advantage. He will believe statements from the White House that “there are no red lines within the borders of Ukraine.” 

Terrain denial by use of persistent chemical agents, use of a non-persistent agent to uproot and expose Ukrainian fighters and their defensive positions, and the use of a thermobaric weapon – aerosol bomb, fuel air explosive (FAE) to destroy hardened fighting positions or command-and-control centers in civilian populated areas – all are violations of International Law.

When the city has been “secured,” the Russian military will enter Phase IV of their operations, and thus begin their counterinsurgency phase.  The requirement for additional forces to replace those lost in the battle for the city, and now for the security of the country, will further drain Russian resources, but the punishment of Ukraine will be complete, and the message to other non-NATO members delivered.  

Of course, the enemy always gets a vote, as Putin has learned over the past three weeks. The response to Putin’s punishment of Ukraine will be from the insurgency, and they will exact their punishment over time. 

Declaring “mission complete” in Phase III signals the toughest fight is yet to come. A lesson the U.S. learned over two decades in two theaters of combat.

The Ukrainian fighters are intuitive, adaptive and formidable. With the right weapon systems, sustained logistics and intelligence, they can take the fight to the Russians. The Stinger missiles (man-portable air defense systems), Javelin anti-tank missiles, and 7.62mm ammunition they received have been put to excellent use, interdicting Russian convoys and repelling armor attacks. 

But if Ukraine is going to weather this storm, they need to eliminate their biggest threat – indirect fires, aka artillery, the “King of Battle.” It will be the single most casualty producing weapon on the battlefield.  

In order to degrade this threat, the Ukrainian resistance will need additional assets to reach them – part of that solution could have been the MiG-29s offered by Poland. That decision needs to be reconsidered by Washington. It could derail Phase I and II, and possibly keep Phase III from happening.  

We need to give the Ukrainians a fighting chance, level the playing field. In this case, the best defense is a good offense. Let the Ukrainians take the fight to the Russians.

As Zelenskyy has demonstrated, Ukraine wins by staying alive.

Jon Sweet is a retired U.S. Army colonel with 30 years of experience as a military intelligence officer.

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