Oft Forgotten But Critical Elements of Ukrainian Resistance
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military has fought tenaciously to stop Russia’s advance into large population centers, as the current siege of Mariupol illustrates. Western countries are delivering a torrent of weapons, ordnance, and other military aid to Ukraine. Countries around the world have signed on to severe economic sanctions against Russia. President Volodymyr Zelensky continues to rally the population from Kyiv, despite looming encirclement and repeated attacks.
Still, Russian forces are slowly advancing. Ukrainian citizens are already being brought into the fight to resist Russian forces, and their role becomes even more important in the parts of Ukraine falling under Russian occupation. Insurgency and civil resistance are likely to play a critical role as the war drags on, especially if Russia is able to occupy larger portions of Ukraine.
While Ukraine’s armed forces are proving themselves capable, no resistance can succeed without an effective auxiliary and underground. The civil element will be essential in the current conflict. Ukraine’s special operators and armed guerillas will be removed from the battlefield quickly if they lack safe havens to rest and refit, or to communicate securely with and take direction from Ukraine’s government — whether it remains in Kyiv, displaces to western Ukraine, or moves into exile.
I’ve spent the last eight years as a civil affairs officer with assignments in U.S. Special Operations Command. That means I focus on the relationships between military and civil actors in pursuit of political objectives — and in my case, usually in Europe, where NATO allies and other partners have adjusted to the increased threat posed by Russia since its 2014 seizure of Crimea. As such, I have been looking at unfolding events in Ukraine with no shortage of professional and personal interest. While Western military aid to Ukraine is critical, the outcome of this war might hinge on whether Ukraine can establish and maintain an auxiliary and underground to continue the struggle against Russian occupation forces.
Transition from War to National Resistance
In urban combat, the defender typically has the advantage. The relentless grind of liberating Mosul in 2016 (nine months and estimates of up to 11,000 civilian deaths) or Raqqa in 2017 (five months and estimates of 1,600 civilian deaths) from a determined defender is sobering. These battles, however, occurred under a coalition that attempted to minimize civilian casualties. Russia’s tactics in the ongoing siege of Mariupol, as well as its tactics in past wars, point towards a different way of war: Moscow intends to bombard Ukrainian cities into submission with artillery and missile strikes. Further, U.S. officials have warned that Russia may be considering using chemical weapons, which would be a tragically effective means of subduing cities. This does not bode well for the valiant efforts of Ukraine’s armed forces to defend population centers through conventional means. Moreover, prolonged combat is likely to significantly attrit Ukraine’s most capable special operations forces, who cannot be easily replaced.
Russia already occupies Ukrainian cities in the country’s south and east. As Michael Kofman discussed in a recent episode of the War on the Rocks podcast, Ukrainian military units might soon be forced to withdraw from the east to avoid envelopment by advancing Russian forces from the south and east. Over the coming weeks, many more Ukrainians who are unable to flee are likely to find themselves behind the front lines, living under Russian occupation. However, this only changes the character of resistance in a specific area, not its nature, as conventional force-on-force combat will be replaced by violent and non-violent resistance. Resistance forces will likely shift to keeping enemy forces off balance and preventing political consolidation of their geographic gains. While the main armed forces of Ukraine continue to take defensive actions along the front lines, surviving territorial defense forces, special operations units, and guerrilla elements in occupied territory will continue to ambush and harass the occupier. An effective resistance will incorporate multiple networks in addition to an armed guerrilla element. The citizens currently banding together to fashion Molotov cocktails and block approaches to their cities will contribute to a national resistance effort as part of the auxiliary, shadow government, or underground.
While most observers tend to focus on the pointy end of resistance — military elements — to be effective, a resistance movement must be able to provide direction to its disparate elements while retaining operational security and resilience in the face of determined efforts by occupying intelligence services. This means an underground, shadow government, and auxiliary are critical, as well as an overt political element (if permitted by the occupier in some form). It is therefore vital that policymakers have a close understanding of what these involve.
The underground is the active, day-to-day leadership of the resistance, and will often form as cells to operate in urban areas. It conducts both political and military actions, from intelligence and counterintelligence, to running media networks, to sabotage. The underground will maintain communication with the legitimate national government, recruit and train new members, and organize finances for the resistance. It will also work to get information in and out of the occupied territory, helping to sustain effective information operations.
The auxiliary describes citizens who remain in place after occupation and provide part-time support, often providing information on adversary activities or undertaking small tasks. Their networks of patriotic individuals can report on troop movements, support information operations, or help with logistics for operations. The auxiliary also provides the underground leadership with an excellent way to vet recruits for reliability before assigning them more sensitive tasks.
The public component is overt and political, operating in the occupied area to serve as the public face of resistance. Its activities are limited by what the occupier is willing to permit, such as opposition political parties or patriotic civic leaders left in position from before the conflict. They can seek to negotiate with occupying forces, communicate with the government-in-exile, and rally nonviolent resistance. Russian occupation forces are unlikely to tolerate much overt opposition, however. Recent incidents involving disappearances of civic leaders indicate that the occupying force will coerce them, and if necessary replace them. In Ukraine, a public component to resistance inside occupied territory may be a less active element.
Making the resistance organization effective will involve a tradeoff between control and survivability. Greater centralization makes the organization more vulnerable to collaborators, technical surveillance, and other enemy action. Too little, however, and the various cells in occupied territory cannot combine efforts or effects. Currently, Ukrainian resistance can afford to be more centralized, but in some parts of the country this is likely to change. Inside occupied territory, a shadow government provides clandestine governance, serving as the link between the population and the legitimate government-in-exile. This can greatly increase popular support for the resistance, assisting in recruiting for the other elements.
The existence of a legitimate national government, whether in unoccupied territory or in exile, is invaluable to a resistance movement. Acting in service of a recognized government not only increases political legitimacy, but it can also help to set limits of acceptable resistance behavior, increasing adherence to the rule of law. Russia appears to have anticipated this challenge, preparing a “kill-or-capture” list of Ukrainians who may lead resistance efforts. However, the initial combat and guerrilla activity will lead resistance groups to identify leaders who can assume positions of greater responsibility in the network, provided that they can maintain sufficient operational security to evade capture. While Ukraine may not have had time to identify the leaders of its various cells before the crisis, these individuals will need to establish communications with the shadow government to ensure that their activities accord with the national government’s resistance concept.
Making Resistance Happen
The war in Ukraine is highly likely to lead to an increased focus on resilience and resistance across and beyond the continent. Ukraine boasts a population of over 40 million people and is the largest country in Europe. Occupying the entire country will prove immensely difficult, and any force attempting to do so would likely focus on major population areas, lines of communication, and areas of economic significance. Russia’s estimated 200,000 troops committed to Ukraine are five times below the generally accepted 25 soldiers to 1,000 population ratio for a counterinsurgency, and that doesn’t take into account the forces dedicated to continued combat operations along the front lines. Russia’s National Guard, or Rosgvardiya, is likely to serve as the occupying security force in Ukraine. Its forces have capabilities similar to conventional motor rifle units, focus on internal dissent, and report directly to Putin. The spaces behind the front lines of Russian conventional forces, but beyond the control of Rosgvardiya units, will provide ample opportunity for resistance activity, including training, medical treatment, and logistical support. Guerrillas may find operating in garrisoned urban areas with enemy intelligence threats difficult, so the auxiliary and underground can take the lead there.
The United States may find itself asked to assist partners in implementing resistance beyond the delivery of armaments. In order to best enable the Ukrainian people to resist, policymakers need a working understanding of what the U.S. military can offer. The U.S. armed forces have more experience of training foreign soldiers than midwifing a robust and survivable resistance network, but the renewed demands of great-power competition have shifted more resources and attention to the latter. Recently, U.S. forces have partnered with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to support their continued efforts to prepare for any crisis that may threaten their sovereignty. Since 2015, Special Operations Command Europe also supported the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine with trainers for the Ukrainian special operations assessment, selection, and qualification process.
I recently spent seven months through mid-January 2022 overseeing the civil-military support elements operating in Europe. These teams worked closely with various military and civil actors to enhance national resilience in the face of persistent Russian coercion. The civil affairs units tasked to operate as civil-military support elements focus on supporting governance and civil network development, especially those networks that play an outsized role in promoting resilience before a crisis. Such volunteer organizations bring together patriots who can prepare themselves and their communities to support the government, becoming an integrated part of the nation’s plan — either as the underground or auxiliary — well before a crisis. And during conflict, providing governance becomes a contest: An active shadow government that acts on behalf of the legitimate national government, discouraging collaboration with the occupiers, may help to prevent Russia from firmly consolidating control of cities like Mariupol.
Special Forces detachments, Navy SEALs, and Marine Raiders are well suited to increasing a partner’s special operations or guerrilla capability to respond to crisis or aggression. As trainers, they can make partnered special operations units more lethal and survivable individually, as well as more integrated with the territorial defense forces that become part of the guerrilla element in an occupation. The ability to threaten the enemy’s rear or logistics is invaluable, and can be accomplished by elements too small to allow an occupier to easily mass combat power against them.
Psychological operations teams bring the ability to inform and influence the adversary, friendly populations, or outside observers. Preparing resistance elements for this task is especially important today when the world follows conflicts via social media. The importance of information in galvanizing support and degrading the aggressor’s information warfare is readily apparent, after weeks of extensively reported aggression and civilian suffering led to crushing sanctions and other responses — responses considered too extreme to garner necessary support only days prior to Russia’s invasion. Degrading Russian morale while bolstering Ukraine’s will to resist will require effective information operations inside occupied territory, a role usually filled by parts of the underground with auxiliary support. Ukraine’s ability to control the narrative while garnering international support, as noted by Stephen Kotkin, is “a fabulous thing to have in place.”
All the necessary elements for a successful resistance exist in Ukraine but bringing them together requires coordination: A state’s resistance groups should not exist in stovepipes. Meeting requests from allied nations for support will require a corresponding U.S. policy that prioritizes interagency and international cooperation to avoid stovepipes of its own. Bordering and nearby countries play decisive roles in routing outside support to the legitimate government. When it comes to identifying potential safe havens, refugee support plans, or staging points to send aid into a crisis-struck country, continuing to work with allies will improve the eventual response.
Finally, and relatedly, in using special operations capabilities American policymakers should learn from two starkly different force employments. First, beginning with recent events, Kofman noted that one reason that Russian elite units performed so poorly is that they were not employed to fight in ways that comported with their training and unique capabilities. America’s special operations forces offer niche and specialized capabilities that have become even more niche and specialized, in some cases, in the last decade. Policymakers should play to the advantages of these units if they choose to use them, rather than fighting against those comparative advantages. Second, during America’s war in Afghanistan, different special operations communities did not always integrate effectively in a way that combined their effects. There are many reasons for this, but one plausible cause was a lack of top-down alignment between different levels of command. Today, the National Security Council ought to ensure that the secretary of defense, the Joint Staff, European Command, and Special Operations Command Europe are in close alignment on strategy, the specifics of this mission, and who is leading at relevant levels.
Barring a negotiated settlement or Russian political calculation that continued occupation is not in its interests, the likelihood of a protracted conflict is high. Mobilizing a resistance movement that encompasses all elements of Ukrainian society will be invaluable in reestablishing its sovereignty. If Ukraine’s national government can continue to lead the resistance from outside of occupied territory, it will sustain international support and give Ukraine a decisive edge in the battle of wills between the occupier and the occupied. The civil component of the resistance will be especially valuable to draw in the population at large, reinforce national identity, and frustrate Russian efforts to exert political control. The lessons learned from Ukraine’s resistance efforts will also influence preparation in other countries that face a similar threat, which may mean that other nations will not have to put their planning to the same desperate test.
Maj. Walter Haynes is assigned to the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policies or positions of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or any part of the U.S. government.