THE RUSSIAN attack on Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, in December 1994 was like “a great iron hand swooping down from the sky and crushing and tearing to pieces innocent people at random,” wrote Anatol Lieven, a journalist who was in the city at the time. The highest rate of fire in Sarajevo, during the Bosnian war, was 3,500 shells per day; the figure in Grozny reached 4,000 per hour. “Every morning when we got up,” recalled Mr Lieven, “a malign giant had taken another bite out of the familiar streets.”
The great iron hand is now back, and it is devouring the streets of Ukraine. After botched attempts to seize Kharkiv with small detachments, Russia began bombarding the city with shells, rockets and cluster munitions—which release small bomblets over a wide area—on Monday, inflicting heavy civilian casualties. On the morning of March 1st a missile struck Freedom Square, the centre of the city, outside government offices, causing a huge fireball. Oleh Synehubov, the head of the regional government, called it a “treacherous war crime”. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, called it “naked terror”. The mayor of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, said his city was being “pounded” with shells, rockets and air strikes. And British defence intelligence reported that Russia had increased its use of artillery north of Kyiv and in Chernihiv, a city north-east of the capital. Kyiv itself was hit, but not as heavily as had been feared.
Russia’s resort to artillery and missile fire is unsurprising. Indirect fire—hitting a target which is not in your line of sight—has been an integral part of warfare for centuries. But in the 1990s and 2000s, many Western armies began substituting precision-guided munitions for traditional artillery. Russia hung on to its guns. “Artillery has long held pride of place in the Tsarist and Soviet ground forces and [that continues] today,” wrote Lester Grau and Charles Bartles, experts on Russian military power, in a paper in 2018. Russia has almost 5,000 artillery weapons, ranging from field artillery that needs to be towed, self-propelled howitzers like the Msta, multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) like the Grad, Uragan and Smerch, and longer-range missiles like the Iskander, which can travel up to 500km.
More importantly, the ratio of artillery to other units in its combat formations is unusually high. An American brigade combat team, of around 4,000 soldiers, would have one battalion of artillery. An equivalent Russian brigade would have two battalions of self-propelled artillery, one of rocket artillery and one of anti-tank artillery (missiles are controlled by higher formations). The idea, as one US Army study of Russian forces puts it, is to produce “mass fires”—a term of art that refers, essentially, to bombardment—“to destroy hectares of enemy-occupied territory”, with the aim of stunning and softening up defenders.
Destroying hectares of open territory—“deleting” a grid square, as the morbid military slang goes—can be useful if the territory in question is a field full of enemy troops and not much else. Wiping out hectares of a city is another matter. Russia’s first assault on Grozny destroyed much of the city and killed 20,000 civilians. Its second attempt, launched by Vladimir Putin in 1999, caused fewer casualties—Russia had told civilians to leave–but the aftermath was described by UN monitors as “a devastated…wasteland”. As one young Russian officer told a reporter at the time: “What rules? What Geneva Conventions?…I didn’t sign them, none of my friends signed them.”
Russia got another taste of urban warfare, from a different perspective, when it intervened in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, in 2015. That intervention was conducted largely with air power, with ground forces playing a limited role. But its effects were not dissimilar. Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, accused the Russian-Syrian coalition of killing more than 440 civilians during a month-long bombing campagn in Aleppo, a city in north-western Syria, between September and October 2016 alone. In one 12-hour period in May 2019, Russia’s air force allegedly bombed four hospitals in the region. In total, Russia may have killed between 14,000 and 24,000 civilians in Syria between 2015 and 2021, according to Airwars, an investigative group that tracks civilian harm in wars.
In one sense, indiscriminate violence worked. Rebels no longer pose a serious threat to the Assad regime’s grip on power in Damascus. Russian forces captured Grozny, or what was left of it, in February 2000 and Mr Putin declared direct rule from Moscow and installed his chosen leader in the province in the following months. In 2009 Russia declared the end of its “counter-terrorism operation” in Chechnya. Yet a few lessons stand out.
One is that bombarding a city is not a strategy in itself. “The Russians expected artillery and air strikes to lead to a decisive victory and had no contingency plans,” concludes one study of the second battle of Grozny by the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, in 2001. Troops ultimately had to go in. Things can also drag on. The first battle for Grozny lasted two months or so and the second for six weeks, in a city far smaller than Kyiv. And whether it makes sense for the Russians to destroy a city they intend to capture and govern from is another matter. In Chechnya Mr Putin solved the problem by picking a warlord and throwing money at the province to rebuild it. “I don’t know how that works in Ukraine where there are no warlords,” says Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group, another think-tank, who wrote the RAND study. “I have a hard time seeing a Chechen scenario working.”
In theory, Russia has more refined means at its disposal. In the second Chechen war, around 13% of targets, for artillery and air strikes, were found through electronic warfare—hoovering up the emissions of things like mobile phones and radios. Now there are better ways to hoover them up, and to strike with greater precision. One example of that comes from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which Russia first invaded in 2014 and where it has since armed and supported proxy forces. Russian forces there have used the Leer-3 electronic-warfare system, essentially a command post in a truck which controls Orlan-10 drones. The drones can pick out wireless communications and send their co-ordinates back to artillery. Most of the drones fly too high to be struck by the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles being supplied to Ukrainian troops by Western countries.
That is the theory, at least. There has been little sign of Russian drone reconnaissance in the first six days of the Ukraine war. And even with such sophisticated methods, Russia’s targeting principles are “very different” from those of NATO countries, says Sam Cranny-Evans of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank in London. Western armed forces, he says, typically need two to three “positive identifications” of a target before it can be struck. “We can’t say the same of the Russians.” On March 1st Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, warned that Mr Putin’s instinct would be to “Grozny-fy” Kyiv. Indeed Russia’s recent strikes in Kharkiv and other cities show little sign of any effort to identify enemy forces at all. “It’s hard to square the use of cluster munitions in a city, where there are no military targets in that area,” says Mr Cranny-Evans, “with anything other than trying to inflict terror.”
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