Mar 8, 2022 - World
Axios Explains: Ukraine

Putin may be planning to pummel Kyiv into submission

Civilians attempt to evacuate from the Kyiv suburb of Irpin. Photo: Aaris Messinis/AFP via Getty

Vladimir Putin likely won't be able to take Kyiv without destroying much of the city and subjecting its population to a brutal siege, military analysts say. But Putin has a track record of doing just that.

Why it matters: U.S. and Ukrainian officials believe that Putin's primary focus remains on Kyiv, even after his plans to swiftly take the city and force a capitulation from the government were thwarted. The city's defenders — soldiers and civilians alike — are very hostile to the invaders and bracing for a fight.

On the ground: Residents of Kyiv are stocking up on food, medicine, and other essentials in preparation for a siege, says Parliament member Maryan Zablotskyy from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party, and who remains in the city.

  • In addition to the army and police force, around 30,000 Kyiv residents volunteered to defend the city and have received guns, he says.
  • “So basically, Kyiv is turning into a fortress, and everybody is expecting a major assault on Kyiv,” he tells Axios.
Data: Institute for the Study of War; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

12 days into the war, there has been fighting on the city's outskirts and bombing closer to the center, but a senior Pentagon official told reporters today that “the main advance is still stalled outside the city.”

Flashback: Michael Kofman, a leading expert on Russia’s military at the Center for Naval Analyses, says that watching an enormous Russian convoy move slowly toward Kyiv to help encircle the city is giving him “very bad Grozny 1999 vibes" — a reference to the notoriously brutal Russian bombardment and capture of the Chechen capital.

  • By the time Putin, newly installed as president, declared the city “liberated,” it was by the UN’s estimation “the most destroyed city on Earth.”
  • Kofman says Putin's bombardments of Grozny and Aleppo in Syria suggest he would be willing to "level" Kyiv. "If you don’t think that’s true you haven’t been following Vladimir Putin’s track record.”
  • Kofman is expecting a massive artillery and air assault on the city once the Russian forces are in position. 

Yes, but: “Even if they try and reduce the city to rubble, you can still fight from rubble if you really want to,” says Rob Lee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and who is another close observer of the Russian war effort.

  • He says encircling Kyiv will require a massive Russian force that could then be vulnerable to counterattacks. Troops that enter the city would be at a disadvantage in street-by-street fighting.
  • "If you’re trying to occupy a country that doesn’t want to be occupied, your prospects are always going to be poor,” Lee says.
  • He also thinks the Russians will be operating on a timeline, both because of the difficulties of sustaining and supplying their operation and because of domestic pressure over the war and its economic fallout.
The aftermath, in Grozny. Photo: Antoine Gyori/Sygma via Getty Images

What to watch: The Pentagon official said Russian forces are trying to “seal off the eastern part of the country” to prevent the large Ukrainian force there from joining the defense of Kyiv.

  • Some Russian forces fighting in the east could also join the effort to encircle Kyiv once they have taken Kharkiv, the official added.
  • The U.S. and European countries are working to provide weapons and other supplies while it’s still possible to get them into the capital.
  • Even killing or capturing Zelensky would be unlikely to end the battle. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Sunday that Ukraine has a "continuity of government" plan.

Driving the news: At least four civilians attempting to evacuate the Kyiv suburb of Irpin were killed by Russian shelling on Sunday. On Monday, at least 13 civilians were reportedly killed when a bakery in another suburb was struck.

  • The Pentagon official said Russia has now deployed "nearly 100%" of its amassed forces into Ukraine and launched over 625 missiles.

The bottom line: Like Ukraine as a whole, Kyiv would be difficult to take and more difficult to hold. But if there is a prolonged battle for Kyiv, the Ukrainian people will bear the brunt of the suffering.

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