A Ukrainian insurgency could drain Russia’s resources and
The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is unfolding as everyone feared. The Russian military enjoys such an overwhelming qualitative and quantitative advantage that the outcome of conventional warfare is beyond doubt. The Ukrainian Armed Forces can slow down the Russians and possibly inflict significant casualties on them, but they cannot stop them.
However, if Russia occupies the country for an extended period, especially its cities, its military advantages will decrease significantly. The invaders could face a protracted and costly insurgency.
The Kremlin has positioned up to 190,000 troops and heavy equipment on Ukraine’s borders over the past two months. They are preparing to invade the country from three directions: Belarus in the north, Crimea in the south and Russia in the east. So far, the Russian attack has gone as planned. In the early hours of February 24, land and sea missiles struck military bases, air defense systems and other targets across the country while artillery bombarded border positions.
These measures prepared the way for a ground assault. Amphibious forces attacked Odessa, and ground units advanced on Kharkiv and Kyiv. The capital will probably fall within a few days. The big question now is what will happen next. Putin clearly wants regime change, and that will require occupying much of the country for some time. Such an occupation could prove costly.
Both the United States and Russia have learned the hard way that it is much easier to invade a country than to occupy it. US forces invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. By April 4, they had reached Baghdad, and by April 13, they had almost all pockets of resistance under control. The conventional operation (described as “shock and awe”) proved so successful that former President George W. Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 to declare “mission accomplished”.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. The United States soon found itself in the grip of a vast insurgency for which it was ill-equipped. Iraq’s dense urban environment negated many advantages of the US military’s high technology and maneuver warfare. The MIA Abrams tank was a formidable weapon in an armored battle but useless for patrolling the streets of Baghdad. It took five years for the United States to pacify the country at the cost of 190,000 American and Iraqi lives and $2.2 trillion.
Russia is no stranger to costly counterinsurgency campaigns. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the republic of Chechnya in the northern Caucasus seceded from the newly formed Russian Federation in 1994. The Russian military expected to quickly crush the rebellion, but instead got caught up in a brutal conflict that lasted two years, claimed the lives of 6,000 Russians and 30,000 to 100,000 civilians, and left the Chechen capital of Grozny in ruins. The war resumed in 1999. The conventional phase of this conflict lasted a year, followed by almost a decade of insurrection and ended with considerable brutality by a little-known former KGB member recently elected chairman of the Russian Federation, Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich PutinCyber officials urge federal agencies to guard against possible Russian attacks Rick Scott: Putin, a ‘murderous rogue,’ ‘will keep trying to gobble up more and more territory” MORE.
A Ukrainian insurgency would be Chechnya on steroids. Ukraine has more than 44 million inhabitants; Chechnya in 1994 had less than 2 million. With an area of just over 233,000 square miles and numerous cities, Ukraine would need a large occupying force which would have to be dispersed throughout the country, making individual units vulnerable.
The Ukrainian army has 125,600 men. If they escape destruction or capture during the invasion, they could do what the Iraqi army did: return home with their weapons or form small bands of insurgents who will hunt the occupiers for months, even years. The country also has half a million ex-combatants who can be mobilized. In addition to its regular armed forces, the Ukrainian government has trained and equipped thousands of civilians to fight for their country. Russian forces are facing more tenacious resistance than they expected from the Ukrainian armed forces and ordinary people.
The United States has provided Ukraine with weapons that could prove very effective in the event of an insurgency. The Biden administration has allowed its Baltic state allies to send American-made Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. These weapons can be fired by individual soldiers and are ideal for ambushing convoys and destroying helicopters and planes. In the hands of the Afghan mujahideen, US-supplied Stingers helped end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Ukraine has a long western border with Poland, a member of NATO, through which an insurgency could be supplied. Other weapons are already on the way from the United States and its allies.
The more organized the insurgency, the greater its effectiveness. It is not certain that the Ukrainian government has planned a coordinated effort. The independent action of armed gangs and even individuals can, however, be very disruptive. The same goes for the non-cooperation of the population as a whole. Combined with sanctions, prolonged resistance could convince Putin to declare victory and go home. The war-weariness of the Russian people and the discontent of the oligarchs could also lead to withdrawal.
Although a full-scale Ukrainian insurgency could be effective, it would carry considerable risks. Putin has a well-deserved reputation for brutality. Under his leadership, Russian forces crushed the Chechen insurgency with systematic brutality that included torture and summary executions. According to human rights organizations, Russian forces supporting Bashar Assad in Syria bombed civilians indiscriminately and were complicit in war crimes committed by his regime. In the fall of 2020, the Kremlin helped Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko suppress opposition in a crackdown that included murder, torture, and rape. Putin even arrested 1,800 Russian anti-war protesters in the past two days. It is hard to imagine that he would not employ repressive measures against Ukrainian insurgents. Under such difficult circumstances, the success of the resistance depended on the suffering the Ukrainian people could endure.
Even if successful, a prolonged insurrection would be an ugly affair with much destruction and considerable human casualties. At this point, there are no good options for Ukraine. The best we can hope for is that he can hold out long enough for Russian losses, sanctions and international condemnation to pile up enough for Putin to reconsider his bet. Failing that, he could just capture Kiev, install a puppet government, expand the breakaway regions and withdraw. Unfortunately, these results seem less likely than a long Russian occupation.
The only certainty is that ordinary people will pay a terrible price for the ambitions of an autocrat acting against a peaceful neighbor and against the will and interests of his own people.
Tom Mockaitis (@DrMockaitis) is a professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Iraq and the Challenge of Counterinsurgency.”