Rebuilding Resiliency: Kyiv’s Opportunity to Bolster its Defense


When the Russian military invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian leadership believed that it would obtain a quick victory by overthrowing the Ukrainian government through surprise, speed, and overwhelming force — a coup de main. But the Ukrainian military repelled this numerically superior Russian force at the battle of Kyiv by denying the Russian military the use of Ukrainian airfields, blowing up their bridges, flooding their rivers, weaponizing a large portion of the civilian population, and ultimately grinding the military’s main effort to a halt. Yet this defensive success was achieved haphazardly. There was little preparation or city-wide defense plan or design. Had the Russian military made it to Kyiv, many of the defensive barriers that the Ukrainian military hastily laid out throughout the city would have been ineffective against it.

Dating as far back as the 16th century, the city of Kyiv developed as a fortress and was built to be defensible from an invading force. These defensive measures included earthen, brick, and stonework walls, moats, towers, and multiple gates and gatehouses. A replica of the “Golden Gate” remains in the heart of Kyiv as a visible reminder of how the city was originally constructed. Centuries ago, as the city expanded well beyond the Kyiv fortress, the urban areas around the city center expanded with a design based on efficiency rather than defense. As a result, when the Russian military invaded, Kyiv lacked existing defensive capabilities, and its residents were left to throw thousands of steel hedgehogs and tires at key intersections throughout and surrounding Kyiv. A well-trained Russian militia could have easily breached these rudimentary obstacles, had they made it to the city.



Likewise, fighting positions built to cover these intersections posed another issue for Kyiv’s defenders. Because Kyiv is a concrete jungle, the positions had to be built up instead of digging down, making them vulnerable to rocket-propelled grenades and other larger direct and indirect fire weapons.

Throughout history, communities have leveraged natural obstacles (rivers, hilltops, and cliffs) and manmade obstacles (moats, walls, and other fortifications) to defend themselves against invaders. With the development of the nation-state, however, populations started to defend at the nation’s borders as opposed to a city’s boundary, and city planners stopped thinking about defending themselves. But recent wars in Ukraine, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh have demonstrated that wars are rarely contained at the border and the fighting often moves to the cities. Thus, it is once again time for potentially vulnerable cities — cities in nations that border aggressive and expansionist neighbors — to think of designing themselves to be more defensible. 

Much of the damage the capital incurred during the battle of Kyiv will be repaired. There is, and will continue to be, major reconstruction in Kyiv and its peri-urban areas — those immediately adjacent to or surrounding the city, including Bordyanka, Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel. As part of this reconstruction effort, city administrators and government officials should consider modifications that deter future invasions — and make future assaults more difficult should deterrence fail — by increasing their cities’ defense capabilities.


One of the most challenging military operations to conduct is a contested water crossing. In the opening weeks of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the Ukrainian military destroyed over 150 bridges to force the invading Russian military to have to undertake this complex challenge. At the confluence of the Irpin and Dnipro rivers, Ukrainian forces blew a hole in the Kozarovychi dam, helping defend the capital. The action slowed Russian armor and vehicles but at the cost of significant damage to the city. The tactic resulted in uncontrollable flooding that sacrificed many farms and much of the city of Demydiv in the process. 

Had the Ukrainian government constructed the dam in a way that would have allowed it to control the flooding, the Ukrainian military could have accomplished the same objective — impede the Russian advance —without destroying the dam and causing as much collateral damage to the surrounding communities. By contrast, when the Ukrainian government flooded the Teterev and Zdvyzh rivers, they controlled the flooding without damaging the dams. When the Ukrainian government rebuilds the Kozarovychi dam, it would be prudent to do so in a way that allows it to flood the Irpin without damaging the dam.

Likewise, many of the bridges that the Ukrainians destroyed will have to be completely rebuilt because the structural integrity of the remaining portions is compromised. However, it is possible to construct bridges in a way that makes it easy to destroy a portion without damaging the columns or piers. Bridges built in such a manner would be cheaper and faster to repair, thus allowing commerce and livelihoods to return to normal more quickly.

City planners should also consider building a system of modern moats, giant cement irrigation ditches that serve two purposes: giant cement irrigation ditches that could also serve as obstacles in times of war. These manmade riverways also serve the valuable purpose of helping to prevent flooding during times of heavy rain, which only seem to be becoming more common with climate change. Some cities already have these, but they are not designed with defense in mind, so vehicles can easily cross them. If, however, they were built with a nearly vertical angle, vehicles would be unable to cross, and these ditches would become “urban moats” or, in military parlance, tank ditches. 


A strongpoint is “a heavily fortified battle position tied to a natural or reinforcing obstacle” to create an anchor for a defense or to deny an enemy decisive or key terrain. In urban areas, the right buildings can serve as perfect strongpoints in a defense. These buildings should be heavy-clad steel rebar–reinforced concrete that protects against many direct and indirect fire weapons. They should have multiple floors and a basement, offer lots of firing positions, and be located at dominant intersections along key approaches with clear fields of view and fire.

The history of urban warfare has demonstrated that single buildings can halt attacking militaries for days, weeks, or even months. Shining examples such as the Pavlov house in Stalingrad, the treasury building in Hue, the Santo Tomas University of the Philippines in Manila, and the “Pink building” in Marawi give strategic planners something to study. 

In the 2017 battle of Marawi, the Philippine army initially struggled to fight Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant defenders that used strongpoint after strongpoint to turn the battle into a grueling five-month war. The Philippine army fought weeklong battles to clear single buildings like the large multistory pastel pink building in which the Islamic State housed fighters, snipers, and improvised explosive devices on every floor. Despite multiple bombing runs, to include 500-pound bombs, 105mm artillery, and mortars, it still took more than two weeks for multiple platoon- and company-size mechanized and dismounted infantry attacks to clear the building.

Unfortunately, many existing potential strongpoints — such as government buildings — are in the center of Kyiv. This does not need to be the case. An apartment building along a key avenue of approach in the city’s periphery could be built in such a way that it could serve as a strongpoint. Take, for example, Jerusalem, where Israel built dual-purpose apartment buildings that not only were homes but also served as strongpoints at the dividing line with East Jerusalem. The apartment buildings were built with reinforced concrete and had walls around their exteriors with few openings and narrow slit windows with special drainage features to facilitate rifle, machine gun, and sniper firing positions. The reserve forces of the city were assigned buildings and even specific floors to man if conflict erupted.


Defending an urban area is easier with a complex underground network because the defender can use it to protect critical military capabilities and political leadership, shield civilian populations, and surreptitiously move around the battlefield.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Kyiv utilized its expansive underground. Tens of thousands of civilians sought refuge from Russian bombings in Kyiv’s immense subway tunnels. Ukraine’s political and military leadership moved into secret bunkers. The 72nd Mechanized Brigade — the military unit responsible for Kyiv’s defense — moved its headquarters into one of the city’s subway tunnels.

But unlike the battle of Mariupol — where the military planned from the onset to establish its headquarters in the steel factory’s underground — much of the use of Kyiv’s underground was unplanned. While officials in Kyiv mapped the available bunkers after the full-scale invasion, many were deemed unusable or unsatisfactory. As a result, many residents were forced to find impromptu underground shelters during Russian air raids. With sufficient planning, however, Kyiv could have developed, and can now develop, infrastructure to shield its civilian population beyond existing subway tunnels. They could produce dedicated air raid shelters, something that Sweden did from 1938 until 2002. It is important to remember that any physical structure — be it an air raid shelter or a concrete riverbed — must be maintained. Reports show that thousands of Sweden’s 65,000 air raid shelters are not serviceable, and the status of tens of thousands more is unknown because they have not been inspected in over a decade. 

Using tunnels to surreptitiously move soldiers and materiel is a tactic common to many urban battles including the 1945 battle of Manila, the 1994–95 battle of Grozny, and the 2022 battle of Mariupol. Kyiv’s vast network of underground catacombs and utility and transportation tunnels could be properly mapped, connected, and expanded to facilitate both defensive and offensive operations. These tunnels could also be equipped with hardwired communication lines that cannot be hacked or jammed and provisioned with nonperishable food, potable water, and medical supplies.

Entrenched fighters can often hold out and tie up forces many times their size for weeks or months. A few thousand Ukrainian fighters held out against tens of thousands of Russian soldiers for weeks by using the Azovstal Steel Plant’s underground network during the battle of Mariupol. If they had not exhausted all their ammunition, food, and medical supplies, the Russian military might still be fighting at the plant to this day. Similarly, during the 1944 Warsaw uprising, the Polish resistance forces used the sewers and tunnels of Warsaw to fight and escape German attackers for over two months.


Throughout history, cities — especially capital cities — have been operational and strategic objectives in war. As such, numerous cities around the world have risen, fallen, and been rebuilt as they rise again. While Kyiv may not have fallen during Russia’s most recent invasion, it easily could have. Regardless, the city’s metropolitan area likely suffered tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, and many countries have pledged billions to help Ukraine rebuild. 

As Kyiv rebuilds, it should consider how to include dual-purpose strongpoint buildings, large concrete waterways, an expanded and enhanced underground, and green space around major intersections so that bunkers could be built down instead of up. Population centers were once built with defense as a top priority. Recent history has shown that leaving a city’s defense to its nation’s borders is a dangerous proposition. It is time that Kyiv, and other cities in nations that border expansionist neighbors, once again make the defense part of city planning.



Liam Collins is executive director of the Madison Policy forum and a fellow at New America. He was the founding director of the Modern War Institute at West Point and served as a defense advisor to Ukraine from 2016 to 2018. He is a retired Special Forces colonel with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and South America. He holds a PhD from Princeton University and is co-author of the book Understanding Urban Warfare.

John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute, codirector of the institute’s Urban Warfare Project, and host of the Urban Warfare Project Podcast. He previously served as a fellow with the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. He served 25 years on active duty as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq. He is the author of the book Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War and co-author of Understanding Urban Warfare.

Benjamin Yarckin is a graduate student at George Mason University, where he serves as a student fellow at the Center for Security Policy Studies. 

Image: Ukraine Presidency