A building on fire after Russia bombed the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022. The economic toll from the invasion is being felt worldwide. Photo: Fox News / Screengrab

Russia has stepped up its sieges of two major Ukrainian cities and will eventually launch major attacks on a pair of others in the hope of subduing unexpectedly tenacious resistance to its invasion. The Russians can undoubtedly succeed in conquering the cities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has scores of armored vehicles and some 300,000 troops at his command, with scores of jet bombers controlling the skies along with warships in the Black Sea. All that is arrayed against the much smaller Ukrainian army and its maybe 20 jet fighters. 

The United States and its European allies have sent arms to Ukraine, but have so far expressed no desire to confront the Russian invasion with armies of their own.

Nonetheless, Ukrainian soldiers and allied militias have been able to slow Russian advances. That has forced Russian commanders to contemplate the downside of invading a city with its warrens of streets hiding determined enemies. 

Russia started its campaign of conquest by trying to take Kharkiv in the east. The country’s second-largest city, it was supposed to be easy prey as it is home to a large ethnic-Russian population. But Moscow’s forces have had to step up bombardments in an effort to soften up resistance.

On Thursday, Russia heavily shelled the Black Sea port city of Mariupol in preparation for an invasion. It is defended by both the Ukrainian army and a nationalist militia known as the Azov Civil Corps. 

Meanwhile, a forty-mile-long convoy of tanks and armored vehicles await on a road north of Kiev, the capital, which has endured periodic bombing and fighting on its outskirts. In the south, Russian ships are heading to Odessa, the country’s largest Black Sea port.

Safety corridors

In effect, Moscow’s troops are having to turn to heavy bombardments on land and from the air to terrify cities into submission. The difficulties may explain why Russian negotiators met with Ukrainian officials on Thursday on the border of Belarus and tried to persuade them to establish safety corridors for refugees from besieged cities.

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on February 24, 2022, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an invasion of the country. Photo: Screengrab / VCG

A civilian exodus would make the urban areas free zones. It was a tactic used in the 1999-2000 war against the breakaway province of Chechnya in Russia. To take the capital city of Grozny, Russia first shelled and bombed to provide a taste of the horrific possibilities to come.

Then, they set up a civilian exit route, let refugees flee and then unleashed even heavier bombardments. Insurgents were either killed or fled under the cover of darkness.   

Russia is also hiding its further escalation and mayhem from public view by shutting down the few remaining independent media outlets operating in the country.

So far, Moscow has put Russian deaths in the low hundreds and Ukrainian fatalities in the thousands; Ukrainian numbers are the mirror opposite – thousands of Russian dead and a few hundred Ukrainians killed. 

If and when Russia sweeps the country, the question will turn quickly to how Putin will maintain control of the Ukrainian population of 40 million. In small localities already under Russian control, crowds of citizens have tried to block convoys with their bodies; a video showed a man lying on a street to hinder the passage of an armored personnel carrier.

Sieges by powerful invaders can take surprising twists and turns. In 1998 and 1999, the United States and allies routed Serbian forces from the breakaway region of Kosovo using air power.

For several weeks, the allies had trouble finding Serbian military targets to hit; the Serbians were good at playing hide-and-seek and creatively designing decoys that NATO happily bombed.

The Serbian experience

US commander Wesley Clark tried to entice Kosovar separatists to join the fray on the ground to get the Serbs out from hiding. They eventually did, but only after the Americans had already weakened the resolve of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic by bombing Belgrade and other Serbian cities.

Some of the bombings were scandalous: the allies hit the Chinese Embassy, Serbia’s radio and television headquarters and a civilian train on a bridge near the town of Nis. Ten people died. In 1999, the Serbs left Kosovo, which later declared itself an independent state. 

Sometimes, even successful sieges plant the seeds of subsequent disaster. In 1982, Israel besieged Lebanon’s capital Beirut for three months. The Israelis wanted to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquartered there.

Israel’s air force freely bombed the city and its ships shelled it. Pilots went on aerial Arafat-hunts trying to kill him by bombing in and around the Beirut neighborhood of Fakhani, where the PLO was headquartered. The effort failed.

The most scandalous target of the campaign was a hospital. Israel did not get charged with war crimes. Its army left Beirut and occupied southern Lebanon.

But the assaults on Beirut and the occupation of the south helped engender support for Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militia backed by Iran. Eighteen years after the 1982 war, Hezbollah, using guerrilla tactics and roadside bombs, expelled the Israelis from South Lebanon.

In Washington and European capitals, there is talk of aiding some sort of Ukrainian resistance if Russia takes the whole country.

Putin has already hinted that the move would be dangerous. He said Thursday, as he has repeatedly in the past, that he considers Ukraine a part of Russia. So, by that logic, aiding insurgents would be an assault on Russia itself.

He has already put his nuclear forces on alert over unfriendly statements by NATO officials. What would he do if the West supported an uprising in Ukraine that Russia considers its own?

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.