In Ukraine, insurgency may be next – Grid News

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In Ukraine, insurgency may be next

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not producing the lightning victory Russian President Vladimir Putin may have wished for and some had anticipated. Ukrainian resistance has been stiffer and Russian units less effective than many thought. There are reports of desertions and units bogged down by mechanical difficulties. That said, this much is all but certain: Any protracted conventional military campaign can end only in the eventual defeat of Ukrainian forces.

But glimmers of what may come next — beyond the conventional military-to-military fight — are already coming into view. The Ukrainian government has been handing out rifles to any citizen able to produce a passport. There have been many takers — well-trained, untrained and those in between — who are being formed into a sort of “home guard” to contribute to the defense of their cities. Images on social media of ordinary citizens collecting glass bottles for use as Molotov cocktails hearken back to scenes of popular resistance against Soviet tanks in Budapest in 1956, or Poles fighting the Germans during World War II. All indications are that defiant nationalist fervor, and the willingness of ordinary Ukrainian citizens to resist the Russians at all cost, is now at a fever pitch.

And while disorganized popular resistance, however valiant, cannot hope to prevail in today’s Ukraine any more than was the case in ’50s-era Hungary or wartime Poland, there are also clear indications of the potential for a more viable, sustainable and effective resistance to Russian occupation. Indeed, the effort may already be underway.

Outside Ukrainian cities, barricaded checkpoints have been set up, often manned by seasoned veterans of the struggle in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. Slowly ratcheting tensions with Russia have given these fighters time to organize and prepare at the local level. For people with serious military experience, it is not a terribly long reach from organizing and supplying checkpoints to mounting insurgent hit-and-run attacks. And once the military-to-military war has ended, or ebbed, those graying veterans may have active-duty soldiers returning home to join them.

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Meanwhile, although NATO member states have made clear their soldiers are not coming to fight for Ukraine, several European nations are sending weapons to the country. One hopes the Ukrainian military is making provisions to store and disperse their stocks of Javelin (anti-tank) and Stinger (anti-air) missiles for potential insurgent use.

In war, there often comes a moment when the invading army claims control of the country or territory in question and those under occupation take their fight underground (figuratively, and sometimes literally as well). This is the moment when military resistance ends and armed insurgency against the occupiers begins. It may come soon in Ukraine.

An insurgent’s landscape: What’s needed

In any insurgency, terrain matters. Urban (better) versus rural; mountains (better) versus flat farmland. Those wishing to mount an insurgency against the Russians in Ukraine will not have the advantage of, say, the mountain redoubts and hidden pathways common in Afghanistan. There are few topographical advantages for would-be insurgents in Ukraine. The country is as flat as any in Europe.

What they will have instead is the dense human landscape of Ukraine’s cities. There are five cities in Ukraine with populations greater than 1 million; in these and smaller cities, civilians — organized at the street, neighborhood and district levels — will have the enormous advantages of anonymity and local knowledge. Alleyways, underground garages, basement tunnels and so forth will help.

Ease of movement and communication matters, too. As with any tactical military units, Ukrainian insurgents will need to move, shoot and communicate with one another. It will be essential to secure vehicles and fuel, though units should operate locally, minimizing their movements, for security and tactical reasons. They would be wise to systematically destroy urban security-camera networks, which the occupiers can use to determine the origins of insurgent attacks.

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Help from outside

In addition to local hideouts and gathering places, it will be critical that a Ukrainian insurgency has safe havens outside major cities, and organizational bases outside the nation’s borders, beyond the easy reach of their Russian tormentors. Here the idea is to have secure places to train and refit, and bases from which to smuggle new stocks of ammunition, supplies, anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons, and explosives. The ongoing flight of Ukrainians to neighboring countries may provide a huge pool of candidates to provide logistical and other support from the outside.

At least as important will be secure means of communication, both among tactical units within Ukraine and support bases outside. Insurgents can expect suffocating efforts by the Russians to identify, track and neutralize insurgent units; the smaller such units are, and the less knowledge they have of other teams, the better. To be effective, however, these units will need to coordinate their attacks, which would argue for the means to communicate securely and anonymously with unknown comrades in other areas; this, in turn, would demand secure and robust command-and-control from outside.

Clearly, the levels of sophistication required for training, equipping and coordinating an effective insurgency within Ukraine will necessitate support from the West, and particularly — though by no means exclusively — from the U.S.

One would hope that such support is in place now.

Lessons: the history

The long history of U.S. support for various insurgents around the world has not always been edifying, to say the least. Operationally and morally, U.S.-led insurgencies have committed sins of omission and commission both. CIA and British support to ill-prepared Albanian anti-communists in the early years of the Cold War sent many to their deaths. Laotian hill tribes paid a fearsome price for their association with U.S. great-power policies of the ’50s and ’60s. And even successful insurgencies can produce unintended consequences of a nasty sort, as we have learned in Afghanistan.

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The compulsion to do something is never justification enough when the recipients of our aid stand to suffer disproportionately to any possible gain. At the other end of the act-don’t act spectrum, there is the example of Syria, where a paralyzing fear that American aid might fall into terrorists’ hands caused the Obama administration to freeze in inaction at an early stage of the 2011 uprising, when support to President Bashar al-Assad’s secular opponents could have been decisive and might have precluded the eventual rise of a radical Islamist insurgency.

In the Ukraine war, to continue the metaphor, the U.S. and its allies are certainly not “freezing”; they are already providing equipment to the Ukrainian military that may be transferred to insurgents — ammunition, sophisticated weaponry, secure communications tools and more. Support from those outside bases will be critical as well.

It is impossible to take effective action in a violent struggle of this sort and come away with clean hands. Of that, at least, history assures us.

But in a circumstance where prudence clearly dictates against direct Western military intervention, surely our strategic interest and our common decency both compel us to provide what assistance we can to those who are willing to defend their freedom and their dignity.

The costs

The occupation of a restive, actively resistant country of 44 million will require a force much larger than the one Russia sent in to defeat the Ukrainian army. A procession of coffins returning to the motherland is likely to put many Russians in mind of the ultimately failed Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. No Russians have willingly signed up for that.


But make no mistake: There will also be unintended negative consequences of any assistance the West provides to an insurgency against the Russians. Assuming the Russians install a Quisling government in Kyiv, assassinations of Ukrainian civilians associated with such a government are but one possibility.

We can anticipate that the Russian reaction to insurgency will be one of naked brutality. This was the experience of insurgent fighters in Chechnya in the 1990s, when their hideouts were heavily bombed by the Russians, with no regard for civilian casualties nor collateral damage. More recently, Russia actively supported the use of so-called barrel bombs by the Syrian government, weapons designed to maximize civilian casualties in insurgent areas. Such actions may bring further sanctions and opprobrium from the international community, but these have been severe already.

Putin himself may be beyond rational calculation at this stage, and he may even be tempted to take reckless actions against other neighboring states providing support to insurgents. But this should not deter support for a Ukrainian insurgency. The price for the course Putin is taking is one that Russians must learn — both now and for the future.

Ukrainians themselves will assume great risks to resist the subjugation of their country. Many will surely die. The question is whether they will do so in vain or in a cause that ultimately wins the day.

  • Robert Grenier
    Robert Grenier

    Special Contributor

    Robert Grenier served as a career intelligence officer and former head of counterterrorism at the CIA.