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Ukraine Report #2: Urban Warfare with Dan Barkhuff
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Dan Barkhoff is a former Navy SEAL with multiple combat deployments, and an expert in urban warfare. In this interview, he discusses what the Russian invasion force is likely to face.
This episode is a part of a series of special, unedited episodes that are separate from our normal content. As the invasion of Ukraine unfolds, we’ll be releasing these to provide you with timely insights from the experts.
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The Russians have one of two options. Well, three really. They can withdraw, seems unlikely. They can turn it into a siege and just try to starve the government into submission. Then you're battling the clock. And then at what point does Poland start flying C130s overhead and dropping pallets of gear. Or you can go through and try to clear the city.
I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
As the invasion of Ukraine unfolds, we want to provide timely insights from the experts. So, we've launched a series of special unedited episodes separate from our normal content. If you want to help two of the most efficient organizations doing frontline work, our Spirit of America and Team Rubicon, just Google them.
My guest today is Dan Barkhuff, a former Navy Seal with multiple combat deployments and an expert in urban warfare. I've asked him to talk to us about what the Russian army is likely to face as invasion turns to occupation. Dan, I wish we were talking under different circumstances, but welcome.
Thanks, Ken. Pleasure to be here. Agreed, it would be better under different circumstances.
What are your impressions right now looking at what is happening on the ground in Ukraine?
Yeah. Well, a good question. So, I would caveat it. Of course, I'm only privy to open-source stuff. So, for those listening, when we say open source, we mean stuff that's put out on the press. There's nothing classified. They don't have any official information. And I would also caveat that I'm by no means an expert in Ukrainian or Russian order of battle issues. But I can tell you a few things based on my experiences in urban combat and in war zones that I've noticed.
So, the first thing with the Russian offensive that jumps out is the difference between maneuver warfare and positional warfare. So, when we talk about maneuver warfare, this is kind of a Napoleonic ideal where you have big armies or units in the field that are trying to achieve relative superiority by maneuvering on one another and attacking one another's flanks and getting to the rear of your opponent, and things like that.
Urban combat largely is defined by positional warfare. So, maintaining access to your own supply lines, having the ability to get resources into the fight and wounded folks and expended resources out of the fight and utilizing those supply lines. And then also being able to maintain your relative advantage over your opponent by position. So, a term we used to use was greenside versus kind of the black side. The greenside, when we say that, we talk about warfare and a land warfare-type environment. So, you're out in the woods, you're in the jungle, you're on a mountain, that kind of stuff. Think more Afghanistan.
And then, when we talk about urban warfare, kind of the black side, we're talking about being in the cities, being in that space, being in a densely-populated area and all that entails. And there are really different types. So, of course, there are basic principles that remain the same, but the challenges are pretty different.
One thing that, right off the bat, always was sort of beaten into your head as a new guy and as you went along was the threat in an urban environment is not only just 360 degrees around you. It's also 360 degrees above and below you. So, you're constantly thinking about attacks from rooftops, from sewers, from windows, from high rises, all these structures that you don't have to deal with as much on the greenside where you're out in the woods. People are unlikely to climb a tree to shoot at you. I mean, I suppose it can happen but it's not a very good tactic. Whereas in an urban environment, shooting from a top floor down on your enemy is a tried and true technique.
It appears that the initial Russian strategy out at the outset was a sprint to Kyiv to decapitate the government. Their expectations were way off the mark in terms of the resistance they would face. And now, it appears that the offensive is bogged down. Is that your reading as well that they did not expect what met them and that they are having to totally reassess their approach in trying to take Kyiv?
Yeah. I'd agree with that. Again, I'm not sure what's happened in the south of the country, but certainly in the northern part, in Kyiv and some of the other cities up there, it seems like their pace of operations has slowed and met pretty stiff resistance. Once you get into that city environment, again, the two main factors are enemy's resistance and moving through that city, but also your own supply lines.
Cities just suck up resources. You need a lot of people to clear a city. And you have to clear a city. You can walk past the house. You can walk past an apartment building and assume that it's empty. And before you know it, you're taking fire from the rear. So, you have to methodically go through these cities and clear every building. That takes time. It takes manpower. It takes ammunition. It takes breaching supplies. It takes radio batteries. It's not a fast process at all.
And the challenge is the scale of what you need to clear a city is much greater than ... It's almost exponential compared to what you would need to clear a mountainside.
I think part of the evidence of that drastic reassessment is the use of heavy artillery now. That doesn't seem to have been planned for initially when the expectation was that they would roll right in. In fact, Russian soldiers were being told they'd be welcomed with open arms. And now, they are apparently indiscriminately shelling cities, they're hitting civilian areas, they're bombing kindergartens. That has to be from a tactician's perspective some kind of admission of failure, right?
Yeah. I would think so. To an extent, the Russian ... The very little I know about Russian military doctrine, they've historically depended on mask fires. They have a lot of artillery. That's always been their strength is firepower. And so, the fact that to your point about this decapitation strike in the beginning of the war was unsuccessful. And from some of the open-source reporting, it sounds like they had either dropped soft forces, Spetsnaz forces into the city or nearby the city to attempt that decapitation strike and they failed. They seemed to be going to Plan B or even C at this point which would be to come reduce the cities through indirect fire.
That is not a great plan. If you've ever seen even a movie like Stalingrad, sometimes the rubble can be an even better place to fight from. But that's not the intent. The intent is not necessarily to reduce the city and destroy defenders. I mean, that's kind of a bonus. But the attempt is to terrorize the civilian population. One difference between Kyiv and my battlefield experiences when we went into Fallujah in 2004, November 2004, which was my main urban warfare experience, the city was largely evacuated by that point.
It had been surrounded for months and folks were told to leave. I mean, there were some civilians there, of course, but the numbers had dwindled quite a bit. And I do not know how many civilians are left in Kyiv but an attack, indiscriminate shelling of a city or even shelling of ... Artillery can be fairly accurate but it's not a JDAM, it's not GPS guided. It's an area weapon essentially. And so, that's bound to hit civilians. And that's probably part of the intent to try to terrorize the local population.
Well, Kyiv and Kharkiv are certainly still packed with civilians. Can you talk a little bit, I know it's not right in your sweet spot but you know more about it than most of our listeners, what a cluster munition is and what it does, what a thermobaric weapon is and what it does and how they are, for all intents and purposes at least, how they're being deployed now, terror weapons.
Yeah. So, cluster munitions are outlawed internationally. We think in terms of like anti-personnel versus anti-equipment weapons. An example is like a 50-caliber machine gun is according to the laws of war, you're not really supposed to use it on an individual, it's an equipment weapon. But when we start using cluster munitions, very, very much indiscriminate. So, this is an area weapon. The ideal situation to use something like that would be with massive troops in the open, troops in the open fire for effect.
A thermobaric device, most of the munitions that are used are designed to kill and mane people and injure people a little bit with the blast, but more so with shrapnel. And so, a thermobaric device creates an overpressure wave and it can be used with pretty devastating effect inside of a closed structure. So, in a place like a city where you have these things going off inside of a house or even in a narrow alleyway let's say, it's going to magnify those effects.
So, instead of a shrapnel, a piece of shrapnel hitting a person, you're dealing with this massive wave of pressure which can drop a lung or just kill someone from the blast itself as opposed to a missile that is picked up because of the blast or a piece of shrapnel.
Again, totally, indiscriminate when used in this way. I mean, if it's a trench attack miles from a city that might not violate Geneva Convention rules but when a thermobaric weapon is used in a city, when a cluster munition is used in a city, it's safe to say that it's being used to terrorize the civilian population.
I'd agree with that, Ken. A thermobaric weapon is, for example, think of an apartment building, an apartment building in a big city, at Philadelphia or Chicago or whatever. And when you have this blast over pressure that's made even worse by the confined space, you're indiscriminately killing everybody in that space. So, there's no ability to selectively target people with a weapon like that.
That's not ... You might get some Ukrainian military personnel if you're the Russian firing it but you're also bound to kill anyone who's in that room or in that structure as well. The other thing too is they have a tendency to collapse structures. So, even a thermobaric hand grenade which exists, it will drop a structure.
So, we're in a situation now where that lightning strike failed, that decapitation attempt against the Ukrainian government failed. They are now terrorizing to soften up these urban targets with the expectation that Russian tanks are going to start rolling in and going house to house. And that has been your on-the-ground experience, albeit not from a tank. What are those Russian soldiers likely to face when they try that again?
Yeah. So, cities are tough because like I said, you've got that 360-degree threat but you also have to be thinking about what's above you and what's below you. And I don't want to give ... There's debate as to whether tanks are useful in urban combat. I can tell you that in my experience, tanks are very useful in urban combat. They have to be complimented by infantry and close support.
If one were to try to hit a house with a squat of soldiers and it was barricaded inside, having the ability to walk out of that house and talk to your tank that's a block away and have them come over and fire a round into that house is pretty useful. Artillery which we're talking about is it's not a great weapon for a city because you can't selectively strike with it. I mean, in American combat doctrine, you want to use air power, you want to use selective precision munitions, a JDAM or something like that, or in modern times, even some of our drones where you can really get accurate with that.
Well, one of the problems with urban combat especially for these Russian forces, they don't have an air ... It's not just air superiority, Ken. It's air supremacy. They have to be able to own the sky over these cities to safely support their troops on the ground. So, these Russian foot soldiers patrolling into these cities, their best bet for getting supportive fires is probably to have tanks with them. Now, double-edged sword because those tanks are pretty big weapons but also pretty big targets. And a lot of the weapons have been moved into Ukraine from allied countries including our own or anti-tank weapons.
The other thing about urban combat is on the individual combatant, it's exhausting. To clear a high-rise building ... I mean, you're not taking the elevator. If you've got a 10-storey building that's 10 flights of stairs that you're probably going up and down multiple times and then you're clearing all the rooms on each level, it's physically exhausting. It takes a long time. Not to mention how terrifying it can be and how dangerous it is. So, they have a tall order in front of them.
Can you talk a little more about that fear? And don't worry about making it graphic because I worry sometimes that Americans watching this, some still see it through the lens of a video game. I mean, recently, it was revealed that some of the foot coming out was actually borrowed from video games. It's just so ironic that that's how we choose to see conflicts like this. And it's not a video game. And I want you to talk both about your experience as a Seal, but also what you see in an emergency room. I mean, the toll that this takes is horrific.
Yeah. So, I mean, when I was 24 years old clearing rooms in Fallujah, it was psychologically exhausting on everybody in the unit. You go into a house and the way all military units are trained to do is to flow off one another because you don't know ... I mean, with certain exceptions and special mission units where they have a floor plan before they hit a house, you don't know what you're getting into.
You go into a house. It's a house you've never seen before. You don't know what it looks like inside. So, the number one man when you make entry into that structure, maybe there's a door, maybe there's somebody there or a threat that needs to be addressed. And as you move through a house with a unit of soldiers, everyone's going to have their time at the front of that stack. And so, because there's no way for one guy to be the point-man, not that you'd want that anyway, but there's no way for one guy to be the point-man in every room.
So, everyone's going to have that time where they're the number one person in the stack and you've cleared as much as you can from pieing off the door from that side in the hall. And then, you have to make entry. And it's comforting to know that your buddies are right behind you, but you're the first guy to pop your face through that door. And that's how people die. It has to be done in this context, but everyone knows that that number one guy through the door is if there is a bad guy in that room, they're likely to get shot.
So, just the psychological stress of that and doing it over and over and you do it in a three-bedroom house, and then you do it in an apartment building with a hundred rooms or a hundred apartments. And each of those apartments has multiple rooms. You don't know which one's going to have an AK-47 round waiting for you. Add to that, you've got the issue of people shooting at you inside a house. You've also got the issue of booby traps and the like, IEDs, these things.
The Chechens in first Chechen conflicts in the '90s, one of their TTPs was just to lure Russian troops into a house and then pancake it. So, there were multiple houses in Fallujah that we went into that had IEDs inside. That's a common tactic is to booby trap a house. And you pop off a couple shots from the top window and you get a squad to run up to the door and you go out the back door to a different house and you wait for that squad to make entry. And then, you clock off and blow up the house. That's been done for forever. So, yeah, it's incredibly just exhausting to engage in this kind of combat.
How does the presence of civilians, of women and children in that environment add to that mental toll and that overall stress?
Sure. Well, I think the short answer is it adds to it. I mean, having the added burden of trying to ... If you knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, every single person in a city was hostile, it would be psychologically easier. If you see movement, you can shoot at it. But you can't do that in any real-world situation because you never know that for sure, that everyone on the target is hostile.
Trying to navigate that situation not only is going to potentially give you that split-second pause where you're trying to ensure proper target ID and maybe that's enough for something bad to happen. So, it just adds to that. Not to mention, when inevitably some civilians are killed unfortunately, that is psychologically devastating as well.
War is a terrible thing. And bad stuff happens during wartime. And that bad stuff is not always intentional. And accidentally injuring a noncombatant is there's ... You'd have to be a true psychopath not for that to affect you. And not that there's not true psychopaths in the world, but the majority of people in uniform are doing it because they're trying to support and serve their country.
There are videos coming out of Ukraine still of crowds of unarmed, incredibly brave Ukrainians literally stopping tanks with their bodies, piling up on the roads so that the Russians can't get past them. I would imagine the days of Russian commanders tolerating that are numbered. And it won't be long before that even among the average Russian soldier, the patience is gone and they're being told to keep driving. I have to believe that at some point in Fallujah or in other operations you were on, your default switched to seeing civilians as threats. Do you see that happening soon?
Yeah, if it isn't already. I mean, this individual shall remain anonymous. He was not a Seal, he was from another unit. But I've heard a high-ranking officer say to allied snipers, "Those men are not," ... There were some unarmed men walking through the city in and the line I'll never forget was an American officer saying, "They are not surrendering, they're maneuvering and I want you to engage them."
And I was in the room and these snipers were not Seal snipers and they refused to engage them. And that was the right decision by the laws of war. But I'm not sure that the Russians are always going to abide by that. And maybe those guys were maneuvering. So, these two guys were walking left to right across the street and they were unarmed. They were not legitimate target, but maybe they were insurgents and it was a common insurgent tactic to leave weapons at one house and wave a white flag and walk to a different house and pick up some more weapons and take back to the windows.
So, I think if that hasn't already happened, it's inevitable though that will be happening soon.
Do you have any insights on the Russian attitude toward war. And I'm not asking you to talk geopolitically but as a Seal, you studied Spetsnaz, you studied your main adversary should the balloon ever go up. How is that training done? What is that capability? What is the mindset of your Spetsnaz operator? And does it differ materially from how we go to war?
When I was in BUD/S, Ken, there was I think a SAS or SBS guy who came through and was doing a tour of BUD/S with the commander. And I remember the captain who was in charge of the Naval Special Warfare Center at the time said, "One of the things you'll realize is that you have a lot in common with your soft counterparts no matter where they are."
I don't have any special insight into Spetsnaz training. I'd imagine they're not that dissimilar psychologically to special operators in any country which the people who are attracted to that type of work are generally cut from the same cloth. I think in this situation, it's unfortunate that this has happened. I mean, it's terrible. This is a huge land war in Europe with the potential to become a global configuration. And they've got ultimately 19 and 20 and 25 and 30-year-old young men and women who are trying to do their jobs as their political leadership set them out to do.
And so, I don't harbor any specific resentment towards the Russians aside from their leadership. But I think all that being said, I hope the Ukrainians are quite successful at defending themselves and inflicting casualties on the Russians.
Talk about that Russian conscript, that 20-year-old non-volunteer. And I'm distinguishing that kid from the soft, the Spetsnaz guy, because the bulk of the Russian army, it appears, had no idea what they were being sent to do. What is the role of morale in an invasion?
Sure. I mean, this is speculative, of course. But I can tell you a couple things. I mean, when I went through the NAVSOF pipeline, back in the day, BUD/S was like six months or so and then there's maybe another six to eight months of training. And then you go to a team and then you do a workup with your platoon and that's a year-and-a-half or two years. And then finally, you deploy and you're three or four years into your naval career.
And then, at the same time, you're still a new guy and you still don't know what you're doing. So, if you were to take a conscript on a one-year contract, I don't know how long Russian boot camp is but let's say 12 weeks, give or take. And then maybe they gave it to a unit and throw in some leave time. And then maybe they do a little bit of training and that sort of thing. There's not a lot of time to get trained up for something like this that their government's asking them to do.
I can't imagine that once faced with the reality of the situation, pitched urban combat, that there are too many Russian conscripts who are nine months into one year conscription that are really excited about that.
I want to pivot to the resistance. They, of course, are at a massive disadvantage in terms of firepower and resources, but they have an edge in some areas. Can you talk about the advantages that defending in an urban landscape brings to the defenders?
I mean, almost all the advantages are to the defender. You get to choose what points you're going to defend. I mean, there's this very basic concept called defense-in-depth. So, you don't just sit up in one house and this is the Alamo and we're going to stay here until we win or we die. You set up in one house. You take your shots and when things get hot, you scoot up the back door to the next house that's already prepared and that is already fitted with resupply.
The advantage of being able to choose when you're going to initiate contact is immense. In an urban environment, the kill zones are the streets. So, a classic tactic is to try to stay off the streets as much as possible. And if you can, you make a hole from one house and at the next house and you stay in the yards because it's the streets, being on the streets, those center thoroughfares where you're wide open and you don't have any cover.
Inevitably, you're going to have to walk up a street at some point. And that's when the defenders get to choose when the time is right to spring on that ambush. So really, I mean, for all intents and purposes, all of the advantages are to the defense. The only thing that I can really think of is if you threaten the defender's supply lines and it turns into like a siege-like state and they don't have the ability to evacuate casualties and to resupply, that's an advantage for the force walking through the city. But by and large, I'd say 90% of the advantages rest with the defenders in this situation.
Do you have any prediction as to how the coming week or two will unfold?
My prediction is that I will be wrong in whatever prediction I make. But if I had to make a prediction, I think the Russians have one of two options. Well, three really. They can withdraw, seems unlikely. They can turn it into a siege and just try to starve the government into submission. Then you're battling the clock. And then at what point does Poland start flying C130s overhead and dropping pallets of gear. Or you can go through and try to clear the city.
I've never read the CIA psychological profile of Vladimir Putin, but my prediction is he's going to assault the cities. The other two don't seem like things that he is prepared to do. One, because it takes too much time. And one, because it's sort of admitting failure. So, I hope I'm wrong. I have a history of making many wrong predictions in the past, Ken. So, I hope I'm wrong on this one, too, but I think there's a pretty high probability that there's going to be some pretty bloody weeks ahead.
Do you have thoughts… I'm sure you do. What are your thoughts on our countrymen, Americans, who have sympathized with Putin? You have an incredibly influential news personality on the right. I'll call him out, Tucker Carlson saying, "Why should I root for Russia which I am?" Saying, "Why is it disloyal to side with Russia? I think we should probably take the side of Russia," all direct quotes.
We have the former president praising Putin as a genius. And I'm always careful here so I'm going to quote directly. He said, "He's going to go in and be a peacekeeper," calling those troops peacekeepers. We have a senate candidate in Delaware saying, "I identify more with Putin's Christian values than I do with Joe Biden." What does language like that do in terms of propaganda? How can that be redeployed by our enemies?
Sure. So, I mean, there's a lot to unpack there but the most charitable explanation is that Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump didn't think Putin was actually going to do this. And I'm not one to be a super-charitable to Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson. But in fairness, it's entirely possible that Tucker Carlson had an oh-shit moment where he was like, "Oh my God, he's really doing this." So, that's one.
More likely I think, far more likely, is that he does sympathize with the Russians and use this as sort of continuation of real politic. It gets to what we view America as. Is America a country with no permanent friends, only permanent interests that just occupies the middle third of North America and is a country like any others? Or does it have a special purpose and a higher calling? I would argue that is the second.
And the Ukrainians are a classic. It's a classic like American love story. They're underdogs. So, you've got these underdogs against, for a hundred years, has been a traditional enemy of the United States. An unprovoked invasion, it's in Europe, it's in the age of social media. I go to Twitter and I can see videos from the battlefield. Even in my war, that wasn't the case. So, as far as what does it do to the American population, probably nothing.
I think the bigger issue is it's getting played back in Russia. And so, you've got Russian folks who are like, "Oh, look, the Americans are split," when in actuality, I think overwhelmingly, very, very small percentage of Americans would be on Putin's side in this. If you look at some of the Republicans, they've done a 180. They've just flipped immediately.
And I've mixed feelings on that, honestly, Ken. It's like, "Hey, you guys weren't saying this a week ago." And then part of me, it's like, "Well, it's better late than never." I don't really ... It's hard for me to tease that out a little bit, but I do think clearly, America ought to be on the side of Ukraine and we ought to help the Ukrainians and punish Russia as much as humanly possible and without directly risking American lives.
Well, that's what I want to finish with because if America indeed is a nation that considers more than just its own interests, if we are a nation with a special purpose, what can we do?
Yeah. I mean, there's a lot that we can do. I mean, keep your pressure on the representatives. This is a time to call your senator. This is a time to write a letter. This is a time to write an editorial. This is a time to show our humanity by welcoming Afghan refugees. This is a time to show our humanity by taking up a collection at the church for Ukrainian refugees who are in Poland.
This is a time in which you might feel like we're far and away and we're quite disconnected, but even something as simple as sharing a link on social media that is looking to get blankets to refugees in Poland or [inaudible 00:38:47] or the like. Those are things that average people can do.
I think that America does have a special purpose. I think we have an obligation. I don't think we can withdraw from the world. I think that we are a nation that prides ourselves on helping. Time and time again, we've stepped in. Are we perfect? Of course not. Of course, this country is not perfect. But more so than just about any other country in history, we've tried to do the right thing on numerous occasions. And whether it's in a place like the tsunami response in early 2000s or earthquakes, we show up when things go south and we try to help and look for those opportunities to help.
Our country is better served by people who want us to be involved in international community and influence in events before events just happen to us.
I couldn't agree more, Dan. And a great note to close on. My kids actually tried to get Ukrainian flags. They're entirely sold out everywhere. We live in Cleveland. So, we're buying yellow and blue cloth and going to make our own.
It is a World Cup year. So, I don't even follow soccer, but I'm hoping Ukraine has a good run.
Likewise. Thanks for joining us, Dan. Appreciate your time.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.