A Ukrainian insurgency could drain Russia’s resources and will
The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is proceeding as everyone feared. The Russian military enjoys such an overwhelming qualitative and quantitative advantage that the outcome of the conventional war is not in doubt. The Ukrainian armed forces can slow the Russians down and perhaps 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 diminish considerably. The invaders could face a protracted and costly insurgency.
The Kremlin positioned as many as 190,000 troops and heavy equipment on Ukraine’s borders over the past two months. They prepared 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 proceeded as anticipated. In the early hours of Feb. 24, land- and sea-launched missiles struck military bases, air defense systems and other targets throughout the country while artillery shelled border positions.
These measures prepared the way for a ground assault. Amphibious forces attacked Odessa and land units advanced on Kharkiv and Kyiv. The capital will probably fall within days. The big question now is what happens 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 invading a country is much easier than occupying it. U.S. forces invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. By April 4, they had reached Baghdad, and by April 13, they controlled all but isolated pockets of resistance. 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 U.S. soon found itself battling an extensive insurgency it was ill equipped to fight. Iraq’s dense urban environment neutralized many advantages of America’s high-tech, maneuver-warfare army. The MIA Abrams tank was a formidable weapon in an armored battle but useless for patrolling the streets of Baghdad. It took the U.S. five years to pacify the country at a 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 northern Caucasus republic of Chechnya seceded from the newly formed Russian Federation in 1994. The Russian military expected to swiftly crush the rebellion but instead found itself tied down in a brutal conflict that lasted two years, took the lives of 6,000 Russians and 30,000 to 100,000 civilians, and left the Chechen capital of Grozny in ruins. The war reignited in 1999. The conventional phase of that conflict lasted a year followed by almost a decade of insurgency and was ended with considerable brutality by a little-known former KGB member recently elected president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
A Ukrainian insurgency would be Chechnya on steroids. Ukraine has more than 44 million people; Chechnya in 1994 had fewer than 2 million. With an area of just more than 233,000 square miles and numerous cities, Ukraine would require a large occupation force that would have to be dispersed throughout the country, making individual units vulnerable.
The Ukrainian army has 125,600 personnel. If they evade destruction or capture during the invasion, they might do what the Iraqi army did: go home with their weapons or form into small insurgent bands that will dog the occupiers for months, if not years. The country also has half a million combat veterans 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 anticipated from the Ukrainian armed forces and ordinary people.
The U.S. has provided Ukraine with weapons that could prove very effective in an insurgency. The Biden administration approved its Baltic state allies sending 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 taking out helicopters and planes. In the hands of Afghan Mujahideen, U.S.-supplied Stingers helped end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the later 1980s. Ukraine has a long western border with NATO member Poland through which an insurgency could be supplied. More 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 clear that the Ukrainian government has planned for a coordinated effort. Independent action by armed bands and even individuals can, however, be quite disruptive. So can noncooperation by the population at large. In combination with sanctions, protracted resistance might convince Putin to declare victory and go home. War weariness of the Russian people and discontent among oligarchs might also lead to withdrawal.
While a full-scale Ukrainian insurgency might be effective, it would entail considerable risk. Putin has a well-deserved reputation for ruthlessness. 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 has even arrested 1,800 Russian anti-war protesters during the past two days. It is hard to imagine he would not employ repressive measures against Ukrainian insurgents. Under such difficult circumstances, the success of the resistance would depend on how much suffering the Ukrainian people could bear.
Even if it were successful, a protracted insurgency would be an ugly affair with much destruction and considerable loss of life. At this point, there are no good options for Ukraine. The best that can be hoped for is that it can hold out long enough for mounting Russian casualties, sanctions and international condemnation to bite hard enough for Putin to reconsider his gambit. Failing that, he might settle for capturing Kyiv, installing a puppet government, expanding the breakaway regions and withdrawing. Unfortunately, these outcomes seem less likely than a lengthy 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 the author of “Iraq and the Challenge of Counterinsurgency.”