February 23, 2014

TACTICAL ANALYSIS: The Medieval—and Highly Effective—Tactics of the Ukrainian Protests: Military-style methods help Euromaidan overwhelm state forces.

Protesters shot fireworks with makeshift launchers. In combination with throwing stones and using slingshots, they overwhelmed disoriented Berkut special forces units, who were pelted with flying objects as fireworks exploded around them.

Protesters wore military helmets and carried makeshift—or captured—shields. Wooden boards were used to protect their lower legs from shrapnel the police taped to exploding stun grenades.

Among the array of homemade weapons, some were perhaps a little too ambitious. A crude trebuchet—a type of medieval catapult which uses a counterweight to fling objects—was overrun and dismantled.

To shield themselves from the onslaught, the police special forces units known as Berkut adopted distinct tetsudo formations. This packed shield formation was used by the Roman Empire, developed to shield infantry units from arrows. The first line holds its shields forward, with each preceding line holding their shields towards the sky.

The problem with this tactic? It makes you much slower.

I noticed pics of them forming The Turtle. I was ready for them to break out lorica segmentata. Say, I wonder if the protesters tried true slings, as opposed to slingshots? Very effective, but without the PR baggage of guns. I mean, anyone willing to try a trebuchet. . . .

And note this: “But behind the barricades, there were thousands of people working together to support the front lines. It’s an important lesson that logistics is what ultimately wins battles.”

UPDATE: A number of commenters note that this only worked because the government wasn’t willing to shoot enough people. Well, they tried:

As someone who reported from Eastern Europe during the fall of Communist regimes there, I recognized a recurring pattern in the collapse a quarter century later of the regime in Kiev. Regimes can stay in power in an age of mass media only if they have enough murderers willing to gun down people in the street. Snipers were willing to kill their fellow countrymen in the streets around the Maidan last Thursday, but their superiors reached a breaking point when the shots didn’t achieve the desired level of fear. “The shooting stopped when the security chiefs realized the game was over — not because they didn’t have enough Kalashnikovs, but because they proved ineffective: For one person killed, many more came out on the Maidan,” Maria Semykoz, a Ukrainian economist from Lvov, told me by e-mail.

That’s often the dynamic. And security forces are often quite unwilling to fire on masses of unarmed fellow-citizens. Even with Tiananmen, the Chinese government had to try two or three times, finally using Mongolian troops. And, if the protesters were as well-organized as it sounds, they probably knew where the security folks live, and had plans to take the fight to them personally in the event of a slaughter. At any rate, in an era of personalized communications technology, mass slaughter is harder to get away with than it was in the era of the Tiananmen massacre.