Sunday, February 27, 2022

Can Ukraine's Resistance Defeat the Russian Army?

This was published before armed hostilities broke out Thursday.

At War on the Rocks, "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.

Look Fearsome

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. 
Radical Inclusion 
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...

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