Small Wars Journal

Unconventional ‌Warfare‌ ‌in‌ ‌Ukraine‌: ‌Why‌ ‌Ukraine‌ ‌Needs‌ ‌a‌ ‌Territorial‌ ‌Defense‌ ‌Force‌ ‌With‌ ‌CMO ‌Capabilities‌

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 10:14pm

Unconventional ‌Warfare‌ ‌in‌ ‌Ukraine‌ ‌

Why‌ ‌Ukraine‌ ‌Needs‌ ‌a‌ ‌Territorial‌ ‌Defense‌ ‌Force‌ ‌With‌ ‌CMO ‌Capabilities‌

by Sean McLaughlin 


"The reform of the Ukrainian military should be an intellectual and mobilization project of the whole country, which unites the best forces of all citizens for a noble cause - the protection of our nation."

                                        Yuri Butusov. Advisor to Ukrainian Ministry of Defense



Kyiv, Ukraine - 03.06.2014: Volunteers from the National Assembly Social go to the eastern part of Ukraine to join the special battalion "Azov."


Scandal and Sinking Morale

After seven years of war, the Ukrainian military is now under severe stress. A ceasefire agreement initiated in July between Ukraine and Russian-backed insurgents has been ineffective1. Despite the Ukrainian sides' planned withdrawal from certain areas and maintaining the ceasefire, Russian-backed separatists have repeatedly violated the agreement2. Also, the Ukrainian military now openly rules out the possibility of offensive operations to retake the Donbas. This has caused an inevitable drop in morale for front-line soldiers who are now put on permanent defense3.  Besides, Ukrainian military leadership has recently been mired in controversy with accusations of corruption4  and mismanagement5. This has led to open declarations in the media by field grade officers that demand the removal of the Commander in Chief6 of the military.

            Compiling frustrations, Ukrainian hopes that sanctions or fatigue would cause Russian President Putin to reconsider his support from the insurgents in Eastern Ukraine have proven to be unrealistic. On December 17th, 2020, Putin announced that he intends to increase Russian support for the Donbass insurgents7.  This statement, coupled with recent revisions to Russian law that allow Putin to stay in office until 20368, means that any Russian compromise is highly unlikely.  All of these difficulties have exacerbated the problem of low troop morale further9. It appears that the Ukrainian military's current trajectory is unsustainable.

A Change of Course

 Along with needed military leadership changes, Ukraine should also revise its strategic goals for the conflict in the east. It must now consider a long-term containment policy that can both stabilize the situation in the east and ensure Russia and its proxies do not attempt to occupy any more Ukrainian territory.  The primary goal should be to ensure that an invasion and occupation of additional Ukrainian territory by Russia would be too cost-prohibitive for Putin to consider. 

One element of this plan would be to create a robust territorial defense force to conduct unconventional warfare. Realistically, Ukraine is not and, for the foreseeable future, will not be capable of repelling an invasion by Russia. However, it can make a Russian occupation costly through unconventional warfare conducted by a well-organized territorial defense and supported by the local populace. A territorial defense could also be utilized for much-needed civil-military operations that would support local government and help rebuild infrastructure damaged by the war.

In considering its defensive needs, Ukraine needs to weigh costs carefully.  Currently, Ukraine has the third largest standing army in Europe10.  This is a serious economic burden considering that it is also the poorest country on the continent11.  Ukraine must balance the price of its defense efforts with the economic needs of the country. To recover economically, it must curtail some of the expenditures on defense and redirect those resources toward stabilization and reconstruction efforts.    

In developing a new strategy that would meet both economic and defense needs, Ukraine should establish a territorial defense force as a cost-effective way to both alleviate pressure on active duty forces and contribute to the reconstruction of infrastructure damaged by the war. A well-designed territorial force could conduct unconventional warfare if necessary.  It could also be a cost-effective way to address reconstruction through civil-military operations in areas that have been impacted by seven years of military operations. Ukrainian territorial defense forces could assist with much-needed humanitarian assistance (HA) 12 and conduct internally managed military, civic action (MCA) 13 and defense support of civil authorities (DSCA) 14  programs as well as internal support to civil administration (SCA) 15 operations.

WARSAW / POLAND - September 23, 2018: an oath of soldiers of the Territorial Defense Forces in Warsaw


Draft Law No. 4504 and the Polish Model

On December 16th, 2020, the Ukrainian legislative branch submitted a draft law that would create a territorial defense force that would be a separate component of the military,16 similar in some respects to the U.S. National Guard. Although the draft law has merit, some serious flaws could hinder a territorial defense created under it from being effective. The main problem is that the organization's proposed mission in draft law 4504 is too broad and unwieldy. As it is currently written, the territorial defense would have fourteen distinct core tasks that include everything from border patrols to psyops to conducting "national-patriotic education of citizens17." A more realistic model for a territorial force that Ukraine should consider is Poland's territorial defense force, the Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej (WOT).

 The Polish territorial defence force was formed in 2015 as a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Poland then realized that it needed to be able to conduct unconventional warfare on a scale needed to deter a Russian occupying force. At the time, former Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz noted that "these units are the cheapest way to increase the strength of the armed forces and the country's defense capabilities. It is also the best response to the dangers of a hybrid war like the one ... following Russia's aggression in Ukraine18."

Unlike American Reserve or National Guard forces, the Polish WOT is not designed to integrate with the military's active duty upon mobilization. Instead, it would operate autonomously to counteract hybrid warfare operations using personnel drawn from the local population operating in proximity to their homes. Poland's territorial defence force is all-volunteer. The soldiers are part-time and spend approximately 30 days per year training on four key tasks. These are, conduct independent, unconventional warfare activities, conduct defense activities in cooperation with operating forces, participate in the reception of allied reinforcement forces, and participate in crisis management activities like search and rescue operations19.

For Ukraine, this fourth task could be expanded upon to include civil-military operations to help meet reconstruction needs. The loss of control of the Donbass caused Ukraine to take an enormous economic hit, making approximately 25% of its pre-2014 industrial base now inaccessible20. There have also been substantial personal costs to the Ukrainian people, with over 13,000 people dead and more than 30,000 injured. There are now an estimated 2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) living in the country21. This loss, coupled with the lingering effects of Ukraine's chaotic transition from a communist to a capitalist economy, has caused enormous economic hardship in Ukraine22. A territorial defense force with robust CMO capabilities could help alleviate some of the damage caused to infrastructure due to the war and rebuild the Ukrainian economy.


CMO and Ukraine's Volunteers

CMO performed by a territorial defense force could address Ukraine's social and economic needs in multiple ways. With humanitarian assistance projects, it could be involved in operations that include assisting the 1.5 million IDPs in Ukraine23. It could do this by cooperating with local governments and NGOs such as the Red Cross and international partners like the U.S. Agency for International Development.  Utilizing civilian skill sets, a territorial defense force could potentially initiate engineering civic action programs (ENCAPs) 24 to rebuild schools and health clinics and could play a role in rebuilding infrastructure as part of a coordinated plan of military, civic action.  Also, as Ukraine empowers local government, internal support to civil administration (SCA) 25  operations that support regional and city governments could assist local officials and give them greater credibility. Finally, a territorial defense force could potentially support emergency service operations26 like forest fires, flooding, or other natural disasters when necessary. 

A territorial defense force that can conduct CMO may be particularly suited for Ukraine due to that country's large and unique volunteer movement. Since the start of the conflict in the east, volunteers have provided vital support to the Ukrainian military, which is still dependent on external support for many of its logistical needs after seven years of conflict27.There now exist dozens of volunteer organizations that provide food, medicine, clothing, ammunition, motor vehicles, and military equipment. Volunteers also provide medical aid to the victims of hostilities and assist IDPs with legal, psychological, and humanitarian assistance28. These same patriotic volunteers are likely to form the backbone of a territorial defense force. The skills and knowledge they have acquired over the seven years of conflict combined with their civilian skill sets would immediately provide that force with extensive CMO capabilities.

Uzhhorod, Ukraine - March 16, 2017: Employees of the Red Cross Society unload boxes of measles vaccines that entered the Transcarpathian region within the framework of humanitarian aid from Hungary.


National Unifier

Ukraine needs a robust force that can conduct irregular warfare and can act autonomously to help prevent Russia from occupying more Ukrainian territory. Due to its economic situation, it needs to closely consider the cost of forming and training this force. It also needs to address the enormous damage to its infrastructure and economy that the war has caused. A territorial defense force made up of volunteers and modelled on the Polish WOT that could conduct CMO could address all of these needs. It could also help serve as a unifying force for the Ukrainian people and help instil a national unity and identity based upon volunteerism and protection of the populace's homeland. 


Disclaimer: The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.

All images used under license from


Civil-Military Operation (CMO); Activities of a commander performed by designated civil affairs or other military forces that establish, maintain, influence, or exploit relations between military forces, indigenous populations, and institutions by directly supporting the attainment of objectives relating to the reestablishment or maintenance of stability within a region or host nation and also called CMO. (JP 3-57) Referenced in ADP 3-05, ADP 3-90, FM 2-0, FM 3-57, ATP 3-07.6, ATP 3-07.31, ATP 3-57.10, ATP 3-57.20, ATP 3-57.60, ATP 3-57.70, ATP 3-57.80, ATP 6-0.5.

Engineering Civil Action Program (ENCAP); An engineering outreach program to provide engineering activities, including repairs and improvements, evaluations, and technical assistance.  Referenced in NTRP 1-02

Humanitarian Assistance (HA): Assistance to the local populace is specifically authorized by Title 10, United States Code, Section 401, and funded under separate authorities, provided by predominantly United States forces in conjunction with military operations and also called HCA. (JP 3-29) Referenced in FM 3-57, ATP 3-05.2, ATP 3-07.31, ATP 3-57.20, ATP 3-57.30, ATP 3-57.80.

Internally Displaced Person (IDP): Any person who has been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their home or places of habitual residence, in particular, as a result of or to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural or human-made disasters and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border (JP 3-29).

Military Civic Action (MCA): Programs and projects managed by United States forces but executed primarily by indigenous military or security forces that contribute to the economic and social development of a host nation civil society, thereby enhancing the legitimacy and social standing of the host nation government and its military forces and also called MCA. (JP 3-57). Referenced in FM 3-57, ATP 3-57.20, and ATP 3-57.30.

Support to Civil Administration (SCA); Assistance given by armed forces to stabilize or enhance the operations of a country's governing body by assisting an established or interim government, also called SCA (FM 3-57).

Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA); Actions in response to requests for assistance from civil authorities for domestic emergencies, law enforcement support, and other domestic activities, or from qualifying entities for special events. Also called DSCA. (DODD 3025.18) Referenced in ADP 1, ADP 2-0, ADP 3-0, ADP 3-28, FM 1-04, FM 3-09, FM 3-14, FM 3-52, FM 3-57, ATP 2-01, ATP 2-91.7, ATP 3-09.42, ATP 3-14.3, ATP 3-28.1.

Unconventional Warfare (UW): (DOD) Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area and also called UW (JP 3-05). Referenced in ADP 3-05, FM 3-05, FM 3-53, FM 3-57, FM 6-05, ATP 3-05.1, ATP 3-18.1, and ATP 4-14.









About the Author(s)

LTC (ret) Sean McLaughlin is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of West Georgia. He holds a Master's Degree in Government from Harvard University and a Master's Degree in Education from Notre Dame College, and a Bachelor's Degree from the University of New Hampshire. From 2017 to 2018, he served in Kyiv, Ukraine, as the U.S. Representative on the Executive Committee Responsible for the Ukrainian Defense Advisory Reform Board (DRAB) in Kyiv, Ukraine. The DRAB consists of strategic level NATO advisors to Ukraine's military and defense industry. Other duty positions LTC(R) McLaughlin has held include the G-9 for the 42nd Infantry Division, Course Manager for Civil Affairs Officer Branch Qualifying Course (MCAC), and Coalition Forces Liaison Iraqi Government on the Baghdad PRT.

The author would like to thank U.S. Ambassador John Abizaid for his guidance and support during his Ukraine's service.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:00am

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