Russians Likely to Encounter Growing Guerrilla Warfare in Ukraine

Kyiv says it plans to launch a coordinated campaign.

By , a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.
Iryna Sergeyeva, a volunteer fighter in the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, attends military training in Kyiv on March 11.
Iryna Sergeyeva, a volunteer fighter in the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, attends military training in Kyiv on March 11.
Iryna Sergeyeva, a volunteer fighter in the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, attends military training in Kyiv on March 11. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

If it’s not obvious by now: The Ukrainian Armed Forces aren’t following the expected playbook. They were supposed to be have been defeated within days of the Feb. 24 invasion, as an accidentally published Russian victory declaration suggests. On the day of the invasion, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner even told the Ukrainian ambassador begging for help that it would all to be over in a few hours. Instead, the war is well into its second month, and a Russian victory seems more remote than ever.

Once their country was occupied and a puppet regime established, the Ukrainians were then supposed to turn to partisan warfare that would transform the war into a long and bitter quagmire for Russia. Yet again, the Ukrainians didn’t listen. Instead of waiting for their defeat, they say they’re planning to launch a coordinated guerrilla campaign within the next few weeks—parallel to the regular war and just as spring turns forests green to provide cover. “The season of a total Ukrainian guerrilla safari will soon begin,” the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, announced in late March. “Then there will be one relevant scenario left for the Russians: how to survive.”

Judging from reports, irregular civilian resistance has already taken place, so the guerrilla campaign announced by Budanov will not be starting from scratch. In the northern part of Poltava province, according to a March 18 report, wild game hunters captured over 10 tanks and other vehicles and pursued retreating Russian troops. Earlier in March, guerrillas reportedly destroyed a convoy of trucks near Kharkiv. Elsewhere, on March 11, villagers reportedly helped police take 29 Russian soldiers prisoner.

If it’s not obvious by now: The Ukrainian Armed Forces aren’t following the expected playbook. They were supposed to be have been defeated within days of the Feb. 24 invasion, as an accidentally published Russian victory declaration suggests. On the day of the invasion, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner even told the Ukrainian ambassador begging for help that it would all to be over in a few hours. Instead, the war is well into its second month, and a Russian victory seems more remote than ever.

Once their country was occupied and a puppet regime established, the Ukrainians were then supposed to turn to partisan warfare that would transform the war into a long and bitter quagmire for Russia. Yet again, the Ukrainians didn’t listen. Instead of waiting for their defeat, they say they’re planning to launch a coordinated guerrilla campaign within the next few weeks—parallel to the regular war and just as spring turns forests green to provide cover. “The season of a total Ukrainian guerrilla safari will soon begin,” the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, announced in late March. “Then there will be one relevant scenario left for the Russians: how to survive.”

Judging from reports, irregular civilian resistance has already taken place, so the guerrilla campaign announced by Budanov will not be starting from scratch. In the northern part of Poltava province, according to a March 18 report, wild game hunters captured over 10 tanks and other vehicles and pursued retreating Russian troops. Earlier in March, guerrillas reportedly destroyed a convoy of trucks near Kharkiv. Elsewhere, on March 11, villagers reportedly helped police take 29 Russian soldiers prisoner.

Civilians are also playing a role in confiscating weapons, equipment, and supplies from the enemy and handing them over to the Ukrainian forces. On March 23, the Ukrainian General Staff released video footage of a supply truck captured at an undisclosed location by what looked like Ukrainian civilians. In another incident, a group of civilians apparently seized a Russian T-80 tank abandoned in a muddy field. According to one of the civilians in the video, he was learning to drive the T-80 with instructions found via Google.

In addition, peaceful resistance in the form of demonstrations and marches is taking place almost every day in Russian-controlled cities such as Kherson, Melitopol, and Enerhodar. Residents of Kyiv and other unoccupied cities, in turn, have gotten busy preparing Molotov cocktails in case invading Russians come their way.

We know from history—including Russia’s wars in Chechnya—that reprisals against partisans can be especially gruesome.

So far, the most important civilian participation in the fighting has been in the Territorial Defense Forces, a tightly structured volunteer militia subordinated to Ukrainian Armed Forces command. Ukrainian civilians began preparing for irregular warfare in the weeks before the invasion, but additional Territorial Defense Forces units are reportedly being raised to increase Ukrainian fighting power as the war goes on. The tasks of this civilian militia include defending critical infrastructure, supporting the regular armed forces, and combating saboteurs and spies. In the runup to and first few days of the war, some 100,000 volunteers and 37,000 reservists had already signed up.

Civilians who only recently joined the militia already appear to be active as snipers defending the outskirts of Kyiv. A Canadian Ukrainian resident outside Kyiv described one of the activities his unit was involved in: “We’ve organized nightly patrols after several lost Russian soldiers were arrested last week in the area. Their [armored personnel carrier] was blown up by the Ukrainian forces, and after three to four days hiding in the woods, the Russians came out begging for food and water.”

The Territorial Defense Forces are formally separate from a partisan or guerrilla resistance movement, which may still be nascent and in the process of formation. Details are murky, but Ukrainian military doctrine sees the country’s Special Operations Forces, whose members are highly trained in irregular warfare, playing a “leading role in organizing, preparing, supporting and conducting the resistance movement.” They have established a virtual Center of National Resistance, which provides detailed instructions for partisan actions, including how to set up ambushes, respond to chemical attacks, and organize peaceful resistance. According to the center’s website: “In order to become an invisible avenger whom the occupiers will fear, it is necessary to know tactics, medicine, internet security, homemade weapons, and nonviolent actions.”

The center has also published a civil resistance handbook with advice on lowering the occupiers’ morale and other forms of passive resistance, as well as active resistance involving various forms of sabotage. The handbook also gives tips on how regular citizens can help the resistance movement by providing food, shelter, and medicine. A video warns potential saboteurs they will need to live double lives among friends and relatives, pretending to be loyal to the Russians while simultaneously undermining their rule. While the internet is no substitute for hands-on training, this is little different from historical examples of partisan warfare, where goals and methods were passed on by leaflets, pamphlets, and word of mouth. Today, websites can easily and more effectively do the trick.

Guerrillas and partisans the world over have consisted overwhelmingly of peasants and other villagers who know the terrain intimately, can engage in hit-and-run tactics, and can keep an invader off balance at unexpected locations. That will be similar in Ukraine—especially as the Russians have proved unable to take any major Ukrainian cities, where urban guerrillas would play a role. Ukrainian hunters may form an especially large component, as hunting is a popular sport in Ukraine’s west and north, where the terrain is a mix of forest, steppe, and mountains. Although there are a comparably low 9.9 civilian firearms per 100 citizens in Ukraine, those guns are mainly owned in rural regions. At this point, the number of weapons has clearly risen: Immediately after the invasion, nearly 20,000 guns were distributed to reservists in Kyiv in preparation for a possible assault on the capital, and weapons have been distributed in other regions as well.

Most elements of an effective guerrilla struggle are thus in place. The only missing piece is friendly terrain, but once the forests and hedges turn green, as they will in April, they will provide guerrillas with better cover. At that point, the fighters will be able to systematically infiltrate Russian-occupied territory—especially in the forested north—and strike the Russian military from the rear while regular Ukrainian forces attack from the front.

Ukraine’s east and south, however, consist largely of flat, treeless steppe, which are ill-suited for traditional rural guerrilla warfare. But Russian-occupied towns and villages could be infiltrated by saboteurs and urban guerrillas from the Territorial Defense Forces to target soldiers, Rosgvardia occupation police, and local collaborators.

The center has also published a civil resistance handbook with advice on lowering the occupiers’ morale and  various forms of sabotage.

It’s the forested north where Russian soldiers, supply trucks, weaponry, and logistics are likely to make especially attractive targets. There, Russian forces and supplies move along the main roads, avoiding unmarked, hard-to-navigate rural terrain, and are often poorly guarded and overstretched. Such tactics are an open invitation to guerrilla attacks, as the history of partisan warfare shows well. Many Ukrainians will remember their country’s history in World War II, when nationalists and Soviet Ukrainian partisans controlled the forests, swamps, and mountains of western and northern Ukraine, while urban guerrillas harassed the occupying German forces in the cities. Even after the Soviets displaced the Germans as masters of Ukraine in 1944, nationalist partisans managed to continue their struggle for another decade, killing more than 30,000 Soviet functionaries and secret police, according to the Ukrainian historian Ivan Patryliak.

This history matters, because western Ukrainians have lionized the nationalist guerrillas and their struggle for independence. Similarly, eastern Ukrainians venerated the anti-German partisans, thanks to the Soviet cult of World War II. Joining the guerrillas today is thus a time-honored undertaking, allowing participants to consciously step into a long tradition of resistance to totalitarianism. Guerrillas take enormous risks, so they need to be absolutely dedicated to the cause they’re fighting for. Being able to place one’s own sacrifices within a longer historical or even family tradition can therefore sustain the motivation and courage that has proved so effective thus far against largely unmotivated Russian troops.

Russia will, of course, take brutal countermeasures. We know from history—including Russia’s wars in Chechnya—that reprisals against partisans can be especially gruesome, affecting local populations far beyond any real or suspected insurgents. Between 1945 and 1955 in Ukraine, the Soviets killed more than 150,000 alleged guerrillas and sympathizers, according to Patryliak. Hundreds of thousands of western Ukrainians were deported to Siberia or Central Asia, and almost 90,000 were jailed. Today, however, guerrillas won’t be alone in the woods but acting in conjunction with Ukraine’s armed forces, which have proved to be highly effective in withstanding the Russians and which enjoy material support from a number of countries. They won’t be fighting for an idealistic cause but defending an existing country.

So even as the regular war goes on, Ukrainian guerrillas could very well help turn the tide. Many of the Russian replacement troops being rushed to the Ukrainian front are poorly trained recruits with no combat experience. Facing a battle-hardened Ukrainian army will be hard enough for them. Resisting guerrilla attacks in their rear may be, as Budanov promises, “real hell.”

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.