Ukraine’s Guerrilla War
If history is a guide, Russia faces a long and bloody path ahead.
The Russian army may prevail in a conventional war, but there has been little focus on past guerrilla wars against it in Ukraine. Twenty-first-century insurgencies have proven difficult to overcome in Chechnya, Colombia, and Yemen, while insurgencies in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe lasted for years after World Wars I and II. A new Ukrainian insurgency, with readily available modern weapons, could be intense and long-lasting.
In 1917, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Ukrainian guerrilla groups opposed both the German occupation and the new Bolshevik army. During the ensuing Russian Civil War, guerrillas supported the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, engaging in a shifting series of alliances with the Bolsheviks and the White Russians, neither of whom was sympathetic to Ukrainian national aspirations. As the Bolsheviks attempted to consolidate control, there were hundreds of peasant revolts in 1920 and an estimated forty thousand guerrillas. After brutal reprisals, the Bolsheviks finally crushed the insurgency by November 1921.
After Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, guerrilla warfare broke out again, with Ukrainian participants espousing a variety of ideologies: anti-Nazi, anti-Soviet, or both, often nationalist and sometimes antisemitic. According to the 2012 study of the insurgency by Ukrainian Armed Forces Major Pavlo Savchenko, the nationalist guerrillas of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) preserved their strength by avoiding fights with regular German forces while ambushing convoys that carried equipment and taking action to protect local populations from punitive measures by the occupation regime. They conducted an estimated 2,526 mostly small-scale actions through 1943, which caused some 17,000 German casualties. By 1944, the Nazis were in retreat; but the UPA continued to conduct sabotage, ambushes, and assassinations. At the same time, the UPA also conducted ethnic cleansing, including mass killings of up to sixty thousand ethnic Poles in western Volhynia, a region that had been invaded and incorporated into the Republic of Poland after World War I.
As the main fighting moved west of Ukraine, the UPA was outmatched in large engagements by huge Soviet forces. By mid-1944, it split into units that were company-sized and smaller, building an elaborate system of bunkers throughout the region for personnel, supplies, medical facilities, and communications, including multi-floor and multi-room bunkers designed so that even if one unit were breached, the attacker would be unaware of the adjacent unit. The NKVD secret police, like its Russian Civil War-era predecessor, the Cheka, took primary responsibility for destroying the insurgency. When the fighting against Germany ended, the NKVD adopted a strategy of taking punitive action against local populations in order to provoke engagement by UPA units. The UPA guerrillas, once flushed out, were encircled by thousands of NKVD troops and killed. Sometimes, the NKVD reportedly engaged in false flag operations, posing as UPA members and terrorizing local populations.
The insurgency was large-scale. From early 1944 to mid-1946, the NKVD claimed to have conducted 87,571 operations and killed, wounded, or captured 476,350 guerrillas (a figure that probably included many civilians). These operations reduced the resistance forces by 40 percent to 60 percent. After the UPA’s supreme commander, Roman Shukhevych, was killed in 1950, it ceased to exist as a unified military organization. The insurgency faded, but separate detachments continued to operate.
From 1944 through 1953, the Soviets claimed that guerrillas were involved in 14,424 combat actions, 4,904 terrorist acts, 195 acts of sabotage, 645 attacks on administration facilities and collective farms, 359 armed robberies, and about 21,000 inflictions of casualties among members of the Soviet administration. There was a final outbreak of guerrilla actions in 1956–57, perhaps inspired by the contemporaneous uprisings in Hungary and Poland. America’s National WWII Museum estimates that insurgencies after the end of World War II left more than one hundred thousand dead in Ukraine, Lithuania (the other country where there was strong guerrilla resistance for years), Estonia, Latvia, and Belarus. In addition, the Soviets deported hundreds of thousands of people to Siberia.
A major reason for the failure of this opposition was a lack of outside support. The UPA leadership hoped that World War III would break out and that the victorious Western allies would grant the Ukrainians an independent state. In the event, however, while the West provided some aid, Ukraine was five hundred miles behind the Cold War’s front lines in Central Europe and, because of the Yalta agreement, under the Soviet thumb. Today, even Poland, which roiled relations with Ukraine in 2016 by condemning the UPA’s Volhynia massacres as genocide, has promised to provide advanced weapons. It has no interest in becoming Vladimir Putin’s next victim.
For years the government of Ukraine, recognizing the country’s weakness in conventional warfare, has publicized its plans for a guerrilla resistance. One recent Fox News video features a brewery that has switched its production to Molotov cocktails. While many insurgencies fight conventional armies with limited, inferior equipment, NATO nations have promised gigantic shipments of lightweight anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and other equipment. Ukrainian conventional forces claim to have already destroyed Russian vehicles in two separate armored columns using inexpensive Turkish-made Bayraktar drones. The Ukrainian government can smuggle arms into the forests and mountains of the northwest and probably beyond, particularly if NATO ensures that western Ukraine (former Austro-Hungarian territory that came under Soviet control only in 1945) remains in the control of the Ukrainian government.
After World War II, Ukrainian public sentiment was divided between nationalist and pro-Soviet attitudes. The devastated region had suffered huge population losses, with many survivors having little appetite for further conflict. Today, the area governed by the Ukrainian Republic—west of the occupied regions—is a strongly nationalist, democratic state that has fought Russia in the Donbas since 2014. After World War II, the Red Army included millions of soldiers who had recently fought for survival against the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War; but their modern Russian successors in Ukraine may lack this ideological commitment.
The estimated 190,000 Russian military personnel involved in the invasion would have difficulty holding an area of roughly the size and population of Afghanistan. Russian units have also recently been deployed to suppress local uprisings in the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Kazakhstan, which might not remain quiescent if Putin opens yet another front.
As the United States discovered in Vietnam and Iraq, and both America and the Soviet Union discovered in Afghanistan, insurgencies can be hard to suppress when there is support from both locals and a contiguous foreign power. While Vladimir Putin may dream of the glorious restoration of Kyivan Rus and the Soviet Union under Russian rule, Ukrainians don’t. The history of 20th-century Ukrainian insurgency suggests that the invasion will produce a long-running, bloody response.
Jay Weiser is associate professor of law emeritus at Baruch College. He has written on Central European history and other topics for The American Interest and numerous other publications.
Image: Aleksandr Anisimov (2002), Kyiv and Kyivans, Kurch ISBN 9669612012, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1761284
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