Ukraine Is Betting on Militias to Bleed Russia

Ukraine hopes 130,000 new civilian defensive forces will make Putin think twice.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A new volunteer recruit of the Ukrainian army 'Donbass' battalion flashes a 'victory sign' during a military oath ceremony of the National Guard near the Novi Petrivtsi village not far from Kiev, on June 23, 2014.
A new volunteer recruit of the Ukrainian army 'Donbass' battalion flashes a 'victory sign' during a military oath ceremony of the National Guard near the Novi Petrivtsi village not far from Kiev, on June 23, 2014.
A new volunteer recruit of the Ukrainian army 'Donbass' battalion flashes a 'victory sign' during a military oath ceremony of the National Guard near the Novi Petrivtsi village not far from Kiev, on June 23, 2014. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Image

Putin’s War

Even as the Biden administration and some NATO allies have warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen at any moment, officials in Kyiv, Ukraine, have projected a steely calm. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted that Russia’s provocations are simply more of the same since the Kremlin first sent forces into Ukraine in 2014. 

But even before Russia began its current military buildup in March 2021, the Ukrainian parliament approved an expansive law that would allow the military to arm local militias at Zelensky’s behest. Behind the scenes, Ukraine’s defense ministry has begun intensive planning to organize popular resistance toward a renewed Russian invasion that Kyiv projects would encompass all swaths of Ukrainian society, according to a plan shared with Western militaries and seen by Foreign Policy

Planning has accelerated in recent days, with Zelensky tapping Gen. Yuri Galushkin, a veteran of the intense 2014 battles to defend Donetsk International Airport from pro-Russian separatists, to head up territorial defenses. It’s an effort, Ukrainian defense officials said, to make life as hard as possible on Russian forces if the Kremlin greenlights a renewed invasion.

Even as the Biden administration and some NATO allies have warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen at any moment, officials in Kyiv, Ukraine, have projected a steely calm. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted that Russia’s provocations are simply more of the same since the Kremlin first sent forces into Ukraine in 2014. 

But even before Russia began its current military buildup in March 2021, the Ukrainian parliament approved an expansive law that would allow the military to arm local militias at Zelensky’s behest. Behind the scenes, Ukraine’s defense ministry has begun intensive planning to organize popular resistance toward a renewed Russian invasion that Kyiv projects would encompass all swaths of Ukrainian society, according to a plan shared with Western militaries and seen by Foreign Policy

Planning has accelerated in recent days, with Zelensky tapping Gen. Yuri Galushkin, a veteran of the intense 2014 battles to defend Donetsk International Airport from pro-Russian separatists, to head up territorial defenses. It’s an effort, Ukrainian defense officials said, to make life as hard as possible on Russian forces if the Kremlin greenlights a renewed invasion.

“The best way to protect Ukraine from further military escalation on the part of the Russian Federation is to set conditions under which the aggressor will suffer unacceptable losses and will not be able to attain its goal,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote in a nine-page missive, described as the “enhancement” of national resistance forces. “And the aggressor’s goal is to put an end to independent Ukraine.” 

The effort underway to build 25 brigades in each Ukrainian region and the capital, Kyiv, as well as other major cities, such as Kharkiv and Odessa, is aimed at protecting the flanks of Ukraine’s army from Russian attack as they move to meet a possible advance in the east. Ukraine’s special operations forces, which have already grown by 1,000 troops to support the mission, will lead the effort to build and train resistance forces.

“[T]he mission is very simple—not to allow a disaster to come into our houses,” Reznikov added. “When hundreds of civilians are prepared, know their movements near their own homes and are able to move to their positions within hours—it will create a new quality of the defence.”

Yet Ukrainian officials are clear-eyed about the plan’s weaknesses. In recent decades, haphazardly arming civilians has ended in disaster. The Obama administration’s decision to provide Libyan rebels with arms by way of Qatar in 2011, for instance, ended in disaster when some of the arms ended up in the hands of Islamist militants. Ukraine’s defense ministry insists it has enough weapons and ammunition to supply 150 new battalions and brigade-level units for bigger cities, and it will organize training throughout the country, but Reznikov and top officials are still working out how to establish command and control between active-duty forces and territorial defenders as well as provide secure areas for storing weapons. Reznikov admitted that staff at induction centers weren’t yet familiar with the plan. 

One Western military official told Foreign Policy that the conflict would likely bring battle-hardened veterans back into military service. But it’s not clear what level of military experience Ukrainian troops will be dealing with when they get down to training new territorial defenders. While Ukraine is depending on 10,000 military contractors to help build its force, it will have to quickly select and train 130,000 new defenders and community-level volunteer units to defend its towns and villages. Ukraine’s defense ministry said territorial defense brigades have 70 percent of their capabilities, and their command structure will be implemented in a month. A similar militia model was established in Afghanistan in 2018 to defend areas cleared of insurgents, but the force drew criticism for lack of command structure, and rights groups worried about possible abuses stemming from the units. 

But for Ukraine, the effort is more about the will to fight than battlefield technology or proficiency. Ukrainian preparations for a bloody insurgency could strike a nerve with a Kremlin that has become casualty-conscious in recent years. In both the invasion of eastern Ukraine and the mission to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Russia’s armed forces have relied on an economy of force.

The last Soviet war, the invasion of Afghanistan, led to massive casualties—a memory that persists still. When he came to power, Russian President Vladimir Putin inherited Russia’s second war in Chechnya, which saw Russian troops engaged in some of the bloodiest urban fighting in the past two decades. 

A bloody conflict in Ukraine would come at a time of political vulnerability for Putin. Last year, Russia’s incarceration of opposition leader Alexey Navalny—just months after a state-led plot to poison him with a nerve agent—drove tens of thousands of demonstrators into the streets, a sign of increasing frustration with economic stagnation and Kremlin corruption. 

“It becomes a numbers game as to whatever Putin feels he wants to take,” said a former U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about military readiness. “Can he take it without sustaining casualties that would upset the domestic political balance in Russia and therefore put the regime at risk?”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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