Why a Ukrainian Insurgency Would Succeed
Russian troops trying to permanently occupy parts of the country will face disciplined resistance.
By Stathis Kalyvas
On March 2nd and 3rd, the advancing Russian army was dealt a devastating blow outside a small Ukrainian town named Voznesensk, in the country’s south. The Ukrainians managed to almost totally destroy an entire Russian battalion tactical group on a road leading to the strategically important city of Odessa. Their defense was based on coordinated action between the Ukrainian military, citizen militias made up of local volunteers, and ordinary civilians who provided information about Russian positions. This effective mobilization reflected the widespread support ordinary Ukrainians feel for the anti-Russian cause: As the town’s 32-year old mayor told a journalist, “We are defending our own land. We are at home.”
Even though Putin appears to have abandoned plans for a full-scale annexation, the battle of Voznesensk provided a preview of what lies in store if the Russians attempt to retain a foothold by occupying and ruling large stretches of Ukraine. There is no question that Russia’s firepower is far greater than Ukraine’s. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the Ukrainians have the capability to develop and sustain an effective insurgency if they need to.
To understand how, we can point to three key factors: popular support, grassroots organization, and Ukrainians’ ability to weather a Russian counterinsurgency.
Let us begin with popular support. Fighting an insurgency is a high-risk, clandestine undertaking, given the asymmetry of power between the occupying forces and the insurgents. The emergence of a successful Ukrainian insurgency against Russian troops will therefore rest initially on the breadth and depth of a popular sentiment: nationalism.
It should be evident by now that nationalist sentiment is both deep and widespread in Ukraine. This is the result of a process that began with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the separatist war in the Donbas, which triggered an uneven political realignment away from the dominant geographic and ethnolinguistic cleavage that dominated Ukrainian politics until then—West vs. East, Ukrainian speakers vs. Russian speakers. It was a realignment in support of the country’s territorial integrity against Russia, now perceived as the country’s main enemy. The cruelty and destruction that accompanied Russia’s recent invasion further cemented Ukrainian nationalism.
However, it would be wrong to assume that nationalism in and of itself is enough to generate and sustain an effective insurgency. It would also require significant grassroots organization: a network of local cells spanning cities and villages that would connect civilians with each other, and allow them to form the kind of protective shell that makes insurgent action possible.
Such an organization would not be hard to set up. It could rely on existing associations such as the all-volunteer Territorial Defense Forces, a militia that formed in the wake of Russia's 2014 takeover of Crimea and which has ramped up dramatically this year. The men and women who joined this militia span a remarkable cross-section of Ukrainian society: young and old, military veterans and inexperienced civilians, united only by their shared attachment to their country. A survey conducted before the invasion found that 32% of Ukrainians were ready to join the force. It is not hard to imagine this body becoming the backbone of a successful Ukrainian insurgency.
Relying on Ukrainians abroad would be essential in this respect. The UN estimates that as of April 3rd, 4.2 million people have left Ukraine. Although most of them intend to return when the war is over, past experience suggests that many will not. If Russia occupies important segments of the country in the south and east, these refugees are likely to grow into a large diaspora that would settle across Europe, lobby European governments for military assistance, and feed a Ukrainian insurgency for many years. Their ability to use neighboring countries as safe havens will be vital. It is possible to imagine training camps and other military operations being set up in Western Ukraine or in neighboring countries such as Poland and the Baltic states.
Another characteristic of successful insurgencies is their ability to adapt to local environments. In the case of Ukraine, large urban centers could become hotbeds of civilian disobedience that would complicate the exercise of power by occupation authorities—something we have already witnessed in Kherson. Cities would become hubs for clandestine insurgent cells relying on hit-and-run tactics, acts of sabotage, bombings, and targeted assassinations of Russian occupiers.
Meanwhile, the vast Ukrainian countryside could easily host a guerrilla army relying on ambush tactics. Such an army would rely both on proven techniques like improvised explosive devices, and emerging technologies such as “kamikaze drones” to attack the Russian forces. Ukraine is now flush with light weapons including some of the most sophisticated anti-armor technology; thousands of civilian reservists are currently being trained in their use. This combination of urban and rural disobedience would be devastating against a foreign occupier with limited local knowledge.
Of course, even the most successful Ukrainian campaign would be a tragedy. Countless lives would be lost and the damage to civil society would be long-lasting. The Russians would respond with their own counterinsurgency: As we have seen in Syria and Chechnya, and as we are already witnessing in Ukraine, Putin is not averse to the use of devastating force against civilian populations. This is sometimes known as “counterinsurgency on the cheap”: a scorched earth tactic of indiscriminate violence, designed to push civilians to make the choice between submission and survival.
Nevertheless, it is possible to say that a Ukrainian insurgency would spread and ultimately endure. Ukrainians are fighting for their homeland. They are highly motivated, well organized, and extremely resilient. An insurgency would almost certainly disrupt the Russian occupation and would turn it into an expensive and painful quagmire. To top it all, Ukraine would likely have substantial external assistance from a large diaspora, neighboring countries, and a superpower (the US). It is not so much a matter of Ukraine “winning” as it is of holding out long enough to not lose. The main unknown is how far the Russians would be willing to go to stop them—how much more of their own blood and resources they would be prepared to expend, and, equally importantly, how many more Ukrainian lives they would be willing to take in the process.
Stathis Kalyvas is Gladstone Professor of Government at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on global trends in political violence.