This article appeared in The Telegraph on March 11th, 2022
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It is the political, historic and cultural centre of Ukraine.
Russian forces now appear to be “reposturing” for an assault on the capital.
To cut the city off from any reinforcements that will undoubtedly rush north if the capital is threatened will be an enormous undertaking.
Given that the city measures roughly 35km (22 miles) north to south and 25km (16 miles) east to west, Russia will need to establish a cordon of at least 90km (56 miles).
A tall order
With each Russian battalion tactical group able to defend a frontage of about 1km (0.6 miles), this is a tall order.
Without calling up reserves from the homeland, this task is probably beyond the capability of the forces Russia has deployed into Ukraine.
Russia could have about 50,000-100,000 troops around Kyiv. It took 2.5 million to capture Berlin in 1945, with heavy losses.
That is eminently possible for a modern force that is organised for such an “all arms” battle, that has trained and rehearsed as such and understands the differing needs and tempos of the various elements.
Armies learn fast, especially in the white heat of combat, but Russia’s tactical performance so far suggests this level of competence is beyond them.
Mick Ryan, a former major general in the Australian army, said that the ongoing defence of Kyiv is a major psychological boost for Ukraine’s soldiers and civilians, acting to catalyse international support for Ukraine.
However, he warned that Russia may not have the capacity.
“First, they need a theatre-level reserve in the north if they are to complete encirclement of Kyiv and follow-on attack on the city. The size of Russian forces currently in the north is likely to be insufficient for both tasks.
“Second, the Russians more broadly may need to start planning for more reinforcements and rotating forces. Both humans and equipment need breaks in combat to retain effectiveness over the medium and longer term. And Russian losses have probably been higher than anticipated.”
A siege is also likely to involve cutting power supplies and communications networks, sowing terror and confusion amongst the remaining civilians. Vitali Klitschko, the city’s mayor, said that half the capital’s population has already fled, but that still leaves more than a million people.
Without power and mobile phone infrastructure, the chances of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, being able to communicate more morale-boosting speeches will be severely limited.
Russia will seek to take down the military communications systems relied upon by the city’s defenders, or at least degrade them with electronic warfare attacks to the point of being useless.
Information, especially photographs and digital media, will be strictly controlled, to sell a message of Russian military dominance and prevent scenes of carnage refuting claims of precision and compassion.
If a siege and capture looks out of Russia’s reach, then the alternative is to remain on the outskirts, using artillery and air power to pulverise the city into surrender.
Given the totemic value of Kyiv, and the difficulty of selling a war of liberation to the Russian population back home should pictures of devastation start leaking out, it is unlikely Russia will use overwhelming force – initially at least.
However, given that the assault on Berlin at the end of the Second World War required three Soviet army fronts totalling 2.5 million men and thousands of tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces, any attempt to fight building to building, street to street – which is what the Ukrainians are promising – will require much greater forces that Russia currently has available.