How could Ukrainian civilians defend themselves in an urban environment?

An expert in urban warfare has taken to social media to share his expertise on how Ukrainian civilians could resist Russian forces as Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged his citizens to come forward to defend the country.

John Spencer, a retired US Army Major who now serves as a Colonel in the California State Guard, and who is Chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute, West Point, posted a series of tweets on February 26 with advice for civilian resistors in Ukraine, in particular the country's capital, Kyiv.

Forces News has explored how civilians might be able to use the tactics of urban warfare after Colonel Spencer directly addressed Ukrainian people "with no military training but wanting to resist", saying: "You have the power, but you have to fight smart. 

"The urban defense is hell for any soldier."

Col Spencer took to social media as battles intensified for control of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.

His words come as the United States was reportedly debating whether or not to support armed Ukrainian resistance, with some reports suggesting that some officials were urging caution, fearing that such a move could bring the US into a wider war with Russia, raising tensions even further between America and Russia.

Kyiv has a population of about three million. Col Spencer believes that if the adults of the capital mobilise and make Russian forces fear that a gun could be aiming out of every window and that every street is a death trap, they could make Kyiv or the other cities into "massive porcupines" that can successfully go up against any soldier, no matter how advanced.

Col Spencer also warned civilians in Ukraine to be mindful of their own health and safety, saying: "Take care of yourselves to be able to resist.

"Drink water. 3 days without water and you won't be able to fight."

Speaking with Forces News, Col Spencer said: "War is politics so the goal is to get them to stop politically so you can make them pay such a big price that the Russian nation says enough is enough."

What is the most effective method Ukrainian citizens could use to disrupt the Russian advance? 

The main advice Col Spencer wants Ukrainian citizens to pay attention to is to use whatever they have available to them to block roads. 

If Russian troops cannot get where they need to go or are delayed in doing so, that is only going to benefit Ukraine. 

Col Spencer said: "You can block any road with obstacles, so trash, stones, dirt, park a bus. 

"All those heavy, heavy vehicles can stop a tank. 

"Just doing … it will grind a military to a dead stop. 

"Block all bridges. Bridges are critical because no military can cross the waterway without a bridge." 

This video, posted to Twitter on February 26, appears to show a Ukrainian driver stopping alongside a Russian tank that has run out of fuel. 

Col Spencer believes "this is winning", saying: "Another example of how just blocking roads, slowing convoys down, causing them to burn gas. 

"Armor needs a lot of gas. A tank out of gas is a dead tank." 

What could be done to protect routes that are needed to bring in much-needed supplies? 

Russian military vehicles would want to move as fast as possible in Ukraine to reduce the chance of being hit, so slowing them down would be an effective tactic in urban warfare.

Col Spencer talks about creating a serpentine checkpoint to slow down oncoming vehicles, saying: "If you've ever driven through a checkpoint … they make the car wind through a series of obstacles - that's called the S pattern. 

"It allows you to leave it open and it's a checkpoint."

How could armed civilians use the urban terrain to their advantage? 

Col Spencer wrote an article for the Modern War Institute in December 2021 in which he suggested there were eight rules of urban warfare.  

Rule number one is that the urban defender has the advantage. The civilians defending their cities, towns and villages know the battleground far better than their enemy. The ones defending themselves can prepare for and see the attacker coming. 

Anyone defending where they live has the upper hand when it comes to knowledge of the area.

That means they would likely know shortcuts to get around their city or town and places they might feel safe and protected. 

As Col Spencer explains, ensure they are covered at all times: "Don't just stand in the open and shoot at a tank because that's just going to go really bad."

He also suggested that finding a building that is made of sturdy materials like concrete or stone was a key strategy and staying away from structures that could burn easily like wood, or shatter if made of glass. 

He suggests another aspect of urban warfare was to make a plan and prepare for where to go after fighting the enemy to take shelter or refuge. Col Spencer said: "Find a concrete structure or a rubble pile to shoot from and plan where you going to shoot from. 

"That way you can shoot and then get away if that's part of the plan. 

"But you have to think about that in advance and it gives you more of - again, a lot of this is mental – you've got to have this feeling that you are protected as well."

How effective are Molotov cocktails? 

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar wrote a Facebook post on February 25 asking the country's civilians to resist and make homemade weapons saying: "This is our land.  

"We will not hand her over." 

Meanwhile, reports suggest that the number of Ukrainians searching online for "how to make a Molotov cocktail" have increased, while one man even called New York public radio station WNYC, to offer his advice on how to make the improvised bomb. 

Molotov cocktails are improvised bombs comprised of glass bottles filled with a flammable liquid like petrol and a fuse made of combustible material. 

They can cause a lot of damage, even to an armoured vehicle if, when thrown, the Molotov cocktail lands in the right place. Col Spencer explains: "If you got the Molotov cocktail into [the engine area of a tank] or up front where the driver has to see through ... it's going to cause some damage, slow them down." 

In further tweets, Col Spencer recommended the use of razor wire as an effective way to slow down or completely halt wheeled vehicles. 

He also explained that what "puts fear in the hearts of soldiers" is having to look up. It means they take their eyes off their surroundings, putting them at risk of being shot by a sniper or ambushed.

He encourages Ukrainians to get the drones they may have previously used for taking photos of local wildlife and get them into the sky, saying: "[It's] the fear of the unknown. 

"Is that a killer drone? Is artillery coming next? 

"Russians seem [to] be lacking basic electoric [sic] warfare/anti-drone capabilities. Fly them at them."

In a separate interview with Forces News, Armed Forces Minister James Heappey has warned UK nationals not to go to Ukraine to help fight the Russian invasion.

Former Army officer Mr Heappey reiterated that UK nationals "for whatever reason shouldn't be travelling to Ukraine".

Cover image: Smoke rises over Ukraine's capital, Kyiv (Picture: Ukrinform / Alamy Live News).

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