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Hell and high water: When high-tech bows to age-old tactics in Ukraine war

Attempts to defend Kyiv by flood date to at least the 17th century.
Kyiv Independent
The villagers of Demydiv are being credited with saving Kyiv from what could have been a decisive attack after they flooded their own neighbourhoods and surrounding fields in the weeks after Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

With Russian designs on the capital of almost three million now all but abandoned, the village of fewer than 2,500 is still cleaning up wet basements, soggy carpets and the saturated fields that had formed a quagmire the invaders—with all their technology, tanks and heavy tracked vehicles—could not cross.

The tactic, whereby locals and Ukrainian army engineers opened a dam on the Dnieper River, is almost as old as war itself and created something of a welcome disaster for Demydiv and environs.

Turning the approaches and a main road to Kyiv into a swamp, it thwarted an armoured assault on the capital and bought Ukrainian forces precious time to mount a co-ordinated defence, even as local residents navigated village streets in inflatable boats.

“Everybody understands and nobody regrets it for a moment,” retiree Antonina Kostuchenko told the New York Times from her musty, water-stained living room.

“We saved Kyiv!”

A lone resident makes their way along the flooded streets of Demydiv.
Twitter
Water has been a weapon of war at least since Mesopotamian city-states diverted Tigris and Euphrates river waters in clashes over fertile soil and irrigation almost 5,000 years ago. Four thousand years later, Hulagu, destroyer of medieval Baghdad, used Tigris flood waters to trap caliph horsemen outside the city walls.

H2O has been used throughout history, including in both world wars and since, to stall, entrap and overwhelm armies. It’s even been adapted as a form of biological warfare, creating fertile breeding areas for disease-carrying insects designed to bring down an army.

Soaked-earth tactics like those used around Demydiv were employed in the defence of Kyiv against the Nazis during the Second World War and against foreign empires in the 17th century.

Flooding in and around the village of Demydiv north of Kyiv helped save Ukraine’s capital from a potentially decisive Russian attack in March.
Twitter

The Russian offensive was expected to be over in days.

Crossing the Russian and Belarussian borders into Ukraine on Feb. 24, Vladimir Putin’s forces, 180,000-strong, were bent on taking Kyiv. They captured several towns and villages early on and some mechanized infantry units advanced to within 32 kilometres of the capital.

But the Russians were soon mired in supply and logistics problems—critical shortages of essentials such as food, fresh water, warm clothing and ammunition were compromising the entire enterprise. This was partly thanks to a campaign by Belarussian resistance, including hackers, dissident railway workers and security forces who disrupted indispensable railway operations in neighbouring Belarus.

The Russian offensive was expected to be over in days. But, aided by the rerouted waters around Demydiv, where seven locals were killed during a brief and brutal occupation by Russian forces, it has continued now for more than three months.

The war has inspired widespread Ukrainian enlistment by rank-and-file citizens, who have helped to mount a courageous and innovative defence against an army that was thought to be superior in virtually every way.

Dozens of destroyed or damaged Russian armored vehicles are strewn along both banks of the Siverskyi Donets River after Ukrainian artillery strikes.
Ukrainian military
In Demydiv, Russians mined the local cemetery, poisoned wells and looted local shops. Among its dead was Vyacheslav Davidenko, a 39-year-old veteran who volunteered to help defend the village.

The last time his 72-year-old mother Lubou saw him was the day after the war began, when he left the family home with a rucksack filled with homemade petrol bombs—the notorious Molotov cocktails that have fuelled resistances since the Spanish Civil War.

Local Red Cross officials found Davidenko’s body in the garden of a burnt-out house, a plastic bag wrapped around his head, which the London Telegraph reported bore a bullet wound. Fingers on both his hands had been broken.

With their independence—indeed, their very lives—at stake, Ukrainians of every stripe have been fully invested their country’s defence. In an open letter posted on social media, Nazar Rozlutsky, a PhD historian and author of six books, described serving in his newly adopted role as a junior sergeant in the Ukrainian army.

“Every day we engage in artillery duels, in which one successful strike by an enemy will turn us into mince,” he wrote, describing the squalor, sacrifices and suffering of life on the front line. “We are a priority target for the enemy. And they can try to wipe us out in different ways, at any moment.

Russian armour lies destroyed after Russian troops were caught out trying to ford the Siverskyi Donets River.
Ukrainian military

“But they all continue to fight. Because Ukraine is behind them.”

“Thousands of historians, writers, accountants, bankers, IT specialists, teachers, designers and representatives of other completely peaceful professions in Ukraine have found themselves in these conditions, if not in more drastic ones. They are being killed with 152mm artillery and Tochka-U missile launchers. Bullets, VOG (grenades), clusters and phosphorus ammunition flies at them. Some…have already died. And some will never return to their profession because they have burned out.

“But they all continue to fight. Because Ukraine is behind them. Because if they lay down their arms, their parents will be killed, their wives and daughters will be raped, and their homes will be destroyed or confiscated.”

Citizen defenders gathered in breweries and abandoned factories to make Molotov cocktails; they scrounged or unearthed Soviet-era weaponry and whatever else they could muster to serve the cause; and farmers hitched their tractors to disabled or abandoned Russian armour, towed it away and reconstituted it before passing it along to Ukrainian forces to turn against its former masters.

Elon Musk aided the communications and intelligence cause by contributing access to his Starlink satellite internet system, while the volume of NATO-grade weapons and munitions from Canada, Turkey, the United States and other alliance nations went from a trickle to something approaching a flood.

Extreme and often innovative tactics have also helped the Ukrainians punch above their weight. They stalled the Russian advance by destroying more than 300 bridges along with other infrastructure, switching road signs to confuse the enemy, even taking to First World War-style trenches along the conflict’s front lines.

When Russian forces tried to capture Antonov Airport, less than 10 kilometres outside Kyiv, on the invasion’s first day, the Ukrainian army shelled the runway, rendering it unusable and sparing the capital a quick defeat.

“Ukrainians are very creative in making life difficult for Russians. It makes sense to try to slow down any fast offensive,” said Rob Lee, military expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Russian airborne troops advance past a hangar containing the Antonov An-225 Mriya
Russian military/Wikimedia
The scorched-earth tactics have steered the invaders into places they wouldn’t otherwise go. Rudimentary geographic obstacles have posed major hurdles to the poorly trained and, until now at least, ill-equipped Russians. They create opportunities the Ukrainians have tended to exploit with cold efficiency.

Ukrainian artillery has pre-ranged the co-ordinates on many sites where the Russians have been forced to resort to pontoon alternatives to blown bridges.

Army and citizen YouTube videos have helped keep Westerners engaged with the results and the overall war.

“Our army used engineering knowledge, whether it was blowing up dams or bridges, and stopped the invading forces,” said Ukraine’s Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov. “We did that everywhere in the early days, and it’s still happening in Donbas.”

The newspaper described it as “one of the most lethal engagements of the war.”

In early May near the village of Bilohirivka in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops looking to surround opposing forces nearby came up against the Siverskyi Donets River, where they were themselves surrounded and virtually wiped out.

At least 485 of the 550 members of the 74th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade sent to ford the waterway were killed, primarily by Ukrainian artillery.

Pontoon bridges and between 80 and 110 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, even tugboats were damaged or destroyed in what amounted to a slaughter.

The Times reported that in the aftermath the riverbank was a wasteland of “blown-up tanks, the detritus of pontoon bridges, heaps of branches shorn off by explosions and the bodies of Russian soldiers, some half buried in the mud.”

Torn Russian military uniforms hung from trees in the adjacent forest after what the newspaper described as “one of the most lethal engagements of the war.”

The remains of Ukraine’s An-225 strategic airlift plane, the only one of its kind, sit in a damaged hangar at Antonov Airport just outside Kyiv. It was the heaviest airplane ever built and, at 88 metres, had the largest wingspan of any in-service aircraft in the world.
Oleksandr Ratushniak/Wikimedia
Whether fashioning something useful out of precious little or optimizing existing technologies in unexpected ways, Ukrainians have proven themselves to be bold, resourceful and innovative defenders of their homeland.

Retired lieutenant-general Ben Hodges, who took command of the U.S. army in Europe shortly after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, says he was impressed by the Ukrainians’ tech savvy, ingenuity and improvisational abilities.

“I quickly discovered that radar is better than I realized,” Hodges told National Public Radio in the U.S. “The Ukrainians took it and were able to use it in ways that I did not know were possible. And it’s not just the technical part, but it’s also the tactical, how they employed it.”

The Ukrainians assembled their own drones by combining military hardware with off-the-shelf products, refining their use until the game-changing Bayraktar TB2 started arriving in numbers from Turkey.

At least 485 of the 550 members of Russia’s 74th Motor Rifle Brigade trying to ford the Siverskyi Donets River near the village of Bilohirivka in eastern Ukraine were killed in early May, primarily by Ukrainian artillery.
Ukrainian military
Armed with heavy howitzer field pieces and ammunition supplied by Canada, the U.S. and others, Ukrainian artillery batteries are using a network of computer tablets to better co-ordinate their battlefield attacks.

Russian dead are now estimated at up to 25,000.

Suffering increasingly heavy losses in both troops and equipment and achieving scant progress toward its objectives, Moscow withdrew from around Kyiv at the end of March.

Russian dead are now estimated at up to 25,000 and, as of mid-May, the military and intelligence blog Oryx, which bases its estimates on front-line photographs, was reporting Putin’s military had lost 664 tanks and about 3,000 other armoured vehicles and heavy equipment. Ukrainian officials claim almost 1,200 Russian tanks.

Regardless, Radio Free Europe reported that so much of the invader’s military equipment was abandoned or disabled that Ukrainian authorities have waved tax declaration requirements on appropriated items.

The significantly diminished Russian forces left behind a trail of destruction, thousands of civilian dead, and more than 11,000 war-crimes investigations, one of which has already resulted in a guilty plea and life sentence.

Russian troops have also blown bridges and attacked railway stations, airports, fuel depots and other facilities, escalating the cost of postwar reconstruction, which by May 1 the government estimated at about US$85 billion for transportation-related infrastructure alone.

“We would not have blown our own bridges if the war had not started,” said Kubrakov. “The cause is one and the same: the aggression of the Russian Federation.”

Facing unexpectedly stiff resistance around Kyiv, Putin redeployed his assets to the disputed region of Donbas at the end of March, where an upgraded Russian offensive recently took the strategic city of Mariupol. It appeared poised to secure a land corridor from the Russian border to Crimea, connecting the separatist-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine with the peninsula on the Black Sea.

Rozlutsky, the fighting historian, said the Ukrainian capitulation that some are encouraging would not resolve the threat Russian aggression poses to global security. On the contrary, he said, it would only “push Russia into new conquests.”

“We need a lot to defeat Russia,” he wrote. “But we have the main thing: motivation. We have historians who are ready to sleep on top of boxes, five people in two sleeping places…. We have accountants who are ready to eat only porridge with stew for months. We have young students who spend their best years risking their lives. And they will not go anywhere, unless they are all killed.

“Ukraine will fight to victory as long as she can resist.”

For more on the innovative and deadly use of water from ancient history to present times, read the Legion Magazine feature “Dam Warfare” at legionmagazine.com/en/2018/07/dam-warfare/.

 

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