The War Against Ukraine's Cities
Kyiv, a capital city under siege, falters under the dangers of urbicide. As the victor emerges, so too does a new world order.
A month ago, the city of Kyiv was characterized as an emerging, innovative, smart, green, livable, and student-friendly place—a rising global star among European cities. In the New York Times less than a year ago, writer Rosa Lyster explained how she fell in love with this vibrant, cool, affordable, and accessible city.
“The difference between a city and a person is that a city can’t love you back, but Kyiv frequently gives the impression that it is trying, in that it instantly repays whatever attention you might lavish upon it. It is a city of hidden courtyards and underpasses and bars that you come across by mistake, all of which enables a sense of personal ownership over discoveries everyone has already made.”
Today, Kyiv is a city in war, facing possible annihilation.
In recent years, Western military strategists have increasingly started to perceive cities and urban terrain as unavoidable in warfare. As Russian forces close in on Kiev, and as rockets and artillery fall heavily over cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol, it has become painstakingly clear that cities are not merely unavoidable, but the primary objective and target of Russia’s military. A strategic and operational goal of the Russian invasion is almost certainly to take control over Kyiv and other key cities in Ukraine.
While cities and warfare have been intimately connected throughout history, one of the most basic principles in traditional military theory dating back to Sun Tzu in the fourth century BC is that cities should be avoided in warfare. Machiavelli famously warned against pursuing wars in cities already in 1520, in The Art of War. However, in the past, cities more or less could be avoided, and the preference was that wars be fought and won on rural fields. This is because urban war zones are exceptionally challenging to military tactics, communications, and weaponry. They are associated with low performance and high costs.
But as the world becomes increasingly urbanized, concentrating not only increasing numbers of people, but also political, financial social and cultural power, military strategists have come to perceive cities as the battlefield of the future.
In Ukraine, the future is already here. It seems increasingly clear that important strategic and tactical advantages will come with the possession or control of certain key cities, especially Kyiv as the capital. The denial or capture of certain cities may determine the outcome of the entire conflict. Whoever holds control of Kyiv will have profound consequences not only for Ukraine, but for all of Europe—and perhaps even for the entire global postwar “rules-based order.” Therefore, Ukrainians are not only fighting their own fight, they have also united western nations behind a message of democracy, human rights, and the right to self-rule.
Putin is now caught in a very difficult dilemma, because in war, the city is known as “the great equalizer.” A dense settlement has always been a more defensible place than an isolated and rurally scattered settlement. For example, ancient and even prehistoric peoples sought to establish safe zones by building defensive city walls. In modern warfare, urban terrain gives a defending force considerable advantages: it reduces surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of the attacking force, and it forces the attacker into close combat where artillery and tanks cannot be used efficiently. The density and complexity of the built environment means that the defender can turn the city into a fortress and a death trap by fighting the enemy from the front, from behind, from windows above, and even from below – all from positions concealed behind the cover of concrete. If it comes down to a street-by-street and building-by-building fight, and even if there is nothing left but irregular forces and civilian resistance, the Ukrainians could still persist against a superior conventional Russian army.
The bad news, as pointed out by military historian Sir Antony Beevor, is that in such urban wars, “Victory eludes each side and urban conflict becomes a chronic part of life for millions of people.”
Alternatively, Putin may instead continue on what seems to be his chosen path of a medieval siege strategy: encircling the cities, cutting off their supplies, and starving out their people while he continues to escalate indirect fire attacks and airstrikes, primarily against civilian targets. Putin has high incentives to use any means necessary to gain control over Kyiv, while his incentives to keep the city itself intact or its citizens secure seems rather low. Turning cities into piles of rubble does not seem to be a problem for Putin, if that is what it takes for him to gain control. He has done it before, in Grozny – a city that became known as the most destroyed city on earth. The city of Mariupol is well on its way, as civilians are already starving to death and 90 percent of the city’s buildings have been destroyed.
Such targeting of Ukraine’s cities themselves represents a distinct form of political violence, and it has a name: urbicide. Notions of “collateral damage” take us nowhere near an understanding of what is now taking place in Ukrainian cities. Urbicide is not simply about the devastating impact of urban wars, nor merely about the city as a theater of violence. Putin’s ongoing urbicide represents a particular form of purposeful violence in and against cities, where the city and urbanity itself is the strategic target. Cities have often been targeted by authoritarians, not just for their tactical value, but also because of what they represent: tolerance, cosmopolitanism, intellectual life, heterogeneity, diversity, and democracy. Putin deeply fears and hates that, because “Stadtluft macht frei”: city air makes you free.