A country’s discredited army advances into a breakaway region to retake control. The army engages the foreign supported “terrorist” force, and that force then pulls back to the capital to use the populace as a shield. The army moves in, surrounds the city and sets up its artillery.
This narrative could describe Donetsk in eastern Ukraine today or Grozny in Chechnya in 1999. In both cases, advancing government armies were tarnished by previous embarrassing defeats, had an arsenal of Soviet weapons designed for wide destruction rather than accuracy and faced political pressure to get results fast.
The difference could lie in what happens after the city in question is surrounded. In Ukraine, Donetsk’s future depends on whether a political solution can be found quickly enough to avoid a siege.
In 1999, then–Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent in the Russian army to revoke the independence Chechnya gained — to Russia’s embarrassment — in the first Chechen war, from December 1994 through August 1996. His pretext: Chechen forces had moved into a neighboring Russian region. Around the same time, Russian authorities in Moscow attributed a series of deadly bombings to Chechens.
Russian forces obliterated Grozny, Chechnya’s biggest city. This was Putin’s military debut, and he took no chances and laid down heavy fire to make sure fighters were killed with little regard for civilians remaining in the city. The strategy worked but left Grozny in tatters.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is under similar pressure to get results after the Ukrainian military’s chaotic collapse and retreat from Crimea in March. Moving rapidly into eastern Ukraine, the country’s forces have pushed back separatists and encircled the largest city in rebel-controlled territory — the regional capital, Donetsk. Separatists have pulled back into the city, and the Ukrainian army has encircled it to cut off rebel supplies and to take control of the crash sites of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down on July 17, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists.
The military tactics employed in the Grozny and Donetsk conflicts are eerily similar. Grad rockets — “grad” means “hail” in Russian — were a staple of Soviet artillery meant to blow holes in advancing tank lines that could then be exploited by ground forces. Both Ukraine and Russia, the supplier of separatist arms, have extensive stockpiles of them. Used in the destruction of Grozny, the rockets are now being used heavily in eastern Ukraine.
Sensing what is coming, civilians have been fleeing Donetsk, and Poroshenko has ordered the creation of evacuation corridors. But as in Grozny, despite the corridors, some residents are unable or unwilling to leave.
If Ukraine moves to take Donetsk, the consequences for the city’s remaining civilians, just as in Grozny, will be devastating.
Poroshenko has pledged not to engage in urban warfare to root out separatists who have moved into Donetsk and other larger cities. According to a Human Rights Watch report released on July 24, however, that pledge is not being kept. The Ukrainian army has continued to fire the unguided Grad rockets into separatist held cities. So far, Ukrainian authorities have not acknowledged that any of the more than 1,000 civilian casualties in the east were caused by the Ukrainian army. With Donetsk now regularly being shelled those claims are doubtful at best.
The growing use of grad rockets as the conflict moves into an urban stage of the conflict is worrying because of the way they were designed. “It’s an area saturation weapon,” explains Dodge Billingsley, who embedded with Chechen fighters during the second Chechen war and is the director of Combat Films and Research, a military research center. “It is a terrible thing in an urban environment because it is indiscriminate. It just kills in a box. Russians used them against Chechnya, and the Chechens, when they captured them, used them against Russia.”
Beyond military hardware, Grozny and Donetsk are also linked by the Soviet schools of strategy still being employed by commanders. “There is a Russian way of warfare, which you see a lot more in the [Chechen] ’99 war and which you also see in Georgia, that tends to privilege artillery a lot,” says Olga Oliker, senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corp. and author of “Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994–2000: Lessons From Urban Combat.” “All of these people — the Ukrainians, the Russians, the separatists — are going to have a tendency to encircle and bombard.”
Such tactics not only result in high civilian casualties and extensive destruction but also create long-term animosity toward the government and military in the area attacked. In Chechnya, putting Chechens in charge after the 1999 war and pouring cash into the region mitigated some of that animosity. In Ukraine it’s unclear where funds for rebuilding would come from.
Officially, both President Barack Obama and Putin oppose a siege of cities in eastern Ukraine. In a speech last week, Obama said the crisis could be resolved only by negotiations. Putin has made similar remarks. Serious negotiations, however, have yet to materialize, and tensions continue to grow, with the U.S. and the European Union imposing new sanctions against Russia.
With no peaceful solution in sight and with Russian arms still pouring over the border, Donetsk and other cities in eastern Ukraine are a potential liability for the country as well as a tempting prize for its political and military leaders. With each passing day without a diplomatic resolution, the temptation for Ukraine to take Donetsk grows. The military will likely rely heavily on brute force. If Ukraine gives in to temptation and moves to take Donetsk, the consequences for the city’s remaining civilians, just as in Grozny, will be devastating. It is a decision that would be made in haste from no good options and would have lasting negative effects for the region and country.