Not giving in: 'Resistance', a painting by Ukrainian artist Vadym Bakalov. Image: Ukrinform / Alamy
Given the difficult conditions under which it must operate, the nature and development of the resistance movement in Ukraine’s occupied territories is worthy of greater attention.
After Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, a large part of the territory of Ukraine – and thus millions of Ukrainian citizens – came under the control of Russian troops. The participation of the residents of the occupied territories in the resistance movement, their interaction with the Defence Forces of Ukraine (all of the defence, security and intelligence institutions involved in the defence of Ukraine) and their contribution to the success of Ukrainian operations are extremely significant. At the same time – as the experience of Ukraine has shown – in the conditions of modern war, the nature and tasks of a resistance movement differ from those of a traditional one. The study of the Ukrainian resistance movement therefore deserves special attention, as it can help in adapting existing doctrines and training programmes for resistance movement specialists to the realities that they will have to face.
First of all, it should be noted that in the conditions of a major conventional confrontation between Ukraine and Russia, where Ukraine also has the means of long-range fire damage, the main function of the resistance movement in the occupied territories is the collection and transmission of intelligence information – particularly on the location of the most important Russian military objects – as well as carrying out fire adjustments on such targets. Since the population of the occupied territories of Ukraine is extremely hostile to Russia and wants to liberate its settlements as soon as possible, it was not difficult for the Defence Forces of Ukraine to identify people who were ready to participate in the resistance. Tens of thousands of people are involved in the networks that operate in the occupied territories, the vast majority of whom are involved in the collection of intelligence information necessary for the effective operations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
According to Ukrainian law, the formation and management of the resistance movement is the prerogative of the Special Operations Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine; however, Ukrainian intelligence and law enforcement agencies have also created their own networks in the occupied territories. This is natural given that the intelligence agencies, as well as the operational units of law enforcement agencies, have more practical human intelligence experience and a significantly larger number of specialists who are able to ensure the selection and recruitment of resistance members as well as the direction and organisation of their activities, taking into account the need to maintain a high level of tradecraft. In addition, the intelligence agencies are able to more effectively direct the intelligence-gathering activities of the resistance movement, as they have the ability to assess the intelligence situation and analyse any changes that occur. Another important element of the intelligence agencies’ success in this regard is the presence of a pre-prepared apparatus of agents who have already undergone basic training and acquired the practical skills necessary for effective operation in the occupied territories. This is especially important for agent penetration of the occupation administrations and other structures formed by the Russians in the occupied territories.
Despite the fact that acts of sabotage and direct actions account for a smaller percentage of resistance movement operations compared to the collection of intelligence information, they also deserve attention. In the case of sabotage, considering the traditional high dependence of Russian military logistics on railway transport, actions to disable railway infrastructure – especially those causing damage to rolling stock (disabling locomotives) – can be particularly fruitful. Such sabotage is significantly more effective compared to ordinary damage to the railway track, as it takes much longer for the enemy to restore functioning. Carrying out such actions requires agents to be stationed at enterprises that ensure the functioning of railway transport, including among the employees of railway depots.
Tens of thousands of people are involved in the networks that operate in the occupied territories, the vast majority of whom are involved in the collection of intelligence information
The role of direct actions in the occupied territories is relatively low, and the actions themselves are mainly carried out by the Special Operations Forces and special units of the intelligence agencies, occasionally with some support from members of the resistance movement. With the presence of artillery and missile weapons capable of targeting the enemy’s entire operational depth, as well as strike UAVs capable of hitting targets at a distance of more than 1,000 km, the need for direct actions has significantly decreased, and is reduced to extremely niche tasks and objectives. The involvement of members of the resistance movement in direct actions is not appropriate, since it requires additional combat and tradecraft training, the deployment of additional infrastructure – which increases the risk of exposing networks – as well as the scaling of the actions themselves.
The role of members of the resistance movement in distributing propaganda among the population of the occupied territories as well as among the Russian armed forces is also of a limited nature. A much more effective and safer way of influencing such audiences is the use of social networks and digital media, as well as sending messages to smartphones – which, despite all prohibitions, are actively used by Russian military personnel. Under such conditions, the participation of the resistance movement in propaganda activities is reduced to painting anti-Russian graffiti in public places, which is aimed at demonstrating the presence of the resistance, as well as supporting the morale of the population in the occupied territories and encouraging them to engage in civil disobedience.
The resistance movement’s involvement in the organisation of non-violent protests against the Russian occupation – which were widespread at the beginning of the invasion – had become negligible by the end of 2022. The harsh occupation regime established by Russia, accompanied by the large-scale kidnapping, imprisonment, torture and murder of pro-Ukrainian activists, made open forms of protest practically impossible. Russian repression also forced a significant part of the active population to leave the occupied territories, which greatly simplified the task of the Russian-installed police and counterintelligence regimes.
Although there are prerequisites for the deployment of the resistance movement with the involvement of Russian citizens in Russia itself, Ukraine is not conducting such operations. Special operations on Russian territory are limited to raid operations by the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces and special units of the intelligence agencies, during which the operators carry out sabotage actions on transport and military infrastructure. Informational and psychological influence on the Russian population in the vast majority of cases is carried out through social networks and involves refuting the narratives of Russian propaganda, by conveying true information about the course of the war, the losses incurred by the Russian armed forces, and so on. Measures to form a non-violent anti-war movement within Russia, as well as among Russian citizens in other countries – despite their obvious necessity – are not being carried out. To a large extent, the reason for the lack of tangible efforts in this direction is that the need to prepare for a long-term total confrontation with Russia was neglected prior to the outbreak of war, a fact characteristic of both the leadership of Ukraine and its Western partners.
The resistance movement remains an effective tool for carrying out sabotage of critical infrastructure, particularly objects relating to railway transport
Summarising the experience of the Ukrainian resistance movement, the following elements stand out. First of all, for the effective formation and application of a resistance movement, it is necessary to involve experienced human intelligence specialists. This is due to the high level of tradecraft required for handling agent networks, as well as the fact that the main product of a resistance movement in the conditions of a peer-to-peer confrontation is the intelligence information collected by its members. This necessitates a review of the role of intelligence agencies in the organisation of the resistance movement, as well as a significant increase in the capabilities of the Special Operations Forces in the field of conducting human intelligence operations.
Secondly, the involvement of members of the resistance movement in direct actions in the conditions of a modern military conflict is limited due to the high threat of network disclosure, as well as the possibility of using artillery and missile systems to destroy targets in the occupied territories, together with UAVs, which are significantly more effective compared to ambushes and raids by small groups. At the same time, the resistance movement remains an effective tool for carrying out sabotage of critical infrastructure, particularly objects relating to railway transport. In this regard, more attention should be paid to identifying objects that may be important to disable, as well as to the development of appropriate methods for carrying out sabotage actions when training members of the resistance movement. It is also evident that special forces operators – who have spent a significant part of their careers developing individual combat skills – often lack the knowledge and skills necessary to create and administer underground networks whose main tasks are intelligence gathering and sabotage. Moreover, even the training of members of the resistance movement involved in direct action usually requires qualities other than the high level of individual combat skills possessed by special forces fighters.
Thirdly, especially in conditions where the theatre of conventional military operations is mostly limited to the territory of Ukraine, the deployment of the resistance movement (as a movement of citizens against the regime) on Russian territory is a necessary and practically unavoidable step. The creation of such a resistance movement would make it possible to organise both an underground anti-war network – capable, among other things, of carrying out sabotage actions against the enterprises of the Russian defence industry – and an open anti-war movement, which could significantly reduce the level of support for the aggression against Ukraine among Russian citizens.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Oleksandr V Danylyuk
Associate Fellow - Expert in Russian multidimensional warfare