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In the professional military community, a major debate has been raging over the past several years, with occasional academics also weighing in on the subject: will urban terrain define future warfare or not; and is urban warfare exceptional, or not? Conventional thought regarding urban warfare concludes that to a substantial degree urban combat will define the future of warfare, and that it is the most difficult environment in which to fight, hence generally giving advantage to the defender. The revisionists contest both points, but particularly the latter, by arguing that cities do not represent exceptional terrain in which to fight, and actually favour the attacker over the defender.
The debate has certainly been influenced recently by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, whose actual course and operations seem to qualify various conclusions reached about 21st century urban combat and its strategic and operational prominence in warfare. From the on-going war, the battle of Bakhmut in particular appears to pose a distinct challenge to the conventional school by calling into question, to a certain degree, the assumed difficulty of urban warfare. If so, Bakhmut is likely to be a vital case study for research on 21st century urban warfare in the midst of a major conventional war.
Cities as Strategic Focal Points
The conventional school of thought on urban warfare holds that it will dominate future warfare. The two main reasons have been most clearly enunciated by Anthony King in his book and subsequent articles: first, cities are important as centres of transport infrastructure; second, he makes the historical claim that the urban environment has grown in importance as army size has shrunk, causing armies to focus operationally on the most important places (i.e., cities) at the expense of the comparatively empty and less important geographical spaces in-between. Why prolong the fight for less significant area when the urban prize is just a little bit further? This is also considered a fair consideration for the defender, as urban defence is believed to be advantageous. Yet certain analysts have tried to apply a brake on the momentum toward an urban focus by injecting a measure of critical thinking.
In principle, King’s claims are logically sound. Moreover, the early months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from 24 February 2022 until May/June 2022 onward appear to support, if not confirm, the logic. The capture of Melitopol with its nearby major railway junction early in the war has ever since been logistically crucial for Russian forces in the south. For both military and political reasons, the swift Russian capture of Kherson was a shock to Ukraine and its allies. Kharkiv’s defiance and the resulting indiscriminate (at best, deliberately targeting civilians at worst) Russian bombardment demonstrated that urban warfare can also settle simply into siege. Most crucially of all, several of Kyiv’s suburbs dominated headlines as Russian advances were blunted and ultimately sent reeling—Hostomel, Bucha, Irpin, and Brovary. Only isolated examples such as Chernihiv and Sumy suggested that, depending on strategic aims and operational context, the attacker might find that not all cities were equally worth fighting over.
Yet now given a longer-term perspective, this opening campaign hardly seems representative of the war and thereby reveals a notable and perhaps flawed assumption underpinning the conventional school of urban warfare – that one’s armed forces can in fact reach the city in question. Excepting the fast Russian advances of the early war and the stunning success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive east of Kharkiv (which liberated settlements of various sizes from Balakliya to Kup’yans’k, Izyum, and Lyman), this assumption may appear doubtful.
During the war’s first summer, the Russians did have to engage in some urban warfare in the east, in Rubizhne, Popasna, Severodonetsk, and Lysychans’k. Yet the direct conquest of these settlements reflected a pathetic result of a much larger operation which at the start appeared to involve encircling Ukraine’s entire eastern front, including also the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. It was Ukrainian defence in the open, rather than the closed, geographical spaces and terrain, which halted the Russian offensive. The urban fighting seen in summer 2022 reflected the failure of a grand Russian offensive which may have intended to avoid engaging in urban warfare altogether.
Nor has it been any better for the Ukrainians. The Russians fought hard in the open spaces in front of Kherson, but ultimately abandoned the city itself with hardly a fight. In Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive of 2023, never mind key urban centres such as Tokmak, let alone the larger and more distant Melitopol and Berdyans’k, the Ukrainian army has been largely stuck on villages such as Robotyne, Verbove, Klischiivka, and Andriivka, albeit still experiencing slow and careful success. The fighting has been in open or at best semi-urban terrain of substantial villages rather than in real cities.
Reaching cities to be able ultimately to fight in them may no longer be something to assume, without comment or reflection, as the conventional school currently does—certainly not in all contexts. If they can possibly avoid it, those who are fighting for cities prefer to fight for them as far forward in geography as possible rather than use them as strategic strongholds, which perhaps casts some light on their understanding of the tactical advantageousness of urban warfare. At least from the experience in Ukraine, King’s claim that even if urban warfare will not eclipse warfare in other terrains in the twenty-first century, then it will nonetheless predominate, may require some revisiting. Cities may yet dominate as key objectives, but ultimately experience comparatively little fighting because one of the warring armies may simply yet effectively prevent the other from reaching it.
Bakhmut and the Challenge of Urban Warfare
This line of thought engages the second dimension of the urban warfare debate: whether or not it is uniquely challenging. The revisionists have argued that the city is neutral and is not exceptional—it is essentially the same as any other terrain. If it has some particular features, these point to the suggestion that it is the defenders, rather than the attackers, who generally come off worse in urban warfare, particularly in casualty terms. The conventional school has challenged these arguments, seeking to reaffirm that urban warfare is exceptionally difficult.
The debate over whether or not urban warfare is exceptionally challenging assumes that we understand both normal warfare and normal urban warfare, so that we may use the former as a benchmark to gauge the exceptionality of the latter. On this point the revisionists suggest that the conventional school relies excessively on essentially narrative case studies of the most prominent cases of urban warfare, such as Stalingrad and Berlin, thereby reflecting selection bias in choice of cases.
For their part, the revisionists rely on quantitative data such as that presented by Christopher Lawrence, who sides with the revisionists in his own quantitative exploration of urban warfare in his quest to discover what normal warfare looks like quantitatively. Such quantitative data too has its weaknesses, also including selection bias: Lawrence’s quantitative data includes neither Stalingrad nor Berlin!
Good quality quantitative engagement with urban warfare requires substantial and finely detailed sources of numbers which often may simply be unavailable to the researcher; Lawrence’s quantitative treatment of the Italian campaign of 1943-45 ends abruptly in northern Italy as data of sufficient quality simply become nonexistent long before the campaign’s actual conclusion.
Moreover, by focusing on numbers, the quantitative approach as a rule decontextualises such numbers: the normal daily casualty ratio may appear normally to be x or y, but why? Is it because the close terrain limits the effectiveness of long-range weapons and vehicles? Or because the attackers slow down tactically in urban environments (the quantitative data also demonstrates that attackers’ daily rates of advance are lower inside than outside cities)? At some point, historical narrative must be injected into the analysis; quantitative methods alone take us only so far. Nonetheless, the quantitative data broadly appear to be more credible than the conventional school seems to prefer or admit.
This discussion leads inexorably to the case and problem of Bakhmut, the most prominent urban fight of the war. The broad outlines of the Russian offensive are both clear and crucial. The Russians ground their way forward from Popasna to Bakhmut, an effort spearheaded by Wagner, starting from 1 August 2022 and by February 2023 were threatening an encirclement of Bakhmut. So far, so clear, and unproblematic.
Yet in early March, the Russian attempt to encircle Bakhmut seemingly culminated and they abruptly abandoned their efforts to encircle the city in favour of getting stuck fighting inside the city itself. By the end of May, the Russians had essentially won the battle. Bakhmut was a conquered ruin, Wagner was pulling out of the city, and the Ukrainians were at best clinging to a few remnant bits by the T0504 highway. This urban battle is fully explicable to the revisionists, but poses a challenge to the conventional school of urban warfare. Why?
“Why?” is the operative question. If everything the conventional school asserts about the difficulty of urban warfare is true, then: Why did the Russians allow themselves to get sucked into the city? Why did they abandon the attempt to encircle the city, which presumably would have been the easier and less costly option? Why did they nonetheless win?
Trying to explain Russian decision-making can be both easy and difficult. Difficult because it is unclear just how well we understand, or can understand in the present moment, their tactical and operational decision-making. Decisions, especially involving both the Russian army and Wagner, often appeared to be politically fraught and such considerations may have played some role in Russia’s operational urban turn into Bakhmut. Perhaps the Russians simply made a mistake or a series of mistakes from which they could not easily withdraw; the war has been rife with Russian mistakes and it would be hardly surprising if Bakhmut constituted one as well.
Yet given Prigozhin’s emphasis on attriting Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, one wonders also how the Russians understand urban warfare. Do they believe that urban warfare is exceptionally difficult, the belief which is prevalent in Western armed forces? Do they adhere to more revisionist perspectives which suggest that the attacker may actually achieve more favourable casualty ratios inside than outside cities, or some third opinion? And on what basis do they hold such an opinion? I know of no Anglophone research which explores actual Russian thinking on urban warfare, but the question matters not just for understanding the Russians but also for shedding another perspective onto our own thinking about the urban fight. What do the Russians consider normal in (urban) warfare?
Even explaining away the turn into Bakhmut, this merely leads to the second and third whys: why abandon the encirclement, and why did the Russians win? The second why, again, concerns Russian decision-making and reflects Russian thinking on fighting in both urban and comparatively open terrain, with their comparative advantages and disadvantages. To answer such a question requires an awareness of Russian understanding of normal warfare and normal urban warfare. The third why appears to pose the greatest challenge for the conventional school: why did the Russians win? The narrative, undoubtedly mostly true, would emphasise Wagner’s endless supply of prisoners which were fed into the maelstrom, supported by Wagner artillery, which in turn was sustained by Prigozhin’s apparent ability to blackmail arguably disproportionate amounts of ammunition from the Russian Ministry of Defence. Moreover, we simply do not—and for a long, long time, probably will not—have access to good enough numbers to construct credible quantitative analyses of the battle in Bakhmut.
Moreover, the amount of workforce and firepower support Wagner received is certainly enough to explain the outcome. But, given the conventional school’s tenet that urban warfare is substantially harder than combat in the field, such support would probably have also sufficed to allow Wagner to encircle Bakmut successfully. Instead, Wagner apparently failed to encircle and definitively abandoned the attempt rather than reinforced it, turning instead to a long and difficult urban fight. The Russians choose a course of action which, according to the conventional school of urban warfare, would presumably be clearly wrong; but they succeeded, albeit at high cost both to themselves and the city itself when presumably with the same resources they should have been able to complete the encirclement and avoid the urban fighting altogether. It’s a question of operational options.
Most research on the battle of Bakhmut so far appears to focus on the urban tactical rather than the operational. By contextualising urban warfare within the context of distinct operational choices and apparent outcomes made prior to the actual attack into the city itself, the case of Bakhmut appears to pose a challenge to the conventional school of urban warfare.
As the saying goes, I have no dog in this fight regarding urban warfare (but I do elsewhere make arguments which not only lean toward the conventional rather than revisionist understanding of urban warfare, but which are also partially challenged by the urban revisionism). Both sides of the urban warfare debate appear to be credible on certain issues in certain contexts and less convincing at other times. Yet if Bakhmut is considered in its broader specific operational context rather than decontextualised simply as a case of urban warfare, this battle seems to challenge directly or indirectly one of the key tenets of the conventional school of urban warfare.
The operational context and the choice to abandon encircling the city in favour of driving straight into it—and winning the battle that way instead of by encirclement—just does not seem to add up. For this reason, Bakhmut, perhaps more than any of the other urban battles (so far) in Ukraine since the Russian invasion of 2022 not just deserves, but requires, the most thorough study.
Cover photo: By Mil.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=129437295
Lukas Milevski is a (tenured) assistant professor at Leiden University, where he teaches strategic studies in the BA International Studies and MA International Relations programmes. He has published widely on strategy, including two books with Oxford University Press: The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (2016) and The West’s East: Contemporary Baltic Defense in Strategic Perspective (2018).