Dispatch

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine, after receiving information about a Russian informant on Oct. 27. Norma Costello photos for Foreign Policy
By , a freelance journalist from Ireland, and , a visiting fellow at Harvard University.

KYIV, Ukraine—On a busy street in central Kyiv, a tall man in a black hoodie stands outside a cafe furiously puffing on a vape. The nondescript man in his mid-40s has never been interviewed before—and for a good reason. His official title, head of the Committee of Veterans, might sound like the role of a benign public servant, but Mykhailo—an alias chosen for the purposes of this article to protect his safety—is far removed from parades and ribbon pinning.

His job is to work with those who secretly fight for Ukraine behind enemy lines. Mykhailo is one of the main strategists and organizers of Ukraine’s partisans inside Russian-occupied territory. “If they kill me, there are many others who can take my place,” he said nonchalantly. “We’ve had to adapt and become more creative. They might be strong, but we use our minds.”

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, dormant veterans associations became the lifeblood of the Ukrainian resistance inside occupied territory. Their networks relied heavily on dedicated volunteers who, according to Mykhailo, were in place months before Russia’s full-scale offensive in February. “We were saying back in 2014 that the Russians were not going to stop in those regions. So in a way, the country was preparing,” he said. “Veterans from 2014 were part of this, and now almost all of them have returned back to the army. We were readying people in areas we knew would be hit early. Even in our schools, we were psychologically preparing our kids.”

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine, after receiving information about a Russian informant on Oct. 27.Norma Costello photos for Foreign Policy

KYIV, Ukraine—On a busy street in central Kyiv, a tall man in a black hoodie stands outside a cafe furiously puffing on a vape. The nondescript man in his mid-40s has never been interviewed before—and for a good reason. His official title, head of the Committee of Veterans, might sound like the role of a benign public servant, but Mykhailo—an alias chosen for the purposes of this article to protect his safety—is far removed from parades and ribbon pinning.

His job is to work with those who secretly fight for Ukraine behind enemy lines. Mykhailo is one of the main strategists and organizers of Ukraine’s partisans inside Russian-occupied territory. “If they kill me, there are many others who can take my place,” he said nonchalantly. “We’ve had to adapt and become more creative. They might be strong, but we use our minds.”

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, dormant veterans associations became the lifeblood of the Ukrainian resistance inside occupied territory. Their networks relied heavily on dedicated volunteers who, according to Mykhailo, were in place months before Russia’s full-scale offensive in February. “We were saying back in 2014 that the Russians were not going to stop in those regions. So in a way, the country was preparing,” he said. “Veterans from 2014 were part of this, and now almost all of them have returned back to the army. We were readying people in areas we knew would be hit early. Even in our schools, we were psychologically preparing our kids.”

Initially, politicians ignored the loud alarm raised by those inside Ukraine’s military and security services, preferring to take a wait-and-see approach to the impending Russian attacks.

After some successful lobbying by people like Mykhailo, however, the government in July 2021 passed the Law on the Fundamentals of National Resistance, which was designed to maximize the role of civilians in Ukrainian defense. It helped establish the territorial defense groups in neighborhoods and connect these citizen defense groups with Ukraine’s wider security and military apparatus. By this February, makeshift distribution centers were established for those who had not received weapons and training in order to allow civilians to defend their neighborhoods across the country.

A man gathers firewood as SBU officers question a man close to the Russian front line in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
A man gathers firewood as SBU officers question a man close to the Russian front line in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

A man gathers firewood as SBU officers question a man close to the Russian front line in Kharkiv oblast on Oct. 27.

Mykhailo said that for Ukrainians, after the initial shock of the attacks of Feb. 24, these local civil-defense networks began to connect with one another. “On the first day, people were shocked because there were rockets falling and their targeting was not precise, so everything was hit. After the first two days of shock, people realized we needed to resist. They started coming together in their groups,” he said.

Initially, organizers like Mykhailo, many of whom are military veterans with experience in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and now work in collaboration with both Ukraine’s military and security service in Kyiv, began to focus on coordinating the flow of information. They were tasked with figuring out what was being attacked, where weapons were required, and how to get them there. In occupied places like Sumy and Kharkiv, where street fighting broke out with Russian forces, the defense networks relied mainly on former soldiers, who sometimes still bore injuries from their earlier service, to fight back. “These guys know how to use weapons, RPGs, things like that. They trained in the Soviet army, so they know the tactics of Russia. We made networks, connected people, but they often used their own circles separately. Entire families got involved,” Mykhailo said.

An SBU officer overseas checkpoints outside Kyiv, Ukraine.
An SBU officer overseas checkpoints outside Kyiv, Ukraine.

An SBU officer overseas checkpoints outside Kyiv on Oct. 28.

But the partisans did not merely consist of former soldiers. Mykhailo said civil servants, post office workers, and even hunters all played a crucial role in Ukraine’s partisan movement. “People who knew the forests wanted to help us. Some worked in forestry; others were catching poachers. Their territorial knowledge was unparalleled, so we worked with them to come up with new ways to find information on Russian movement and to see if our actions inside their area had been successful,” he said.

One striking anecdote involves Kaban, a hunting dog put to work for the national cause. When Russia started to attack Kyiv, the military started to realize it was in a very weak position, so it started utilizing natural resources. In Kyiv oblast, it started planning how to flood rivers in order to prevent Russians from building temporary bridges. On one occasion when it needed to raise the level of a river significantly, it hit a dam but had no way to check whether its attack had provided the desired results.

A local hunter offered up Kaban, who, equipped with a GoPro camera, traveled inside Russian-occupied territory to bring back valuable footage that was then sent via the clandestine partisan network to Kyiv. How did his owner manage to retrieve Kaban from enemy territory? “His owner whistled for him,” Mykhailo laughed. Through Kaban’s actions, Ukraine’s security services were able to confirm their mission was successful.

The partisans used any resources available to them in occupied territory. In one mission, weapons held by border guards were transported to designated areas where locals could collect them. Meanwhile, women who distributed Ukrainian pensions inside the occupied territories began to collect information on Russian movements. Even after pension money ran out, the women continued to travel house to house under the pretense of pension distribution.

“They were invaluable,” Mykhailo mused. Because these channels have been discovered by the Russians, Mykhailo speaks about them but says many new methods are being used every day. “So many of our partisans were killed or tortured, but they keep volunteering, grannies, sisters, and mothers,” he said.

Igor, a 46-year-old from recently liberated Kherson oblast, was part of Mykhailo’s partisan network until his work filming Russian movements led to a brief detention with the enemy—and ultimately a lucky escape. “I started filming the Russians and the movement of weapons on my phone. Finally they realized someone from my village was filming, so they closed the checkpoints and started to examine our phones. I deleted my pictures, but I didn’t delete the trash. When they checked, they found the photos and tried to take me away. A lot of people surrounded them, and some of my relatives gave them money and cigarettes,” he said.

For Igor, it took time to find a trusted network to send his videos to, but then as family members learned about his activities, they offered to help, including his beekeeping father.

SBU officers question a man reported by his neighbor near Kupiansk, Ukraine.
SBU officers question a man reported by his neighbor near Kupiansk, Ukraine.

SBU officers question a man reported by his neighbor near Kupiansk, in Kharkiv oblast, on Oct. 27.

“At the start, I didn’t know who to send coordinates to, so I sent them to the administration office of Mykolaiv oblast, but then I found a relative who fought in 2014, so he had a much better network. When they started to bomb Mykolaiv from Kherson, my father felt terrible and wanted to help too. He worked with bees, so he would send us coded messages about places we kept the bees and whether it was busy now, things like this. Locations only we knew. There was a time when we needed to get a view of areas next to the river—even the satellites couldn’t view this. We pretended to go fishing and were able to report back on the location,” he said.

On the planning level, Mykhailo works closely with Ukraine’s more conventional security service, the SBU, which works on counterinsurgency movements inside Ukraine. Those in the SBU are officially assigned by the Ukrainian government with the tasks of mapping out the Russian presence inside Ukraine, hunting for Russian spies in Ukraine’s own ranks, and putting together a picture of how their counterparts work inside Ukrainian territory. From locating a Russian arms cache inside Kyiv to discovering a Ukrainian cook who sold the coordinates and times of meals in a military barracks in Rivne for $300, Ukraine’s security services are constantly on the alert for Russian insurgents inside the country. “Sometimes they’ll do it for money, but it’s so small,” Olek, an SBU officer, told us in Kharkiv oblast while on an intelligence-gathering mission near the border with Russia.

A destroyed area of Kupiansk, Ukraine
A destroyed area of Kupiansk, Ukraine

A destroyed area of Kupiansk, a town that saw heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces last September, on Oct. 27.

“A lot of our people were arrested,” Mykhailo admits. “In some villages, Russians went house by house and they tortured people to try to get them to give up their networks. Sometimes they already had lists of veterans. In Kherson, they took databases of all government employees, especially anyone with a military pension.” When asked about Ukrainian mayors who said the partisans were capitulating to avoid civilian casualties, Mykhailo was firm: “They’re lying. That’s an FSB [Russian Federal Security Service] narrative.”

As the SBU and its intelligence officers begin counterinsurgency work in recently liberated Kherson, Mykhailo continues to work with partisans inside Russian-occupied territory. They constantly adapt their tactics to meet new challenges and exploit Russian weaknesses. “Putin clearly didn’t read his history books, or he would have learned about our partisans,” he said. “Stalin got to know them quite well.”

Norma Costello is a freelance journalist from Ireland. Twitter: @normcos

Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov

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