Lviv by Siege or by Assault?
By the time I finish writing this, or by the time it is published, I could easily be proven wrong. Virtually everyone is predicting an imminent Russian assault on Lviv. Before an assault, I am predicting a sustained siege.
Here is why:
The Ukrainian defenders of Lviv are at the height of morale, supplies, and motivation. Mass mobilization; stockpiles of food and ammunition; continuing access to heat, electricity, and water—before an applauding world–all make the Ukrainian capacity to resist as strong as it will ever be.
But what if the Russians encircle the city, using sustained bombardment to degrade resources and sustain terror? What happens after the lights go out, the heat shuts down, food and potable water dwindle? In the midst of such attrition, what happens to both the physical and psychological foundations of morale—the will, as well as the capacity, for ferocious fight?
On the Russian side, a siege would allow reinforcing and refreshing troops and weaponry. It would provide them time to identify the most vulnerable pockets of Ukrainian resistance, their arms, and other vital supplies. Above all, it would spare the Russians from street-to-street combat with a hyper energized, now internationally celebrated, insurgency.
In such a scenario, Ukrainians would initially be lionized for having “stopped” the Russians. There would be both earned and sentimentalized praise for their resilience and patriotic devotion. But sustained siege, degradation, and attrition do not make for good television. The increasingly tired, virtually indifferent, coverage of the catastrophe in Syria shows that. It is predictable that the networks would turn away as their viewers did. An entirely different kind of March Madness would take over public imagination.
Too cynical? Perhaps. But the Russians know what siege can do when a city is left to its own devices. The Siege of Leningrad left 50,000 Russians dead from starvation, exposure, disease, and shelling. During the Warsaw uprising of 1944—more than a year after the ghetto uprising–the Russians infamously watched from the other side of the Vistula while the Germans destroyed the city and tens of thousands of its inhabitants. They know how deadly attrition can be, and how helpless are its victims when onlookers lose interest or decide they have no vital interest. Or, in the case of Warsaw in 1944, have interest in facilitating destruction.
All of which leads back to the question of who else has interest and what they will do. In the best case, a siege would allow more time, and perhaps more inventive means, to provide the Ukrainians better arms, supplies, and relevant intelligence. Almost certainly some form of air corridor would be needed, and—while not a no-fly zone—would likely trigger combat with Russian planes and the increased likelihood of wider war. Can we afford that risk? Can we afford not to take it?
As I write this, television news shows more Russian tanks crossing the Ukrainian border in the direction of Lviv. We do not know whether they will directly attack the city or, for a time, torture it from the gates.