A Ukrainian territorial defense battalion, made up of civilian volunteers, trains at a base outside the city of Dnipro in 2015. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.
KYIV, Ukraine — Should Russia invade, a national network of Ukrainian irregular military units is prepared to wage a protracted, guerrilla resistance campaign.
Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces comprise about 100,000 reservists and civilian volunteers assigned to 25 brigades scattered across the country — at least one unit is assigned to each of Ukraine’s 24 regions, or oblasts. These unconventional forces fall under the Ukrainian military’s chain of command.
With the Russian military massing on its frontiers, Ukraine has activated the Territorial Defense Forces in its southern regions. According to Ukraine’s armed forces, those units conducted exercises along the Black Sea coastline and the border with Russian-occupied Crimea to resist an amphibious landing force and “to combat subversive-reconnaissance groups and other hostile forces and irregular armed formations.”
Ukrainian Operational Command South — which includes the Vinnytsya, Kirovohrad, Mykolaiv, Odesa, and Kherson oblasts — controls five territorial defense brigades. Each of those units is tasked to defend its respective regional territory and impede the advance of a Russian invasion force so that regular Ukrainian units have more time to maneuver. In theory, the territorial defense brigades can mobilize for combat within one to two days.
“That is exactly the strategy Greece used as a NATO member in anticipation of an invasion through Yugoslavia in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Steven Bucci, a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation who served for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official.
Bucci continued: “I trained with the Greeks in the mountains just over the Yugoslav border in 1980. You trade terrain for time, leave ‘behind’ your [unconventional warfare] forces and make the invader pay for being on your ground. You always hate giving up your own sovereign ground, but sometimes it is the only option.”
After seven years of constant combat, Moscow continues to arm, fund, and exert authority over its two client breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine. For its part, the Kremlin denies its involvement in the war.
Over the past several weeks Russia has mobilized tens of thousands of troops to within striking range of Ukraine. Some 40,000 Russian troops are massed near Ukraine’s eastern border. Another 40,000 Russian military personnel are reportedly in Crimea — a Ukrainian peninsular territory that Russia invaded and seized in 2014.
The forces moving into Crimea include paratroopers from Russia’s 76th Air Assault Division as well as anti-aircraft weapons, electronic warfare systems, and armor. Russia has also deployed additional gunboats and landing craft on the Black Sea — a body of water bordering both Russia and Ukraine.
Concurrent with Russia’s troop movements, violence has spiked over the past few weeks along the front lines in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Ukrainian forces have been engaged in a trench war for years against a combined force of Russian regulars, pro-Russian separatists, and foreign mercenaries.
“If the Russian Federation wants to hit us from a direction where there is not a great density of our regular army as there is on the Donbas front, a full resistance should mobilize across the whole country,” Denys Semyroh-Orlyk, an architect and member of the Territorial Defense Forces living in Kyiv, told the Ukrainian media site Euromaidan Press.
“The aggressor must know that there will be a hostile environment all around them,” Semyroh-Orlyk said. “Territorial Defense will resist at routes, bridges and other important points of communications. The enemy must know that in the rear he will have our combat-ready units, which might come out in civilian clothes.”
In 2014, Russia launched an unconventional takeover of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Ukraine’s regular forces at the time had been depleted by decades of corruption in the post-Soviet era and were at first unable to mount an effective resistance. Harkening back to the legacy of partisan groups from World War II, many Ukrainians consequently took their country’s defense into their own hands.
“There was a real chance the front could have collapsed in 2014,” said Denys Antipov, a former Ukrainian army platoon commander who served in the Donbas. “Nobody knew what was going to happen. So, many young people wanted to train for guerrilla warfare.”
Amid Russia’s recent escalatory moves, some say that Ukraine’s 2014 grassroots war effort served as a bellwether for the kind of guerrilla resistance that a prospective Russian invasion force would face.
“I do not think such forces are an effective deterrence to a near-peer or superior military force,” John Spencer, chair of urban warfare studies at West Point’s Modern Warfare Institute, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “But they could be a roadblock, a time consumer.
“Many possible scenarios of a Russia move would rely on speed. They would want to overwhelm an area quickly to seize the ground as there. Any weaker force might do well to have a strategy to prevent those movements with strong resistance along major avenues, which, oh, by the way, usually pass through urban areas that provide excellent defensive qualities.”
By bogging down the pace of a Russian invasion, Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces could also buy time for Kyiv to make appeals to the international community for assistance and intervention.
“I am strongly reminded of the Battle of Vukovar and its strategic implication to slow the [Yugoslav People’s Army],” Spencer said. “[Croatian forces] held out long enough for an international community to come to the aid of Croatia and essentially save its complete demise as an independent nation.”
In light of Russia’s recent mobilizations, some American military experts say that US special operations forces — specifically, Army Special Forces — should help train Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces.
“Absolutely yes, such a strategy is both viable and should be supportable by the US,” Bucci, the former Special Forces commander, told Coffee or Die Magazine. He added, “10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) would love to help.”
“Yes, in my opinion, I do think the US could train those [Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces], especially in mobile urban defensive tactics to bring a moving superior military force to a grinding halt,” West Point’s Spencer said.
At the war’s outset in 2014, Ukraine’s civilian volunteer battalions quickly formed out of the remnants of protest groups active during the country’s pro-democracy revolution. These irregular groups generally comprised young men with no military experience, including both native Russian and Ukrainian speakers from all regions of Ukraine. Many volunteer soldiers went to war with limited military training. In fact, some Ukrainian soldiers at the time jokingly referred to their battlefield education as “natural selection training.”
Nevertheless, that ad hoc, grassroots war effort helped turn the tide of the conflict in Ukraine’s favor. By July of 2014, just three months into the conflict, Ukraine’s armed forces had retaken 23 out of 36 districts previously under combined Russian-separatist control. To save face, Russian openly invaded eastern Ukraine with its own regular forces in the summer of 2014.
Yet, the message from those first few months of the war remains clear today: Ukraine’s civilian population is a force multiplier for the country’s armed forces.
“There was no army in 2014,” said Antipov, the Ukrainian war veteran. “In my opinion, the volunteer battalions were the only reason we kept our independence. Why else would the Russian tanks have stopped in 2014?”
In 2016, Kyiv began an effort to unify all the Territorial Defense units under a single chain of command. That Ukrainian measure was reportedly modeled on other territorial defense systems established in Poland, Estonia, Sweden, and Switzerland. Ukrainian lawmakers introduced a new measure in December to more effectively manage its Territorial Defense Forces.
Over the past few weeks, Moscow has repeatedly claimed that Kyiv is planning to retake the Donbas by force. Should that happen, the Kremlin warns, Russia would be forced to intervene and send in a “peacekeeping force.” Kyiv, for its part, denies that it has plans for offensive action in the Donbas and says that Russia is stacking the deck for a false-flag operation to justify an offensive into Ukrainian territory.
Some leading defense experts are now sounding the alarm on potential Russian military aggression against Ukraine’s southern coastal regions on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
“The Kremlin is interested in establishing full control over the Black Sea coast, including Mariupol, Odessa and Berdyansk,” said Ben Hodges, former commander of the United States Army Europe, in an interview with Espresso TV, a Ukrainian news site.
“All this movement of Russian forces is most likely a diversionary maneuver to strike and capture the water canal connecting Crimea to the Dnieper River. And then, it will become a springboard for further capture of the Black Sea coast,” Hodges said, adding, “We need to be in a state of maximum combat readiness.”
Some other experts have downplayed the likelihood of a Russian military attack on Ukraine’s southern coastlines and contend that Russia’s recent actions are most likely coercive diplomacy meant to strong-arm Kyiv into making concessions on key issues, such as water supplies to Crimea.
Whatever Moscow’s true intentions, the current Russian military movements have caught the attention of NATO leaders.
“We are seriously concerned by ongoing developments,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday. “And NATO is monitoring the situation very closely. In recent weeks, Russia has moved thousands of combat-ready troops to Ukraine’s borders, the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.”
Russia’s recent military buildup near Ukraine has also spurred an all-hands-on-deck diplomatic effort by the Biden administration to defuse the escalating tensions and avert a much larger war. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with NATO’s Stoltenberg this week.
“I have real concerns about Russia’s actions on the borders of Ukraine,” Blinken said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “There are more Russian forces massed on those borders than at any time since 2014, when Russia first invaded. So the question is, is Russia going to continue to act aggressively and recklessly? If it does, the president has been clear. There’ll be costs. There’ll be consequences.”
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