Uneven performance in Ukraine suggests that Russia's costly military modernization leaves much to be desired. Of its tactics in urban warfare, past might be prologue. Russia may reprise its brutal attacks in Grozny in the 1990s and Aleppo in 2015, but they could be less effective or riskier in Ukraine. Its determination to resist is strong, and the West is supplying an impressive array of advanced weaponry and intelligence support.
In recent decades Russia has fought two tragic wars in its North Caucasian republic of Chechnya. In December 1994 Russian forces expected an easy and swift victory. Instead, they needed three months of intense fighting to take the capital, Grozny. In May 1997 after some 100,000 deaths, President Boris Yeltsin and a Chechen leader signed a provisional peace treaty, and Russian forces departed.
In December 1999, then–Prime Minister Vladimir Putin began a second war justified largely on a series of terrorist attacks which some experts believe were a false flag operation. This campaign emphasized massive strikes on Grozny from heavy artillery and multiple rocket launchers. Nearly a decade later, Moscow announced an end to the war and installed a draconian pro-Kremlin leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Ukraine's determination to resist is strong, and the West is supplying an impressive array of advanced weaponry and intelligence support.Share on Twitter
In 2015 Putin resorted to a similar tactic to turn the military tide in favor of strongman Bashar Assad during Syria's civil war. Following the play book in Chechnya, Russia used TU-22M Backfire medium bombers to conduct “carpet bombing” of Aleppo. Salafi jihadist and other anti-Assad rebels had no air defenses. Even though such bombardment may be an international war crime, it helped quell the anti-Assad insurgency. Over one million Syrians were driven north into eastern Turkey. From there many moved en masse to Europe, helping to destabilize the political equilibrium of some European states, including Hungary and Germany. Moscow scored a geostrategic win.
Russia may use a similar approach against Ukraine's cities. Its air defenses include a variant of the potent S-300 family of high-altitude air defense systems, a plethora of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles deadly at lower altitudes, and a small fleet of Soviet-era fighter jets. Against the cities, Russia can employ a large arsenal of heavy artillery, multiple rocket launchers, Iskander (SS-26) precision-guided short-range ballistic missiles, and long-range cruise missiles. Its counter-city campaign may aim to drive out remaining civilians and collapse the capacity and will of Ukrainian defenders to resist any military occupation.
If Ukraine's medium- and high-altitude air defenses were rendered ineffective, the Russians could use their medium bomber fleet to complement the mass use of tube and rocket artillery. Russia may use aerial support in part because its ground forces are subject to fierce Ukrainian counterfires and aerial attacks, such as by Turkish TB-2 drones armed with precision-guided munitions. Ukrainian stay-behind forces could interdict ammunition and supplies bound for the indirect fire forces.
Political and military risks may be greater to the Kremlin today. Wars in Chechnya and Syria failed to spur even a modicum of pressure for regime change in Moscow. Public support (PDF) for the Chechen wars, especially following the Salafi jihadist terror campaign and high-profile terror attacks in Russia proper, cut across domestic political cleavages. Public protests were largely muted.
The same was true for the Syrian intervention, with its low cost in Russian lives and treasure. Many observers see it as a military success. But in Syria, the U.S. government and its Arab allies provided only limited military aid to various and competing rebel factions.
Aggression is turning Russia into a pariah in the West.Share on Twitter
The war in Ukraine, however, has galvanized sanctions that might shatter much of Russia's economy. Aggression is turning Russia into a pariah in the West.
If fighting persists despite Ukraine's dogged resistance, Russia might bring more forces to bear, including fighters from the Middle East and Africa. But protracted fighting could advantage Ukrainian resisters if Russian forces tire or lose heart, as seems apparent of late. Or Russia could dig in and attempt to decimate Kyiv, as it did Grozny and Aleppo.
Other outcomes are possible. In Russia, economic devastation along with high casualties and military setbacks in Ukraine could stir popular unrest or elite maneuvering. A combination of stresses could bring down the Putin regime or build pressure in Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine. Absent a full withdrawal, the West is likely to maintain sanctions so punishing that they effectively undermine the power and legitimacy of any Kremlin rulers.
Colin P. Clarke is a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center and associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and U.S.-USSR negotiations to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. Peter Wilson is an adjunct international/defense researcher at RAND.
This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on March 26, 2022. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.