Meet the retired Army officer coaching Ukrainian fighters from afar in urban warfare

Retired Army Major John Spencer's advice has been gaining traction, with his instructions being translated into more than five languages.

Published: April 10, 2022 6:40pm

Updated: April 10, 2022 11:40pm

He isn't quite a "Lawrence of Ukraine," but this American expert on urban warfare has been gaining traction coaching Ukrainian fighters from afar, with his instructions being translated into more than five languages.

Retired Army Major John Spencer's "Mini Manual for the Urban Defender" has been distributed to Ukrainian fighters, with the fourth version being translated into Latvian, Romanian, Japanese, and soon Mandarin.

"It really started off with my one viral tweet" shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Spencer told Just the News. 

One tweet in the long thread advised: "You have the power but you have to fight smart. The urban defense is hell for any soldier. It usually takes 5 attackers to 1 defender. Russians do not have the numbers. Turn Kyiv and any urban area leading to Kyiv into a porcupine."

Another tweet in the thread prescribed: "Block them with cars, trucks, concrete, wood, trash, anything! Then block any spot in the city where there are tall buildings on each side." 

Spencer has since become a regular on news shows such as CNN, NBC, and the BBC, advising Ukrainians how to block roads with dump trucks, or to pop up from the sewers to launch sneak attacks and instructing them how to use the terrain to their advantage. 

"I started getting pictures of my tweets being printed off and handed to Ukrainian resistors," Spencer said. "And then to my surprise, the Ukrainian government, their ministry of defense, set up a website for information for resistance," including how to make a Molotov cocktail homemade firebomb and where to throw it. "They took directly from my manual, and made a page and then credited me at the bottom." 

The government also printed a pocket-sized version of the manual, with illustrations.

A combat veteran and former instructor for the U.S. Army Ranger School, Spencer is the chair of urban warfare studies with the Madison Policy Forum. He also was a colonel in the California Army National Guard, serving as the director of urban warfare training. His book "Connected Soldiers" is set to be published in July, and another on urban warfare will come out later this year.

The war in Ukraine caught his attention, he said, because this is his field of expertise. 

"It primarily started off as really advice to civilians, and what we call civilian resistance," he said. "It really started off with the fact that the Ukrainian government was asking the civilians to resist."

The government wanted to mobilize the population to defend against the attack. "I hate to see that because when civilians get involved, they're no longer civilians," Spencer said. "They're combatants, and can be targeted under the laws of war. But it was really more about protection than it was about fighting." 

The instructions lead off with a set of standing orders for the urban defender.

"Use any and all underground facilities," begins Rule 6. "If there are none beneath you, start digging."

"Always have an escape plan after attacking," says Rule 10. "Put holes in walls, floors, and ceilings so you can run between rooms and buildings when the enemy bombs are falling, or if they are too close to you."

Spencer laughed when asked if it is fair to compare him to T.E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia," the famed British Army officer who helped the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Spencer noted that he is not personally fighting in Ukraine, but is monitoring and advising from the U.S.  

And, he added, Ukrainians have been taking his advice.

"I tried to get the messages out in so many different ways," Spencer said. "I hope they pay attention."

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