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Will Ukraine Be Afghanistan All Over Again for Russia?

Insurgency could make even victory costly for Putin.

By , a retired Army officer and a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College.
A Ukrainian soldier walks along a trench at a position on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near the settlement of Troitske in the Luhansk region of Ukraine.
A Ukrainian soldier walks along a trench at a position on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near the settlement of Troitske in the Luhansk region of Ukraine.
A Ukrainian soldier walks along a trench at a position on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near the settlement of Troitske in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on Feb. 22. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

NATO has done a commendable job attempting to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine, with forceful warnings of significant sanctions against the Russian state and its leaders as well as shipments of defensive weapons including anti-tank and air defense missiles. These actions will raise the costs of an attack on Ukraine but at this point appear unlikely to deter a full-on invasion, likely intended to topple the Ukrainian government and install a puppet regime in Kyiv.

While the Ukrainian army appears, on paper, to have rough parity with the Russian forces surrounding the country and occupying the Crimean Peninsula and the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, its combat readiness, training, and air force and missile assets cannot compare with those arrayed against it. Kyiv will likely fall within days, if not hours, of a full-on Russian attack, with horrific human suffering among innocent Ukrainian civilians; casualties could number in the tens of thousands.

But, as the United States has learned to its dismay over the past 20 years, invading a country and toppling its government are entirely different from digesting it—the dog that catches the car then has to figure out what to do with it. The key elements determining the success of an insurgency are the degree to which the populace supports the invading power, the presence of external sanctuaries and support for the insurgents and terrain providing cover and concealment for the rebel fighters, and the ability of an information operations campaign to influence the occupying power. On all of these fronts, Russia has cause for concern; a Ukrainian insurgency could spell doom not just for the Russian occupation of the country but also for Vladimir Putin’s reign of terror.

NATO has done a commendable job attempting to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine, with forceful warnings of significant sanctions against the Russian state and its leaders as well as shipments of defensive weapons including anti-tank and air defense missiles. These actions will raise the costs of an attack on Ukraine but at this point appear unlikely to deter a full-on invasion, likely intended to topple the Ukrainian government and install a puppet regime in Kyiv.

While the Ukrainian army appears, on paper, to have rough parity with the Russian forces surrounding the country and occupying the Crimean Peninsula and the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, its combat readiness, training, and air force and missile assets cannot compare with those arrayed against it. Kyiv will likely fall within days, if not hours, of a full-on Russian attack, with horrific human suffering among innocent Ukrainian civilians; casualties could number in the tens of thousands.

But, as the United States has learned to its dismay over the past 20 years, invading a country and toppling its government are entirely different from digesting it—the dog that catches the car then has to figure out what to do with it. The key elements determining the success of an insurgency are the degree to which the populace supports the invading power, the presence of external sanctuaries and support for the insurgents and terrain providing cover and concealment for the rebel fighters, and the ability of an information operations campaign to influence the occupying power. On all of these fronts, Russia has cause for concern; a Ukrainian insurgency could spell doom not just for the Russian occupation of the country but also for Vladimir Putin’s reign of terror.

The Ukrainian population will fight against a Russian invasion force if it has arms and equipment to do so. The news has been full of photographs of babushkas training with AK-47 rifles (or wooden mockups of same); while the grandmothers are no match for trained Russian conscripts, their determination matters. An insurgent force of as many as 200,000 Ukrainians fought a guerrilla war against Adolf Hitler’s forces during World War II; some stayed in the forests to resist Joseph Stalin’s forces afterward. National resistance to Russia, particularly in the wake of a brutal invasion that targets civilians in population centers, can be all but assured.

Ukraine’s geography, like its population, supports the chances for a successful insurgency against Russia. Ukraine is a vast country, the second largest in Europe after Russia. While it shares a long land border with Russia and with Russia’s vassal state Belarus, it also has land borders with NATO members Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, as well as Moldova. Coastlines on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov provide additional avenues for external support. While Ukraine’s plains do not provide the mountains or jungles that insurgents prefer to defend if given the chance, the vastness of its geography, numerous cities, and good lines of communication to friendly Western powers all suggest that getting support to an insurgency will not be an insurmountable task. Individual NATO members are already discussing how to arm the fledgling resistance.

Insurgencies most often succeed when an occupying power, tired of the slow drip of casualties and fast flow of money required to defeat them, gives up and goes home. The United States in Vietnam and Afghanistan are two good examples, but so is Russia’s defeat at the hands of insurgents supported by the United States and several other powers in Afghanistan three decades ago, a fight sometimes called “Russia’s Vietnam.” That defeat contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin has called the greatest calamity of the 20th century.

The parallels with Afghanistan should cause Putin to quake in his boots; in Ukraine, Russia would again face a committed population with a history of resisting foreign invasion, likely with significant external support. While Afghanistan’s mountains provide better cover for insurgents than do Ukraine’s plains, the country is so vast that the usual ratio of one counterinsurgent for every 50 people in the occupied country is probably insufficient; even that ratio would require over 800,000 Russian troops to occupy Ukraine after an invasion—likely for many years to come. While there may well be Ukrainian collaborators with the Russian occupation, there were also many Afghans who supported Soviet forces. In the end, it didn’t matter.

The defeat mechanism for insurgencies is not a battlefield triumph of the occupying army. Ukrainians for all their valor have no chance of clearing the field given Russian air power and firepower. But a Ukrainian insurgency killing and maiming Russian soldiers one by two by three over a protracted period could make the cost of occupying the country unbearable, particularly because conscript armies such as Russia’s are more casualty-averse than all-volunteer forces. Being a Russian conscript is already a miserable experience, one that people regularly bribe their way out of. The brutality of occupation will make that far worse. Under constant attack from an invisible enemy, Russian counterinsurgents are likely to turn to indiscriminate violence against the Ukrainian population, in turn hardening their resistance to the Russian occupation in a downward spiral of destruction.

Despite Moscow’s attempts to control the narrative, ordinary Russians still have access to the world of open information. It’s likely that the Kremlin will continue its squeeze on the Russian internet, but even that can drive people to alternate sources. To date, at least, Russian information operations laughably suggesting that Ukrainian forces are a threat to Russia have been clumsy and ineffective for Western audiences, while NATO and particularly U.S. use of information has been brutally effective in painting Ukrainians as the victims of unprovoked Russian aggression.

Inside Russia, the story is different; anti-Ukrainian propaganda has been very effective, not just in the run-up to this war but in the portrayal of Ukrainians as Nazis and fascists manipulated by Jews and the West. (Propaganda is often logically inconsistent!) Wars often seem like good ideas before the body bags start coming home, but the idea of this war already doesn’t seem to be popular in Russia. Sanctions on the Russian economy will make it even less so.

And that fact, perhaps more than any other, should concern Putin greatly. His attack on Ukraine could well lead not just to the defeat of Russia in another insurgency not that far from where the bones of the Soviet Union reside in Afghanistan but also perhaps to the collapse of the successor Russian government—and, when the chips are all down, even to the rise of a democracy there.

Democracy in Russia is Putin’s greatest fear; his near-panic over Ukrainian democracy spreading east is the primary cause of this entire crisis. It would be a delicious irony if Ukrainian people power in the form of an armed insurgency against a Russian occupation brought about the end of Putin’s horrific regime—but one brought at a high price in innocent Ukrainian blood.

John Nagl is a retired Army officer and a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College who served in both Iraq wars. He helped write the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. These views are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Defense Department, Army, or Army War College.

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