Could the Russian invasion spark a Ukrainian insurgence?
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine grinds into its sixth week, experts and Western intelligence agencies are continuing to sketch out potential endgames for the conflict.
It’s possible that a ceasefire could emerge, and the Russian military, facing surprisingly fierce Ukrainian resistance, would simply back off its initial war aim of regime change in Kyiv and control over the country’s future. But recent history suggests the solution won’t be that simple.
Russia could also exploit its far larger military might and continue its advance into Ukraine, particularly in the east, where it now appears to be focused. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin may continue to face heavy losses, the sheer size of his army sets up the possibility of the Kremlin occupying swaths of Ukrainian territory and facing a protracted and bloody insurgence.
“Insurgency is different from regular warfare in that it’s usually troops that are not in a formalized military structure,” Emily Harding, the deputy director and senior fellow of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained to Yahoo News.
An insurgence is most likely to happen, Harding believes, if Russian soldiers occupy a significant number of Ukrainian territories in the coming months or even years. But if the Ukrainian population maintains its defiance, supporting a militia effort and harassing Russian troops, Putin may not have enough forces to fully establish control there.
“To me, that would be a really critical moment for the way this conflict goes, there’s a numbers game to be played,” Harding said. “If you look at the required ratio [of troops] for occupying territory, it’s a lot higher than you would think. And so the Russians, they just don’t physically have enough Russian soldiers to try to hold much territory in Ukraine.”
But in order to be successful, insurgent militias require both financial and military assistance — likely coming from both the local population and foreign governments opposed to the Russian invasion. (Similar, in fact, to how Moscow has supported an insurgence in Ukraine’s eastern region, furnishing the local armies with weapons and other support.) “In fact, that’s critical to the success of most insurgencies that you have foreign assistance pouring in, both militarily and with people and money,” Harding said.
For now, Russia is not facing a significant Ukrainian insurgence because its large military has failed to conquer significant Ukrainian territory since launching the invasion last month. Ukraine’s largest cities have thus far repelled Russian troops, whose most significant territorial gains have been in the country’s coastal south.
“We saw the Russians not only meet heavy resistance from the Ukrainians, but we also saw the Russians have real trouble with their logistical tail,” Harding said. “They couldn’t move as quickly as they wanted to through the roadways and through the railways of Ukraine. We joked a lot about how when we were studying the Russian cyber capabilities, we really should have been studying eastern Ukrainian mud.”
But the war is far from over.
“I think people underestimate the extent to which the Russian government is willing to just throw people at the problem,” she said. “They don’t care so much about the health and well-being of their troops. I think people who are assuming that there is a big win to happen here in the near term are probably assuming too much.”