Small Wars Journal

Russian Rear Area Operations and the Resistance Operating Concept

Wed, 09/08/2021 - 8:50pm

Russian Rear Area Operations and the Resistance Operating Concept
By Philip Wasielewski

In 2014, the politico-military face of Europe changed considerably after the Russian
Anschluss of Crimea and its follow-on subversion of, and incursion into, eastern Ukraine. While
some decried Russia for “acting in a 19 th -century fashion”, it became clear to many eastern and
central European states, NATO members and non-members alike, that their 21 st century security
challenges now could include invasion and occupation by the Russian Federation. Nowhere in
NATO was this challenge felt more acutely than in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and
Lithuania. They had regained their sovereignty after the fall of the Soviet Union, but
unfortunately also regained the same geopolitical challenges to their security that they faced
during their interwar existence – limited territory providing no strategic depth and a small
population unable to generate conventional military forces that could deter a Kremlin hostile to
their independence.

In response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, NATO took specific steps to increase
Baltic security. Since 2017, four multinational battlegroups totaling approximately 4,500 troops
have been deployed to the Baltic states and Poland to serve as a proportionate deterrent force and
to send a clear message that an attack on one would be met by troops from across the alliance. 1
NATO has improved its security posture in the Baltics through multiple deployments and
exercises and by investing in infrastructure and pre-positioned forces via the European
Deterrence Initiative.

However, learning from its wars in Chechnya and Georgia, covert intervention in
Ukraine, and deployments to Syria, Russian military combat capability has also greatly increased
especially in integrating reconnaissance and electronic warfare assets with fires into a lethal
whole. A 2018 RAND study estimated that, “improvements in Russia’s military forces over the
last decade have reduced the once-gaping qualitative and technical gaps between Russia and
NATO.” The result being that, “in the event of a ground attack on a NATO member in the Baltic
region, Russia would have a substantial time-distance advantage in the days and weeks of its
ground campaign because of its strong starting position and ability to reinforce with ground and
air units from elsewhere in Russia.” 2 In other words, if deterrence fails, Russian forces could
overrun one or all three of the Baltic states in a short time and make their recovery a long bloody

In 2014, parallel to the effort to strengthen deterrence via conventional forces, Special
Operations Command Europe began working with NATO and partner special operations forces
to enhance Unconventional Warfare (UW) capabilities in the region. One of the results of this
partnership was the publication of the Resistance Operating Concept (ROC) in November 2019.
The purpose of the ROC is to, “encourage governments to foster pre-crisis resiliency through Total Defense, a “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” approach, which includes
interoperability among its forces and those of its allies and partners…The ROC seeks to identify
resistance principles, requirements, and potential challenges that may inform doctrine, plans,
capabilities, and force development.” 3 Prior to and following publication of the ROC, a series of
field and table top exercises, seminars, publications, etc., have ensued to increase interoperability
and capability to conduct UW in the region as a way to increase deterrence and to be prepared if
deterrence fails.

The ROC is a comprehensive, well thought out, and flexible publication with a wealth of
knowledge from the study of past UW campaigns including one on Baltic terrain in the early
Cold War. Hopefully, its tenets will never have to be put to the test in combat. Unlike
incursions into Georgia and Ukraine, the crossing of any Baltic border by Russian forces would
initiate NATO Article V deliberations and the most likely decision would be full-out war
between the alliance and the Russian Federation. The Kremlin is manned by astute figures aware
of their own history and who know that failed wars have been the end of many a Russian ruler
and dynasty. It is hard to see what advantage they believe they would achieve by attacking these
three nations. While Russia may enjoy the above-mentioned conventional force advantage in the
Baltics, its leaders must also understand that war with NATO may not be contained to that small
region, that their ability to sustain an economy under wartime conditions is limited, and that
eventually an alliance of 30 countries with a combined Gross Domestic Product over 10-times
that of Russia will be able to marshal enough combat power to overturn any temporary win on
the Baltic battlefield. 4 But should deterrence fail, should miscalculation, emotion, and/or human
error rule in the decision-making process, then the ROC may have to be put into practice.

Therefore, the purpose of this article is to discuss wartime challenges a Baltic resistance
may face and how this might inform which specific UW activities may be more or less likely to
succeed. In other words, based on current Russian capabilities and past Soviet and Russian
operations, it will try to “Red Team” likely Russian counters to UW operations.
This article assumes that since war with NATO would be an existential struggle for the
Kremlin leadership (who would forfeit their positions, if not their lives, if they lose), Russia
would use all power necessary to win, would not be constrained by international public opinion,
but would be deterred from using nuclear weapons by U.S., British, and French strategic
arsenals. It also assumes that Russian forces would occupy all of the Baltic states and possibly
parts of Poland to establish lines of communication with its Kaliningrad enclave. Finally, it
assumes that it will take NATO several months to a year or more to generate and transport the
necessary conventional forces to the region to retake the Baltics and that Russian forces will use
this time wisely to consolidate their hold on the conquered territory.

Russian Capabilities

While Russian conventional and strategic military capabilities are well studied, less
attention is paid to Russian paramilitary forces designated to counter UW activities and their
Soviet predecessors who had a long history of suppressing resistance operations. Soviet doctrine had a sizeable rear area security program that emphasized security of lines of communications,
coastlines, and borders; suppression of local insurgents; and defense against unconventional
warfare (including saboteurs, partisans, and propaganda). These missions were mainly the
province of the internal troops of the KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). 5 From
1944 to the mid-1950s, Soviet paramilitary forces with local collaborators successfully destroyed
every armed resistance movement they faced in countries overrun by the Red Army including
Poland and all the Baltic states.

Today, the suppression of UW activities in occupied territory would be led by the
Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Russian National Guard. They would be
supported by a number of entities, state and non-state, to provide a ubiquitous security presence
throughout the battle zone.

The FSB is the largest of Russia’s three major intelligence services and is the successor
of the KGB’s Second Chief Directorate (Counterintelligence) and Fifth Chief Directorate
(Ideology and Dissidents) amongst others. Its paramilitary forces include both the Border
Guards (approximately 170,000 troops) and a Special Operations command consisting of the
Alpha and Vympel Spetsnaz groups. It is the lead agency for counterintelligence and
counterterrorism inside of Russia with extensive experience in paramilitary operations in
Chechnya and the breakaway republics of Ukraine.

Russia’s National Guard, or “Rosgvardia”, was created in 2016 by amalgamating MVD
Internal Military troops with various police special forces and riot control units. Its reported
strength is 340,000 troops. The legislation creating Rosgvardia gives it several distinct internal
security tasks, which would easily transfer to wartime missions. As one analysis of Rosgvardia
Rosgvardia’s place in the military organization of the Russian state is defined by its
territorial defense tasks – in the specific Russian meaning of territorial defense. Russia
does not expect an armed attack on its own territory: territorial defense mainly means
covering the rear of, and providing auxiliary services to, the Armed Forces.” 6
The FSB would provide the professional investigative and counterintelligence (to include
cyber and electronic intercept) assets and direction to an anti-UW effort in occupied Baltic
territory. It would be supported by Rosgvardia and a variety of other forces such as detailed
MVD police units, Cossack security patrols, Chechen volunteer battalions, and private security
companies (that Rosgvardia regulates) similar to or even including Wagner. Besides the
conventional Russian ground and air defense forces that would occupy the Baltics, a fully
mobilized rear area security effort could put up to an additional half million men in a land area of
167,000 square kilometers (just smaller than Missouri) normally populated by approximately 5.8
million people. 7 It could be a crowded Unconventional Warfare Operational Area (UWOA).

Likely Russian Rear Area Operations

What is likely to happen once initial combat operations end and Russian conventional
and rear area security forces consolidate their positions? At a minimum, in the days, weeks, and
first few months following the occupation of the Baltic states, local populations can expect the

First, all government offices will be occupied and their records and archives seized.
Special interest will be directed towards the defense and security services as well as the police,
communications centers, and government administration (personnel records). Defense,
intelligence, police, civil servants, and political figures will be arrested and interrogated. A key
intelligence requirement will be NATO preparations to retake the Baltics including stay-behind
operations. You can be assured that the FSB and Russian Military Intelligence have been
following the ROC as closely as the readers of this publication.

Second, public communications will cease. Mass media will not reopen until proper
censorship controls are in place. Internal telephone and internet services will cease until they are
connected to Russia’s targeted internet and telephone surveillance system (SORM). 8 Ham radios
will be confiscated, UHF/VHF radio communications will only be allowed for government
agencies (fire departments), and all radio frequencies will be monitored to include direction
finding of suspect transmissions. There will be no legal international communications channels
including the postal service. Finally, count on satellite systems supporting GPS and
communications being gone once NATO declares war on Russia.

Third, curfews will be established followed by a requirement for all citizens to report for
a census and the issuance of new identity documents. These will help in population control and
for identifying newcomers to an area. “Losing” these documents will bring strong sanctions and
one can expect that they will be hard to counterfeit via local means. Passes may be required for
intercity travel. The ruble or possibly special occupation scrip will replace national currencies.
The holding of any foreign currencies will be a criminal offense. Rationing and ration cards may
be introduced; less because of food shortages but more as a population control measure (i.e., to
starve out resistance members in the countryside or in urban hides).

Fourth, local Russian populations will be empowered (in Estonia they are 24.8% of the
population, in Latvia 24.5%, and in Lithuania 5.8%) 9 and militias based on ethnic Russians will
be formed to assist in keeping local order. Separate overt and clandestine informant systems will
be established by the FSB. For the overt system, each apartment building, residential block, or
small village will have a person appointed who is responsible to the occupation authorities for
the activities of all in that structure or area. They will need to report on everything from the
arrival of new persons and curfew violations to even simple remarks against the new regime.
The clandestine system will consist of informants secretly recruited by FSB officers (using
coercion or inducements of better conditions) to collect similar information on those around
them including family members. Failure to report incidents that the FSB later learns of will lead
to trouble not just for the rule breakers but also for those supposed to be vigilant and reporting on
them. People will be encouraged to denounce each other for real or suspected disloyalties. Baltic
citizens will remember this system or will have heard their parents talk about it. It is the Stalinist
system of terror and informants that operated during the Soviet era. 10

Finally, in addition to the above, planners should also expect that before long some stay-
behind assets and organizations will be penetrated or betrayed and that the FSB will recruit or
coerce some members to work for them. The Russians have a long history of such operations
from conducting Operation Berezino and countering Germany’s Operation Zeppelin in World
War Two to subverting the post-war Polish underground movement WiN (Wolność i
Niezawisłość – Freedom and Independence). Some cells may be compromised without our
immediate detection as there is unfortunately a long history of duress codes either not being
applied or not being believed. 11

What will be the reaction of Russian authorities to sabotage, sedition, or guerrilla warfare
activities undertaken by the resistance? The ROC has an appendix on population interaction
with foreign occupiers, which acknowledges the possible use of mass terror against a population
and how this can affect population responses to both an occupier and a resistance movement.
However, the appendix’s concluding paragraph – Context of Today’s Threat – appears to
downplay the possibility of the future use of widespread terror tactics in occupied areas when it
“Based on twenty first century mores, rapid and accurate information exchanges among most
advanced nations, and various forms of international integration and inter-dependence, an
occupier from among these nations is not likely to apply widespread terror in the forms analyzed
in the above case studies…This is because today’s aggressive state actors are likely to use more
subtle means of coercion and terror.” 12

The authors may have had in mind when writing this paragraph, the operations of
Russian special forces during the illegal annexation of Crimea. However, that was a one-time
and unique situation in an environment of mostly ethnic Russians unprepared, unwilling, or
unable to resist that coup de main. In all other cases, this statement is inconsistent with the
demonstrated behavior of Russian or Soviet forces in counter-guerrilla or internal security
operations in numerous settings and over numerous decades. Russian reactions to resistance
activities, kinetic and even non-kinetic, will be swift, direct, and brutal in order to destroy the
resistance as quickly as possible.

For example, Soviet operations in Afghanistan from 1978-1988 killed approximately two
million Afghan, wounded approximately 600,000 to two million others and created six million
refugees. 13 Russian operations in Chechnya, against their own citizens, in two separate wars from
1994-2003 have resulted in-between 150,00 and 200,000 civilian deaths. 14 It was in Chechnya
that that the system of “filtration centers” for the detainment and interrogation of suspected
terrorists was established. These camps were known for their brutalities to include electric
shocks to genitals, toes, and fingers; asphyxiation with plastic bags; cutting off of ears; filling
mouths with kerosene; beatings; cigarette burnings; scalding with hot water; deprivation of sleep
and food, etc. 15 In another war, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in 2020 that, “the Syrian-
Russian alliance showed callous disregard for the lives of three million civilians in the [Idlib]
area…The alliance launched dozens of air and ground attacks against civilian objects and
infrastructure in violation of the laws of war, striking homes, schools, healthcare facilities and
markets.” 16 HRW has also documented the raids, arbitrary arrests, and torture conducted by Russian authorities against the native Tatar population in Crimea who oppose Russia’s
takeover. 17 Russian private security companies working overseas are just as apt to use similarly
brutal methods as reported by United Nations investigators in the Central African Republic.
Their alleged violations include mass summary executions, arbitrary detention, torture during
interrogation and the forced displacement of the civilian population, about 240,000 of whom
have fled their homes. 18 Finally, the culture of the Russian army itself has a strong underlying
base of brutality due to the culture of “Dedovshchina” where junior enlisted men are bullied and
terrorized by more senior soldiers, leading to numerous cases each year of suicide and murder.
The above examples were not the ugly collateral damage of war but the result of
systematic brutal occupation policies designed to target populations and terrorize them into
surrendering rather than winning over their “hearts and minds.” We can expect no less if war
comes to the Baltics. Therefore, Russian tactics against resistance operations are likely to
 Indiscriminate executions and taking of hostages. A bridge is blown up between two
villages and in retaliation all military age males in both those villages are executed.
 Food denial to starve out resistance fighters similar to the tactics of the Holodomor in
Ukraine and other Soviet regions during the forced collectivization of agriculture.
 Depopulation of entire populations near areas of guerrilla activity into local filtration
centers or Russia itself. As Stalin once said, no person, no problem.

Twenty first century mores, rapid and accurate information exchanges among most
advanced nations, and various forms of international integration and inter-dependence have not
protected a million Uighurs from concentration camps; they will not protect Baltic citizens
resisting a Russian occupation especially when Russia is conducting total war and has sealed off
the region from the rest of the world. NATO and especially Baltic governments-in-exile will
face difficult decisions about the types of UW activities to pursue while preparing the battlefield
for conventional operations to liberate their territory. Conventional operations themselves will
cause massive destruction and civilian casualties. How many additional casualties will national
leaders want to endure before liberation is possible? This is the dilemma Chetnik guerrilla leader
General Draja Mihailovich faced in Yugoslavia during World War Two. Whether to agree to a
ceasefire with the Germans while Allied forces were still years away and save his people or
continue guerrilla operations like Tito’s Partisans and accept the awful losses from Nazi
executions of hostages and destruction of entire villages? 19 Making an occupation “painful” can
run both ways and while the strategic purpose of Total Defense is to demonstrate to a potential
aggressor that an attack will be extremely costly (ROC, page 18), total war could overcome Total
Defense. Baltic governments-in-exile will have to balance actions to save state sovereignty but
not destroy the nation. While the Afghan nation could survive several million casualties, a Baltic
nation with only a million and a half people cannot.

Implications for NATO

Assuming that an invasion of the Baltics conquers all three countries and stabilizes with a
heavily defended front somewhere in Poland, there will be no contiguous ground border to
provide a sanctuary. This and the extensive air defense/area denial weapon systems that will
move into theater will make infiltration, logistical resupply, and medical evacuation extremely
difficult. Therefore, Special Forces with secure and hard to detect communications systems must
be in place before hostilities.

Personnel involved in resistance movements must have both the training and resources to
survive what will be a hostile and denied operational environment. The ROC recognizes in its
description of pre-crisis resistance component organization (page 27) that core cadre should not
have military or government records for security reasons. But beyond that, resistance members,
(and the resistance will want/need to include persons with military/security experience), will all
need to have alternate personas (to protect their families) that can withstand the strict
counterintelligence environment that Russian occupation will bring. In today’s digital age, even
the most innocuous farmer or day laborer cannot suddenly appear out of nowhere but will have
to have a fully documented life story - birth certificate; school and past employment records;
phone, social media, and bank accounts; etc. The FSB will have control of many local data bases
and use them for counterintelligence research. Therefore, solidly constructed personas and the
ability to live up to them will be necessary for indigenous shadow government, underground, and
guerrilla personnel as well as their Special Forces colleagues.

Language skills for Special Forces soldiers operating in an urban environment supporting
an underground will need to be native or near native. The U.S. Army may wish to break
personnel assignment norms and allow select soldiers to make a career out of serving in just one
Baltic country to gain the language and cultural skills necessary to survive in a denied area. This
could mean a Detachment “A” Berlin type formation in each country, which might become the
longest sustained “pilot team” mission in UW history. 20

Additionally, because of the propensity of Russian forces to use terror in countering
insurgencies, the gain of any operation (kinetic or passive) will have to be assessed against the
retributions that may follow. 21 If this forces a resistance to forego sabotage and guerrilla actions
and limit subversion activities, the resistance still has a vital role in supporting the eventual
conventional counterattack by preparing the battlefield, recovering and safeguarding personnel,
documenting war crimes, and especially collecting intelligence. The later will be vital because
with the possible destruction or blinding of satellite reconnaissance assets, air defenses that make
airborne photoreconnaissance prohibitive, a communications black-out of the local population,
and effective observance of operational security (especially radio and electronic transmissions)
procedures by the occupying forces, Special Forces and indigenous resistance personnel may be
the only reliable intelligence collection capability for the Combatant Commander.
This does not mean that the resistance cannot affect kinetic operations, just that they
should do so in an indirect and nonattributable method. By providing targeting intelligence, they
may be able to have a greater kinetic effect than any single saboteur or guerrilla platoon could
ever have. This was stressed to me in a conversation with former OSS veteran Franklin Lindsay whose studies on UW are noted in the ROC. Lindsay said that he was picked by OSS because of
his engineering background and that sabotage operations he led in Yugoslavia against rail
bridges needed tons of explosives and scores of men. However, he noted that in the era of
precision guided munitions, that template is no longer necessary if the targeting information can
be provided to air and missile units.

Therefore, resistance to Russian occupation will likely bear more of a resemblance to
classic human intelligence operations in a hostile and denied area than a replay of the sabotage
and guerrilla warfare operations of World War Two. In this case for Special Forces personnel,
language skills, cultural knowledge, the ability to live a cover, and the skill to conduct vetting
and counterintelligence operations of the various components of a resistance that can be created
will be the main keys to survival and success.


In operations to liberate the Baltics, NATO will face a foe with a massive
counterintelligence and rear area security apparatus ready to act ruthlessly against any signs of
resistance. The UWOA will be constrained by the lack of a contiguous external sanctuary and
limited areas for internal ones. Until air defense/area denial weapons systems are attritted, there
will be severe limitations on infiltrating Special Forces into the UWOA. Therefore, Special
Forces and indigenous resistance forces must be in place when hostilities start, be prepared to be
“rolled over”, and then have the training, communications resources, and personas to support
Total Defense operations. This means that these assets will invariably be small in numbers
because of the skills that must be mastered and the strict counterintelligence vetting that must be
continuously conducted. Therefore, most of their operations will need to be of a strategic and
operational nature to get the most out of a very precious capability. Because of the environment
specific to a Russian occupation, the resistance will be more of an intelligence war and less of a
guerrilla one. However, their operations will still provide essential support to NATO
conventional forces by giving them the knowledge they will need to degrade enemy capabilities,
achieve the eventual liberation of the Baltic states, and preserve their populations. By resisting
in this manner, the Baltic peoples can produce yet another legacy of subtle but effective
opposition to tyranny.

1 NATO, NATO battlegroups in Baltic nations and Poland fully operational, 28 August 2017,, accessed 17 July 2021.
2 RAND, Assessing the Conventional Force Imbalance in Europe: Implications for Countering Russian Local
Superiority by Scott Boston, Michael Johnson, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, and Yvonne K. Crane, 2018.
3 Resistance Operating Concept, JSOU Press, 2020, page 17.
4 GDP estimates for NATO from NATO Countries: Statistical Profile,
info/groups/NATO-countries, and for Russia from International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook
Database, April 2021,, accessed 17 July 2021.
5 FM 100 2-2, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, 16 July 1984, page 14-1.
6 Center for Eastern Studies, Rosgvardiya: A Special Purpose Force by Jolanta Darczewska, Warsaw, May 2020.

7 CIA World Factbook 2021
8 For a brief description of the SORM systems see Center for Strategic and International Studies, Reference Note on
Russian Communications Surveillance by James Andrew Lewis, 18 April 2014.
9 CIA World Factbook 2021
10 For in-depth discussions of Soviet era internal control systems summarized in this paragraph, see KGB: The Secret
Work of Soviet Secret Agents by John Barron, Bantam Books, New York, 1974, especially Chapter 5, “How to run a
11 For a description of Operations Berezino and Zeppelin and other Soviet “radio play” operations see Stalin’s Secret
War: Soviet Counterintelligence Against the Nazis, 1941-1945 by Robert W. Stephan, University Press of Kansas,
2004. For information on the Soviet penetration of WiN, see Operation Rollback: America’s Secret War Behind the
Iron Curtain by Peter Grose, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2000. For an example of the failure of the
duress code process see Secret Army, Secret War: Washington’s Tragic Spy Operation in North Vietnam by
Sedgwick Tourison, U.S. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1995 plus London Calling North Pole by Herman
Giskes and Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks for German and British views of the compromise of the Dutch
resistance movement in World War Two.
12 ROC, op. cit. page 202.
13 Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban by Larry P. Goodson,
University of Washington Press, 2001.
14 Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, Civil and Military Casualties of the War in Chechnya, accessed at, on 18 July 2021.
15 Putin’s Wars: The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism by Marcel H. Van Herpen, page 193, Rowman & Littlefield,
Lanham, MD, 2014; Allah’s Mountains: Politics and War in the Russian Caucasus by Sebastian Smith, page 190, I.B,
Tauris, London, 1998; The War in Chechnya by Stasys Knezys and Romanas Sedlickas, page 151, Texas A&M
University Press, 1999.
16 Human Rights Watch, Targeting Life in Idlib: Syrian and Russian Strikes on Civilian Infrastructure, 15 October
2020, accessed at
infrastructure, on 18 July 2021.
17 Human Rights Watch, Crimean Tatars Face Unfounded Terrorism Charges,12 July 2019, accessed at, on 24 July 2021.
18 Guardian, Russian Mercenaries Behind Human Rights Abuses in CAR, Say UN Experts by Luke Harding and Jason
Burke, 30 March 2021.
19 For further on this see Patriot or Traitor: The Case of General Mihailovich by David Martin, Hoover Institution
Press, Stanford, California, 1978. Of the several excellent World War Two case studies in the ROC, it would
probably benefit with the addition of a Yugoslav case study to examine this issue in greater depth.
20 For an unclassified history of this unit, see Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the U.S.
Army’s Elite, 1956-1990 by James Stejskal, Casemate Publishers, Havertown, PA, 2017.
21 While the ROC does recognize the ebb and flow of resistance activities in its section on Aggressor Actions and
National Resistance (page 34), it does not fully address the dilemma of tradeoffs related to facing mass terror.

About the Author(s)

The author is a retired 31-year veteran paramilitary operations officer of the Central Intelligence Agency.



Wed, 09/22/2021 - 4:33am

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