Ukraine and the Threat of Citizen Resistance
Brian S. Petit
Ukraine is bracing for a Russian invasion. Undermatched, undersized, and militarily less capable, Ukraine will lose a conventional, combined arms fight, should it come. Facing this prospect, Ukraine is investing in and publicizing its hedging strategy: citizen resistance.
Is this Ukrainian citizen resistance strategy a publicity-heavy bluff that offers more bark than bite? Or is this strategy – organized enough to be credible and opaque enough to produce surprises - exactly on point?
Citizen resistance potential is frustratingly difficult to measure. It is even harder to predict its form and function when placed under the stress of invasion. Citizen resistance movements, at least the hastily organized ones supporting a status quo ante proposition, have characteristics like a school of fish. They are an unknowable number, adopt an indeterminate-but-common movement direction, come stippled with sensors, shapeshift according to pressure applied, and can absorb attacks from larger predators. Anything so fashioned can and will gain an adversary’s attention.
I spent much of my time as a U.S. Army special operations officer either fighting resistances or supporting them. For the past five years (out of uniform), I have been involved in the academic and practical side of evaluating, modeling, and crafting resistances, to include working with East Europe and Black Sea partners. Here is the sticky problem at hand: How does an outmatched state employ resilience mechanisms and resistance movements to contest and repel invading powers?
Ukrainian citizen resistance against an invading foreign army is credible but not predictable. It is prepared but not systematized. It is rehearsed but not synchronized. Peering into the fuzzy interplay between a population and a possible war, the bits that we can see are telling. Ukrainians have enough resistance infrastructure that is visible and enough that is hidden to be make this threat convincing and, beneficially, not entirely knowable. We cannot know the outcome, but the Ukrainian citizen resistance scheme, as is, will shape Russian strategic and tactical assessments. It follows then, in some manner that is precisely indeterminate, that the Ukrainian resistance threat will alter Russian calculations.
There are three main reasons why I think Ukraine’s threat of state-sponsored partisan warfare presents a considerable threat to an invading force.
Public Messaging That Triggers Public Mobilization
“Eight years have passed and there are very many people with military experience who are prepared with weapons in their hands to fight,” stated Ukrainian Gen. Oleksandr Pavlyuk, Commanding General of the Ukrainian Joint Operations Forces contesting separatists on the eastern front. “We’ll start a partisan war,” Pavlyuk warned in a Radio Liberty interview on December 2, 2021.
"Measures of national resistance will be carried out both in the controlled and in the temporarily-occupied territories of our state," said Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky.
Strong public messaging does not a deterrent make. But public messaging does not have to exactly match capability to be effective. By design, the Ukraine government’s official statements send one clear message to internal Ukrainian audiences and send another message to external audiences, namely, Russia.
To Ukrainian ears, this is a battle cry to prepare and mobilize in order to resist a foreign invader. Match this emotional appeal to the existing structural component of Ukrainian resistance and you have accomplished, at minimum, a collective psychological mobilization. On the higher end, Ukraine has signaled to its population that the time is now to choose the manner in which one can appropriately contribute to national resistance. Ukraine has mapped out paths for its citizens to aid the resistance, from the front lines to the soup lines. Unlike the surprise and shock when Russia invaded in February 2014, Ukrainians are able to process and plan ahead of time with structured avenues of resistance options.
Mobilizing and directing citizen resistance energy requires organization and administration. Ukraine is working to develop this “messy middle” with regional Territorial Defense Forces that provide both population protection and active defense. These Territorial Defense Forces include a mix of civic actors, patriotic volunteers, service sector managers (power, water, transportation), and armed units. If a Russian invasion occurs, expect gaps between the top-down government defense plans and the decentralized bottom-up citizen actions. Even the most well-prepared and rehearsed total defense plans, such as witnessed in Sweden, struggle to get a tight wrap on connecting localized, civic agencies with national-level responders.
Should invasion prove to be something more subtle than trespassing tanks, these Territorial Defense Forces are key sensors that can detect micro-changes in the environment. Russia’s employment of deception, maskirovka (“disguise”), relies on creating chaos and confusion to penetrate and exploit. Russia employed maskirovka masterfully in 2014 in Crimea, check-mating Ukrainian armed forces inside their bases and at a low state of readiness. Ukraine’s revised Territorial Defense Force structure and capabilities are still under development, but they are designed to act as a sensor network to avoid strategic surprise. Territorial Defense Forces, as the name suggests, are not designed to be expeditionary nor highly lethal. They are intended to leverage that classic insurgent advantage: intimate knowledge of the local area.
Ukrainian messaging to its population, in this pre-crisis moment, is clear and repetitive. It is enough to trigger these citizen resistance layers to activate their plans, networks, and contingencies, both official and unofficial.
To Russian military generals, this messaging signals that a decisive defeat to Ukrainian armed formations will be followed by a second task: detect, suppress, and defeat civilian resistance actors and actions. This is costly. The wild-eyed, AK-wielding-citizen is a specter that must trouble Kremlin planners. Ukraine is signaling that, if invaded, it will open new and ambiguous fronts. In the Russian planner’s room, this introduces enough friction to alter calculations and require contingencies.
Managing the Messy Margins of Militias
In late February 2014, Russian launched a surprise attack on Crimea. Ukraine was psychologically shocked and militarily unprepared to contest. With Crimea occupied and facing Russian-separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian government pushed the proverbial emergency button. On March 13, 2014, the Ukrainian parliament authorized the formation and deployment of volunteer armed groups – militias – to defend the nation.
This legislative act was no masterful top-down plan. It was a gamble taken by a nation undergoing both a political crisis and a ground invasion. The law carved out a basic framework – a risky and unpredictable one – that authorized citizens to assemble, organize, arm, and contest invading Russian forces and internal, pro-Russian militias.
Mobilizing the Ukrainian citizenry to take up arms or otherwise resist against a willful and skillful invading Russian army was an article of faith more than a military plan. Yet here, seven years later, it is evident that the gambit paid off. It did not result in a clean military victory, but it showed the immense value proposition of allowing and enabling willing citizens to engage in combat, often on undefinable fronts.
The waging of militia warfare, no matter how righteous the cause, invites messy margins. Do not expect full compliance of Amnesty International standards for human rights, nor expect a tidy register accounting for every bullet and band-aid. Militias attract many brave patriots who serve nobly but they also attract extremists, sociopaths, loners, and thrill seekers. In 2014-15, a number of home-grown Ukrainian militias rallied around right-wing extremism as their guiding philosophy. These units generate that classic Faustian bargain: they productively fight the enemy but they weaken the legitimacy of the resistance and the sponsoring state.
The Azov Battalion was one such fringe militia. Azov was formed in the crisis days of March, 2014 under far-right nationalist, Andriy Biletskiy. Azov, with its neo-Nazi costuming and extremist orientation, became a public relations headache for Ukraine. Units like Azov also provided Russia with an easy avenue to frame ethnic Russians in Ukraine as victims of violent, fascist groups. Of note, the Azov Battalion did conduct high-risk, dangerous urban warfare, notably capturing the city of Mariupol from Russian separatists in June 2014. This battle was not the skirmish warfare typical of militias; this was high-intensity combat with significant tactical consequences. Aside from their obvious liabilities, Azov and other controversial fighting groups did hard and productive combat on behalf of the state.
Over time and with a feel for each unique situation, Ukraine regularized, transitioned, or demobilized irregular units that fought in the breach. Aidar, Right Sector, Azov, Donbas, and Dnepr 1 are but a few of these volunteer units. Many remain, reflagged or wholly reorganized, under the regulating hand of the defense or interior ministries. The evolution of the Azov Battalion is instructive. The unit, formed in May 2014, was nominally de-politicized and incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine in November, 2014. In the court of public opinion, such units teetered between heroes and pariahs. Ukraine honored each side of this narrative and provided off-ramps that respectfully recognized service while disincentivizing counter-productive ideologies. In my experience, in the highly imperfect discipline of demobilizing irregulars, Ukraine managed this thoughtfully and capably.
In the aggregate, Ukrainian militias produced viable combat power on behalf of the state when the official state security services could not or did not answer the call. Involving militias is to invite a quasi-directional threat. Even militias attacking an invading enemy can threaten their own government, if not physically, then indirectly, in terms of legitimacy. Ukraine managed that proposition well enough from 2014 to 2017. To its credit, Ukraine didn’t stop there; the government of Ukraine moved forward with the difficult work of migrating these lessons into laws and policies that better govern the use of citizens resistors and home-grown irregular units.
Resistance Law and Policy
On July 29, 2021, Zelensky signed into law a unique piece of legislation contributing to total national defense. The law took effect January 1, 2022. Roughly translated as “On The Fundamentals of National Resistance,” this law (5557) further codified the roles and responsibilities of ministries in harnessing citizen resistance potential and regulating its most obvious forms: territorial forces units, volunteer battalions, irregular contributors, and other citizen-centric tasks.
The law granted Ukraine Special Operations Command new and significant responsibilities for a portion of the internal resistance portfolio. Credit the United States Special Operations Command Europe for their persistent, consistent engagement strategy within a larger defense reform plan. Since 2014, Ukraine has invested in and professionalized its special operations capability with a specified role in irregular warfare.
The Commander of the Special Operations Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Major General Hryhoriy Halahan, spoke on the implications of Law 5557. “The introduction of such a system is historically justified. After all, the national resistance movement against the Russian-Bolshevik occupation on the territory of Ukraine operated during the 1920s, with the “Kholodny Yar” insurgents being its most famous representatives. Here we can also mention the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. It was the national resistance that managed to stand against Russian aggression in 2014. Now the adoption of the draft law is necessary to resolve, in particular, the development of the resistance movement, which will be subordinated to the SOF. Most importantly, the bill №5557 provides for ensuring full-fledged social and legal protection …”
Gen. Halahan’s statement ties this law to the Ukrainian resistance movements of the past that contested Russian and, later, Soviet occupation. He closes by addressing a more modern concern: citing the protections afforded to resistors who willingly come forth to join resistance movements. By any measure, this is crafty policy that illuminates pathways to lawfully resist a foreign invader.
A concurrent law passed the same day added some 11,000 manned slots to Territorial Defense Forces. These two laws taken together represent both a vertical and a horizontal thickening of Ukraine total defense. The low density, special skill formations like Ukraine special operations forces are vertically building capability to support and enable select resistance formations. The horizontal growth via the territorial defense units is bringing resistance and resilience to scale in and amongst the local civic institutions and influencers.
In revising its resilience and resistance legal framework, Ukraine borrowed some key ideas and framing concepts from some of the leaders of the Total Defense discipline: Switzerland, Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania, Singapore. Ukrainian strategists are also students of the Resistance Operating Concept, an intellectual and practical guide to incorporating resistance and resilience into national defense. NATO’s Comprehensive Defense Handbook is another apropos source. What Ukraine added that these nations lack is the practical, recent experience of managing and guiding violent resistance energy into productive paths. Less acknowledged, but surely part of this plan, are the lessons from a different set of actors: insurgents, irregulars, dark networks, cyber sleuths.