Can Ukrainian Resistance Foil a Russian Victory?
The plans of a country facing invasion by a larger foe rest on a fragile hope: Once a nation’s conventional defenses are defeated, a pre-planned, citizen resistance will arise and contest the occupying invaders. Partisan warfare will impose costs on the occupiers, prevent the enemy from consolidating gains, and create the time and space required to receive external support for liberation. If Russia launches a fresh invasion, Ukraine will surely seek to fall back on such a strategy. Kyiv’s resistance plans — which have been carefully and loudly choreographed — are a key part of its hopes to deter Russia. Still, questions remain about Ukraine’s calculation for committing to a partisan-style guerrilla war. If Russia invades, will Ukraine’s partisans fight, survive, and change strategic outcomes? Would the threat of a citizen resistance, across the depth and breadth of Ukraine, meet its promise?
As a former U.S. Army special operations officer, I have spent some time building resistances or fighting them. On behalf of the Joint Special Operations University, I have more recently worked with countries to help craft resistance strategies as part of their total defense plans. In my experience, state-sponsored resistance movements defy easy categorization. Few stock templates exist because resistance plans are crafted to the political will, geographic constraints, alliance structures, and social dynamics of a given nation-state. It is also difficult to predict the behaviors of citizen resistors under the stress of invasion and occupation. Although I cannot predict what will happen, I can offer a framework to better understand the role of Ukraine’s citizen-resistance plans in resisting a Russian invasion.
A citizen-resistance must show enough of its capability to be feared. This truth comes in handy in the mountains nearby my home. When I see a bear while hiking, I calmly raise my arms and side-embrace anyone with me to look like a hyper-sized, multi-limbed threat. The bear experiences just enough doubt to pause and move on, seeking easier prey. Resistance, employed as a deterrent, has a similar effect. When a state threatens to fight a superior force with a motley collection of citizen-patriots, it must show enough width and breadth to make the invader pause. Ukraine has a credible threat in this regard. With its seven-year history of citizen-militias, quasi-official proxies, and official resistance formations, there is no question that invading forces will be met by gutsy irregulars. Ukraine has a Territorial Defense Force structure of over 150 battalions, geographically assigned to cover all of Ukrainian territory. These units are not uniformly functional, nor are they fully manned and equipped. However, they do provide a localized agency by which to organize infrastructure security and resistance. Ukraine is vocally advertising its resistance movement as one of many signals intended to deter invasion.
As I have previously discussed in Small Wars Journal, Ukrainian resistance units formed organically and spontaneously in 2014, often funded by private-sector oligarchs, rather than the state. Since then, Ukraine has regulated or incorporated many of these irregulars into the fabric of its defense plans. A recent poll indicated that 24 percent of Ukrainians plan to engage in armed resistance if attacked. The Ukrainian armed forces are currently outnumbered and face potential invading forces from the north (Belarus), east (Russia) and south (Crimea, Black Sea, Transnistria). If such an envelopment occurs, resistance forces will be required to fight when and where Ukrainian regulars cannot. Ukraine’s visible partisan warfare plan, when coupled with other deterrence measures, is aimed at deterring a new Russian offensive.
Switzerland employed such a strategy in 1940. When Nazi Germany conquered and occupied much of Europe in the spring and summer of 1940, tiny, neutral Switzerland was fully surrounded by Axis powers. Switzerland mobilized 400,000 citizen-soldiers, and planned to fight in the cities and destroy civil infrastructure before withdrawing to the Alps — favorable terrain for a guerrilla resistance. German staff estimates concluded that Switzerland could only be conquered with a massive commitment of Wehrmacht combat power. As such, Hitler decided against an attack. Other factors contributed, of course: Swiss industrial output, favorable neutrality and banking policies, and demands on German forces elsewhere. Still, Swiss preparedness to resist was a major factor. Spared in the summer of 1940, the Swiss successfully deterred in the moment and, as it turned out, for the rest of the war. Like the Swiss, the goal of Ukraine’s resistance build is to prevent an invasion instead of fighting one.
A Legal Framework
Ukraine passed an innovative law, “On the Foundations of National Resistance,” in July 2021. The law creates a legal framework by which to incorporate, organize, and guide a citizen resistance, as well as a specification of the role of irregulars, militias, and other citizen resistance actions. Since the Ukrainian government understands that not all resistance is productive resistance, the law sets legal boundaries by which the state can monitor, contain, or block counter-productive resistance.
The specter of all citizens taking up arms in a chaotic moment is as nightmarish to Ukraine as it is to Russia. Such chaos could advantage Russia, as it did in February 2014, when Russia snatched Crimea in a lightning strike of creative statecraft. The precipitating event for Russia’s Crimea takeover was a Ukrainian political crisis that led to widespread anti-government protests and civil unrest. In today’s unfolding crisis, Ukraine fears the unlawful spaces where Russian hybrid tactics thrive. Ukraine seeks to avoid wholesale societal breakdown, even if such chaos directly threatens invading Russians. The Ukrainian government has passed legal frameworks to prevent the emergence of chaos that advantages Russia.
The power of resistance movements is their ability to bring opposition to scale, presenting multiple dilemmas to skilled, but task-saturated occupying forces. Resistance movements are, by definition, under-gunned and will lose in a conventional fight. Ukrainian planners are aware that Russian regular forces can and will take terrain, if ordered to do so. Furthermore, Russian tactical battle groups will not cede terrain to Ukrainian regulars, much less to the citizen-farmer defending his land with a hunting rifle. The widespread use of civil resistance, amplified by social media, presents a challenge to invading forces who will be intensely focused on winning kinetic battles.
In their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan provide evidence that non-violent movements that mobilize citizenry on a broad scale have increased rates of successful liberation. One advantage for non-violent resistance movements is that the barriers to entry are comparatively low. Whereas skilled special operators take years to select and train, civil resistance has a participation advantage in that there are zero qualifying requirements. For Ukraine, with its massive population, size matters. If Ukraine can provide resistance at scale, it will be difficult for Russia to contain, like jumping on an air-filled parachute.
Expect Ukraine to employ violent resistance and civil resistance in tandem. While it is nearly impossible to predict how civil resistance might look in the face of a Russian conventional invasion, it is likely that Ukrainian officials have some pre-planned ideas about its employment. As a tactic, civil resistance presents difficult choices to the security forces – in this case, Russians or pro-Russian groups – that have to suppress or stop non-violent actions. The overuse of violence to suppress civil resistance is a strategic blunder in waiting. Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaims Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” Civil resistances, on a wide scale, will test Putin’s willingness to escalate against a population that he claims to respect and honor.
The power of wide-scale, high-participation citizen-centric acts of resistance is best when paired with its opposite: the hidden, highly skilled few. Ukraine has properly selected, reasonably equipped, and well-prepared special operations-type forces. The devastating impact of the sniper is as real in 2022 as it was in 1922, when Ukraine fought for its independence against the Soviet Army. A single, well-placed saboteur can wreak havoc on the advance of a larger, superior, invading force. While snipers, saboteurs, hacktivists, urban guerrillas, and demolition experts are not decisive by themselves, they are cost-imposing nodes of a distributed network. Done right, these nodes introduce sludge and sand into the gears of an otherwise superior military machine.
Ukraine already has seven years of experience on a frustrating and static skirmish line. Over these years, they have invested in agile special operations-styled forces who are designed to avoid fixed lines and frontal assaults. Instead, they attack seams, gaps, and make enemy forces pay high costs. The United States and select NATO allies have assisted Ukrainian special operations in developing higher competencies in these difficult and dangerous tasks. Substantial weapons packages, such as shoulder-launched Javelin anti-tank missiles, add to this trained threat. Ukraine has a markedly better low-density, high-payoff capability than it did in 2014. If invaded, there will be strong political will to use it.
Should Russia further invade, a small minority of Ukrainians could be expected to cooperate and collaborate with occupying forces. How should Ukraine manage such collaborators? Doing so, while adhering to the rule of law and the laws of armed conflict, will be a challenge. Collaborators evade detection by hiding in plain sight. How? Today’s law-abiding citizen is tomorrow’s collaborator. Active and passive collaboration remains one of the most difficult dynamics to detect, map, and defeat.
Part of the Russian playbook is to inspire, embolden, and support sympathizers inside targeted regions. For example, a recent United Kingdom intelligence report claims that Russia is angling to install a Moscow-aligned regime in Kyiv. Whether it is top-down or bottom-up meddling, Moscow routinely nurtures such options and waits for openings. We can look to past Russian military incursions into Chechnya (1999), Georgia (2008), and Ukraine (2014) to understand this ploy. The Kremlin prefers to own and operate a foreign government, not conquer and clutch it. Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov is one such proxy that was installed and supported by Moscow. Backing Kadyrov has been a relatively low-cost modality of control compared to the cost of maintaining military occupying forces. The commitment of military forces is expensive and politically costly, and fighting homegrown insurgents over an extended period is a bad outcome which Putin likely wants to avoid. Stoking local collaborators is a more attractive alternative to direct military intervention.
Although we do not know how Ukraine plans to deal with potential collaborators, history offers a guide. Counter-collaboration policies are usually carried out through formal state institutions, such as law enforcement and security forces. However, there are many past examples of citizen vigilantes taking matters into their own hands.
Such a citizen-led “equivalence of wrongs” warfare took place in the Balkans in the early 1990s. When Yugoslavia began breaking apart in 1991, civility ruptured rapidly at the village level. Local, brutal, and genocidal violence quickly scaled to a level that was hard to imagine for previously peaceable neighborhoods. As a Special Forces captain, I served two tours in the Balkans amidst the rubble of villages, unmarked minefields, and terminally displaced. Much of this violence was citizen-initiated murder, justified by a thin shoot-or-be-shot explanation. In Ukraine in 2014, similar local dynamics were susceptible to a lit spark. However, pro-Russian separatists were unable to topple the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv due to the state’s civil, military, and citizen responses. The behavior of pro-Russian factions inside Ukraine are hard to predict. Though not a fail-safe, it does matter that Ukraine has recent experience in stifling or containing “war amongst the people” where collaborators fester.
The final line of the small-nation, total defense narrative imagines liberation from the occupier. Yet there are remarkably few historical cases of resistances that, by themselves, defeat the more powerful occupier. As a rule, it takes external support to tip the scales in favor of the resistance. For example, France had Britain and America in the early 1940s. North Korea had China in the 1950s, Iraqi militias had Iran in the 2000s, the Afghan mujahideen had the United States in the 1980s, and the Taliban had Pakistan in the 2000s. Ukraine, however, has no partner visibly committed to a post-occupation resistance. The rush of reassuring diplomacy, military equipment packages, and public-private sanctions are, without question, good external support. However, it is still unclear whether a Ukrainian citizen resistance would be supported when the “coalition of the willing” roll call comes.
Ukraine’s modern resistance strategy employs small-state thinking inside of big-state depth. This is a unique case with few contemporary parallels. If the Ukrainian total defense plan – bolstered by citizen-resistance – does its job well, it will succeed as a deterrence mechanism. Should this deterrence work, then citizen-soldiers will, gratefully, remain untested as a fighting force. The grand aim of the Ukrainian resistance right now is to prevent the need for a final liberation story.
Brian S. Petit is a is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He teaches and consults on strategy, planning, special operations, and resistance. He is an adjunct lecturer for the Joint Special Operations University where he focuses on resilience and resistance.