To deter a Russian attack, Ukraine needs to prepare for guerrilla warfare

A Ukrainian serviceman on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near the village of Pesky, Donetsk region, on Dec. 14. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian serviceman on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near the village of Pesky, Donetsk region, on Dec. 14. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

With Russia mobilizing 175,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, Europe is facing the prospect of its biggest war since 1945. Western leaders are warning Russian President Vladimir Putin of “massive consequences” should he decide to invade.

The West could target the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would carry Russian natural gas to Germany; go after the ill-gotten gains that Putin and his cronies have stashed in the West; and even kick Russia out of the SWIFT system of interbank transfers. But Putin has endured economic sanctions since his initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and he is still as menacing as ever.

Preventing Russia from attacking will require a more credible military deterrent. President Biden has ruled out unilaterally sending U.S. combat troops to Ukraine, which would be the strongest deterrent. But he can still do more to help the Ukrainians defend themselves.

The United States has already delivered more than $2.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014, with $450 million of that coming this year. There are also roughly 150 U.S. troops in Ukraine training its armed forces.

But Ukraine is asking for more military aid, and we should deliver it. NBC News reports that “Ukraine has asked for air defense systems, antiship missiles, more Javelin antitank missiles, electronic jamming gear, radar systems, ammunition, upgraded artillery munitions and medical supplies.” The Defense Department could begin airlifting these defensive systems and supplies to Kyiv tomorrow. The administration has held off for fear of provoking Putin, but we should not give an aggressor a veto over aid to his victims.

Ultimately, of course, if Russia chooses to unleash its full military might, the Ukrainian armed forces will be defeated in short order despite all of the improvements they have made since 2014. But even then all is not lost. Ukrainian patriots could fight as guerrillas against Russian occupiers.

They have done it before. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was formed in 1942 to fight for that country’s independence. Initially, it cooperated with Nazi invaders but later fought against them. When the Red Army marched back into Ukraine in 1943, the UPA resisted. The guerrillas carried out thousands of attacks and inflicted thousands of casualties on Soviet forces while also massacring and ethnically cleansing the Polish population in western Ukraine. The UPA continued fighting until the 1950s, forcing Moscow to mobilize tens of thousands of troops and secret policemen to restore control.

Eventually, the Soviet empire prevailed. The guerrillas were too weak and the Soviet forces too strong. But the UPA never received any outside support, usually the key determinant of the success or failure of an insurgency. It was a different story with the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s. Because they received copious aid from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries, they were able to drive out the Red Army with heavy casualties.

Putin, who was a young KGB officer in those days, has no desire to blunder into another Afghanistan-style war. Having Russian troops come home in body bags would sap popular support for his regime. In fact, this makes me doubt that he would actually try to occupy all of Ukraine, a country of 44 million people. (The population of Afghanistan in the 1980s was only 13 million.) He is more likely to mount a limited operation to enlarge the Russian sphere of control in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainians are already talking about waging guerrilla warfare if the Russians invade. Gen. Oleksandr Pavlyuk told the New York Times that Ukraine has 500,000 people with military experience, and if necessary “we’ll start a partisan war.” A senior Ukrainian military official “said that if all else failed, the military would simply open its weapons depots and allow the Ukrainian people to take whatever they need to defend themselves and their families.”

Those are potent threats. But why wait for a Russian invasion to make these preparations? The Ukrainian government needs to start distributing weapons now and, with the help of U.S. and other Western military advisers, training personnel to carry out guerrilla warfare. Volodymyr Zelensky’s government should even prepare supply depots, tunnels, and bunkers in wooded areas and in particular in the Carpathian Mountains, a UPA stronghold in the 1940s.

The United States and its NATO allies should let the Kremlin know that, in the event of a Russian occupation, they will keep supplying Ukrainian freedom fighters with potent weapons, including Javelin antitank missiles and Stinger antiaircraft missiles. U.S. officials should point out to their Russian counterparts that Ukraine shares a lengthy border — nearly 900 miles in total — with NATO members Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. Good luck controlling that frontier.

The threat of guerrilla warfare is the most potent deterrent to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it is one that Ukraine and its supporters in the West need to play up to make Putin think twice before he launches another war of aggression.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”

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