The Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven to be a turning point in European security. As Ukrainians mount a stiff defense against a more heavily armed Russian invasion force, analysts and observers have raised the prospect of an ongoing resistance, one led not only by Ukrainian army units but also by civilian defense forces and ordinary citizens. This would amount to the first case of insurgent warfare within Europe in recent memory.
Anticipating the outcome of such a conflict is difficult. But if the history of modern insurgent warfare around the world is any guide, then the conflict is likely to be exceedingly violent and protracted, with difficult political implications. An insurgency may be unavoidable. But even if it does lead to a Russian defeat, Ukrainians—and the Western policymakers who are backing them—should not deceive themselves about just how awful insurgent warfare will be.
An Insurgency Will Be Violent
Insurgent warfare is asymmetric. Although there are widespread reports of supply chain interruptions and underprovisioned troops, the Russians have superior armaments than do the Ukrainians, and a larger army as well (although it is unclear how many Russian and Ukrainian soldiers are actively engaged in the present combat). This is what leads most analysts to conclude that the Ukrainians are unlikely to defeat the Russians on the battlefield. Insurgent warfare adapts to this asymmetric distribution of armaments and personnel by making any occupation acutely painful to the occupying force.
Specifically, an insurgency will be most successful if Russian soldiers are constantly frightened. To date, the Ukrainian resistance has shown great forbearance in its treatment of captured Russian soldiers, even reportedly allowing them to call their parents. If the war shifts to a hard-fought insurgency, their tactics are likely to become more brutal and violent.
Such a turn in the character of the violence would not occur because Ukrainians are by nature brutal, nor because their leadership seeks to inflict maximum casualties on their enemy as a war aim. Rather, this turn to violence would reflect the core logic of insurgency, which is to defeat enemy forces by making their occupation intolerable. The Ukrainian resistance will be most effective if Russians are on edge, sleepless, and prone to overreactions. Russian fear and disorganization will not only make the Russian occupying force vulnerable, but also harden the resolve of the Ukrainian resistance.
An Insurgency Will Be Long and Protracted
Insurgent warfare is designed to grind down the occupying force’s resolve. This does not happen in weeks or months, especially when Russian soldiers have the option of rotating back to Russia for some respite. Successful insurgent actions often take years to bear fruit.
In the meantime, the Russians may “control” Kyiv and other major cities during the day. They may install a puppet government, like the Soviet occupying force did in Afghanistan. And they may even declare an end to military operations to create the illusion of order, and hence to portray the insurgency as a threat to the postconflict peace. But asymmetric warfare and the Ukrainians’ total defense posture—which mobilizes not only active troops but also the whole of society to defend Ukrainian territory—together mean that the Ukrainian forces will seek to engage the enemy on their own terms, not the Russians’. This is how occupying forces come to pretend that they control an entire territory, when they actually only control the main roads in the main cities during daylight hours, a central problem facing US occupying forces in both Afghanistan and Vietnam.
The Politics of Insurgency Will Be Complicated
This may be the hardest truth for Western audiences who wish to see the Ukrainian resistance defeat the Russian occupying force. It is one thing to see former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko take up arms alongside his local self-defense force, or to see retired heavyweight boxer and Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko don combat gear. It is quite another to realize that Ukrainian civil society—like civil societies the world over—contains both liberal and illiberal elements.
This means that just as the Ukrainian government is encouraging citizens to take up arms in self-defense and distributing weapons to the population, it is providing arms to illiberal elements and criminal syndicates within Ukrainian society, including the Azov Battalion, a group that has attracted far-right elements, some of whom are self-professed neo-Nazis, but that forms part of Ukraine’s civil defense. Russia’s information campaign has already begun portraying the government in Kyiv as criminal and spoken of a campaign of “denazification” of Ukrainian society; it will seize on the presence of illiberal elements within Ukrainian society to further justify its occupation. Meanwhile, of course, the Russians will probably be courting the same groups that they are vilifying, trying to enlist them as Russian allies.
This means that supporting an insurgency means supporting—indirectly—illiberal elements and antidemocratic forces in Ukrainian society for the purpose of defending Ukrainian independence. This tragic choice is inevitable. And it will have far-reaching implications for Ukrainian politics and society even if Ukrainian forces are successful in expelling the Russian occupying force from their territory.
If the ongoing invasion of Ukraine ends up becoming a Russian occupation, Ukraine’s supporters will find themselves supporting what is likely to be a long, violent, politically messy insurgency. It is essential for anyone supporting the Ukrainian insurgency to confront this uncomfortable reality now. But does knowing this likely future offer any hope for avoiding it?
Ideally, supporters of the Ukrainian resistance would find mechanisms to channel money and weapons only to like-minded groups who reject extremism and crime. But a clear-eyed planner should realize that in irregular wars, Ukrainian forces will seek broad cooperation with any element that shares their strategic goals. As is often the case during war, common enemies make for allies of convenience. And war planners must also remember that the Russian occupiers may seek support from such extremist elements as well. There are no easy solutions to this difficult political calculation.
The most straightforward way to avoid a terrible insurgency in Ukraine is to avoid the occupation in the first place. In principle, Ukraine’s leaders could accomplish this by capitulating to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands now and surrendering Ukraine to Russia. But even if President Volodymyr Zelenskyy were to give in to Russia’s demands, allowing Putin to pick a pliable client government and demobilizing all armed elements within Ukraine, just one week of warfare seems to have hardened Ukrainian civil society against the Russian invading force. There may no longer be a negotiated solution to this war, even if Zelenskyy wishes to find one.
The other way to avoid such an insurgency is for someone—either the Ukrainians themselves, or an international coalition—to force the Russians out of Ukraine. At the moment, this seems unlikely, although the combination of robust economic sanctions and stiff resistance is making an ongoing occupation very costly. If Ukrainian forces and their international backers fail to prevent this occupation, they should steel themselves for a long and difficult insurgency in the months and years ahead.
Thomas B. Pepinsky is the Walter F. LaFeber professor of government and public policy at Cornell University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Alexander Rector, US Army
Death by thousand cuts as envisaged and practiced by the Talibans, can now be foreseen to be adopted by the Ukrainians. Russians should have known it better, notwithstanding their moral high ground and justifications for this invasion.
This geurilla warfare will be supported and abetted by the US and European powers.
It's going to be a long haul and a gruelling and bloody affair.
Russia has NO 'moral high ground', so stop it right there.
I am concerned Trump's buddy will use nuclear weapons, seeing he is at the end of his reign. He will take the world down with him.
I'm wondering if the stockpiles of Molotov cocktails are going to be used to make ground denial IEDs.
Although the campaign so far couldn't have gone any better for Ukraine I think we haven't seen the bloodiest part of the fighting. The ones making mistakes will be killed off and an attrition battle is likely to come with kill or be killed stakes. If Ukraine can be nimble enough to avoid encirclement, stop rapid gains, and keep the Russians at the current rate of loss they will win. On the other hand if Russia takes the political capital and becomes more efficient it could go the other way. Tactical madness from the Russians their leadership must be very unsteady.
Also internally Ramzan Kadyrov maybe key, large scale economic loss and military failure will destabilise his rule. Whether he will look for new allies is yet to be seen.
Russia’s moral high ground? What a bunch of nonsense. Russia is so cynical about their motives they don’t even make sense. “Denazify” and demilitarize the Ukraine? Guarantees it not join NATO, membership in which would have prevented Russia’s invasion in the first place? (Good luck preventing Finland and Sweden’s joining NATO now). They have made it a condition of negotiations that Ukraine pass laws to gurantee Russian is the official language? Russia doesn’t even believe these things – by making these demands they are practically openly admitting that they aren’t interested in stopping the fighting and just invaded Ukraine because they could. They aren’t even pretending to have “moral high ground.” What an absurd comment.
Talk of a sustained protracted insurgency in Ukraine may be overly optimistic. An insurgency is an extraordinarily harsh combat environment. It isn’t just trigger-pullers but requires all of society, where many of the necessary warfighting functions are embedded. In terms of “post-heroic war,” whereby a society can deal with war more readily when families are larger, insurgencies are more feasible when you have many children, as has been the case in all past insurgencies. You lose a son or two, sad, but life goes on. While each Ukrainian woman in 1940 had 4 children, today that number is 1, that is below natural population replacement. Actually, Ukraine’s population growth is negative, and many may be reluctant to support long-term insurgencies that are very high-cost to all of society. You lose your only child, your family disappears and who takes care of you in your old age? Unlike for conventional forces, there are no work-arounds (technology, contractors/mercenaries, immigrants). Emotional elan and patriotism can only go so far for so long. A guerrilla war was also predicted widely after the Russian incursions of 2014 but that settled into a confrontation with fronts and trenches. The time to pour in arms and support to try to save brave Ukraine is now.
As a counter argument allow me to point out that while the Soviets (and Americans) have lost guerilla/insurgency wars, they have also won the same kind of wars as have other countries….so "The Citizen's War" isn't always long and bloody, sometimes they are long with relatively little blood letting (the British in Malaysia) and sometimes they are relatively short like the Russians in the Chechen rebellion but extremely brutal and bloody. The Ukrainians didn't mount a significant guerilla movement against the Germans…at first. The issue of whether or not the Ukrainians put up a long and sustained fight will depend on the Russians. If the "Sanctions" really begin to drag the Russian economy down they'll have to reassess the worth of it all….but seeing as the Russians (Putin that is) has played a big bet, the chances of them just walking away are low…so they'll have to fight tooth and nail or stand the chance that Ukraine wins, enters the EU and NATO…and be really pissed at Russia. If I were a betting man, I'd bet this ends with a partition of Ukraine into a "New Ukraine", the two separatist states and a withdrawal of Russian forces after a negotiation to lift "Sanctions", not pursue War Crimes or reparations or station NATO troops in the "New Ukraine".
Or, as an outcome, Russia could well try to cut a rump Western Ukraine off from the sea by amputating the southern "Russian" territory (whether as a neo-Belarus or joining "the Motherland"), will certainly seek to destroy Ukraine's military/space industry (concentrated in Dnipro, and maybe set a new border on the Dnieper?), ) both because it strengthens Ukraine and competes with Russian sales abroad, and probably make Kiev the capital of the new tributary/satellite state. Saturating the battlespace with air defense (MANPADS and close-in a/d systems– they don't have to be Stingers: cheap SA-14s held by many countries, and Chinese-made knock-offs will do) could really raise Russia's costs and might boost Ukraine's negotiating clout.
Unfortunately, geography has dealt Ukraine a bad hand. The terrain is flat, and farmed so extensively, that in many places it is difficult to even find trees behind which regular or irregular forces can hide themselves. In this respect, Ukraine corresponds much more closely to Iraq than it does to Afghanistan, and we can expect that any ongoing insurgency will be mainly urban rather than rural. The bad news for the Ukrainians is that the Russians are likely to see the farms as being of more potential value to them than would be the cities. I can thus imagine that the Russians would thus see the extensive destruction of the cities, followed by surrounding and sealing them off, as being their best strategy. Grozny, writ large and in multiples, would become the fate of most Ukrainian urban areas. The insurgents that survive and continue to operate within those ruins would thus become largely irrelevant. They would be wasting themselves on actions that make no real difference.
This being the likely case, I thus think that our hopes on a long-term eventual victory of an insurgency against a Russian occupation are bound to be misplaced and vain. The Ukrainians are in a very bad, if not doomed, position. Painful and regretful as it is for me to say it, I must admit that they would have been better advised to have cut the best deal with the Russians as they could while they were still in a position of having some negotiating leverage. It is now unlikely that the Russians will settle for much less than complete surrender. This is a bitter end for both the Ukrainians and those of us who sympathize with and support them.
The key to this conflict is keeping President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alive. How close will the armed Ukrainian Militia get to him for protection with government trust levels? Once President Zelenskyy is removed, the war may be over. So the key to any Insurgency is to protect President Zelenskyy.
But as a Ukrainian woman said with her young child standing next to her on world news, she has tasted Freedom and she does not want to go back to the old Soviet Communist ways. She wants to fight but she will flee with her child.
Thus, what will the Ukrainian military due with Ukrainian Militia POWs? WW2 had insurgencies, but the world was at war and the professional Allied militaries went out of their way to rescue trapped Militia and POWs. Not so much the case here as the Ukrainian military lacks the power, resources, mobility, and equipment to rescue POWs. Thus we have a "World War Z" or "Red Dawn" in the movies that the insurgency has to deal with awesome Russian military power.
In order to end this conflict, the threat of real actual military air and ground force needs to be installed, be it a UN Peacekeeping Force compromised of white tanks and blue helmets, or another semi-superpower like United Nations China that can go in there and stand up to the Russians with adequate tanks and warplanes. China wants to join the UN Peacekeeping Force and China has the tanks to stand up to Russia without being an ally. If China cozies up to Russia in Ukraine, then China will lose face. President Zelenskyy can keep his power and title. Would President Zelenskyy allow the Chinese UN Blue Helmets into his country? That would be better than losing Ukraine to the Russians. NATO does not need to get involved. Only China seems to have the military might to deploy outside of NATO and the West.
Another option would be to divide Ukraine just like post-WW2 Berlin…many nations armed with ground forces to keep the peace. It doesn't need to be NATO. If the Russians continue to attack, then that is one roadblock towards World War Three in that the West and the UN tried to maintain peace and hold the ground but Russia decided to press on with a new war…then the world will know that this war is more than just the safety and borders for Russia.
Remember, during the Iraq War and Afghanistan War, those two nations' government did not appeal to the West and the world to come to the rescue. Ukraine IS appealing for world help and rescue to stave off the Russians and THAT is a HUGE difference. The US and NATO don't necessarily need to get involved with their military, but the United Nations needs to be able to form a coalition of armed force to threaten to get in there and keep the peace. If the entire UN were to walk out of the Russian Ambassador's speech, then it's the world against Russia and that may teach China a lesson about not invading Taiwan. There are many Second World Nations with adequate armies that can stand up to Russian armor and warplanes.
The world has been through this with Egypt and Israel. Israel and the Arab Nations. Israel and Gaza. There needs to be a Peacekeeping force implemented ASAP. The world just can't allow the Russians to attack nuclear power plants when the ICUs are full of COVID-19 patients. There is NO ROOM for radiation sickness ICU patients!
A "No Fly Zone" is required despite what President Putin threatened. Again, Ukraine appealed to the world for help and if the world does not respond, then it will be like rewriting "The Lord of the Rings" movie where the Humans refused and did not help the dwarves and the elves and Sauron with his Ring of Power conquered all of Middle Earth. Freedom isn't free and many nations fought for their Independence centuries ago with the help of Colonial superpowers that came to their rescue.
"If we fall—you fall," is what President Zelenskyy said and is a dire warning to keep this from going to DEFCON 4 or 3 or 2 or even the dreaded 1. Don't miss the Warning Signs on this conflict.
If Zelensky is killed, the most likely culprits will be his Right Sector body guards. If he is killed it will be because he starts talking about settling with the Russians.
The best prospects the Russians have is to negotiate a settlement with the Zelensky government. The West knows this and will do all it can to discourage Zelensky from settling or will in the last extreme, kill him.
I am disappointed in your use of the incorrect term "insurgency". Inurgency is a rebellion against authority; in Ukraine, the legitimate authority is the Ukrainian government, not Putin's army. Guerrilla warfare may be insurgent, but in this case would not be. We need to be more precise in our use of terms.
The Left- Right political spectrum is not the same in Europe as it is in America. Europe's "Right" is still considered on the "Left" in America. As such, the far-right elements referenced in the article conflate this and are are actually, like the Nazis themselves, elements of the Left. Lest we forget the true name of the Nazis:. The "National Socialist Workers Party". Everyone knows Socialism is on the Left, and that it has always had a wide authoritarian streak.
Insurgencies are winnable. Thats the lesson Russia has taken away from Chechnya and Syria. Interestingly, in recent times, only the Russians have been successful.
As all exit ramps from war are closed by the west and US led hysteria ramps up with regime change in Russia becoming the wests unstated goal, Ukraine becomes increasingly existential for Russia. Thus Russia is left with only 1 option – fight on and win. If the war in Ukraine is indeed existential – as Putin has said – then the cost of winning become unimportant.
One has only to look at the election map from Ukraines 2010 elections to grasp that fundamentally the problem for Russia is Ukraine west of the Dnieper. Ukraine is also a notoriously corrupt country. Insurgencies in corrupt countries – as Russia learned in Syria and Chechnya and the US in Iraq – are amenable to financial solutions and to solutions that devolve control down to local interests.
Now that the US led west has done all that it can, short of war, to damage Russia, there is little left to dissuade Russia from doing whatever it thinks necessary to isolate and violently reduce Western Ukraine while working to rehabilitate easter/southern Ukraine.
If the strategy of promoting a failed insurgency state on the edge of Europe is the best we can do then the clear message to everyone is be careful to keep the US "friendship" at arms length.
If Zelensky perishes, the most likely culprits would be someone like the Kremlin-sponsored Wagner Group mercenaries or the Kremlin-linked Chechen Kadyrovtsy. Fortunately, this is not a one-bullet regime (like Putin's is, where he has eliminated potential rivals and has prevented the growth of even his own political party, which might have limited his personal power). Ukraine has numerous other tested leaders, such as the Foreign Minister and the Defense Minister, among others. Suggestions that the West would Kill Zelensky seem to me reminiscent of Soviet-era disinformation.
The calculation for Ukraine is simple.
One million Ukrainians each fire one aimed rifle shot per day at the Russians.
In the end the price will be too high for even Putin.
I am hoping the Russian Army will revolt and I think it's more than a remote chance, as I noted here for Small Wars Journal: https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/beginning-end-putin-why-russian-army-may-and-should-revolt
Today Ukraine is fighting for the freedom of the entire world, the good has to win over the evil and it will!
What Ukraine needs today is more weapons! Weapons to enforce the No Fly Zone, since the NATO, US and EU (who had no problem enforcing No Fly Zone over Serbia in the 1990s) are too intimidated and too scared of Putin to enforce the No Fly Zone even at the bare minimum of having the limited No Fly Zone only over human corridors to evacuate the civilians, women, children & the elderly.
What is happening in Mauripol and other cities & tows is genocide and ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians. Many cities had been destroyed and the Russians are actively bombing the civilian targets, while refusing to let them evacuate. This is the most evil, the most deliberate murderous action against the civilian population since the WW2!
Ukraine immediately needs those Mig fighter jets, S-300/S400 anti air systems, more drones, more anti-tank/anti-armor systems, anti-ship missiles, smart artillery systems and the Biden administration would do a lot if the US will start to transfer the Patriot missiles to the Ukrainian Defense forces. The Ukrainian forces need anti-artillery radar systems, to be able to identify and geo-locate the artillery fire, since this had been the #1 killer of the Ukrainian civilians: artillery & rockets from the Russian Mir!
The civilized world has to wake up and wake up now! Prayers and kind thoughts are welcome, but they don’t kill the Russian invaders. Bullets & missiles do! More weapons to Ukraine immediately!
Slava Ukraini Glory to Ukraine!