why popular resistance is a big problem for Russia

When you invade a neighboring country, armed resistance is to be expected. In addition to confronting Ukraine’s conventional forces, Russia is likely to struggle to pacify the territory it has conquered so far. Ongoing resistance in occupied territories – both violent and nonviolent – challenges the Russian narrative and its strategy.

Russia has alleged a series of “terrorist” attacks against its troops in occupied Ukraine. A recent example is the alleged bombing of a cafe in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson frequented by occupation forces. This could, as others have noted, be a “false flag event” – something Russia is known for. But if we accept the report outright, the attack falls within a broader pattern of organized resistance directed at the Russian side in recently conquered territory.

In addition to carrying out considerable preparation and training, Ukraine had a legal and administrative framework to provide social resistance well before the invasion.

Given the perception of the Russian military capabilities at the time, this was very much the war that the Ukrainian side intended to fight. The Russians, who had plans for a quick “liberation” of Ukraine, probably weren’t going to face any serious resistance of any kind. So it seems that they have no strategy to deal with the troops that are left behind in the conquered districts.

fierce resistance

Ukrainian resistance has been much fiercer than expected – both in the occupied territories and on the front lines. In Kherson alone, sabotage, assassination attempts and direct attacks on Russian troops have taken place, although not all reported attacks were accurate. Also, the collaborators Russia relied on to help manage these areas have not materialized in sufficient numbers.

Even more worrying for Moscow is that Russia is struggling to maintain basic government services in the regions it has occupied. Interestingly, some sources have suggested that the war is also provoking resistance in areas occupied by Russia or its allies prior to February, although this is difficult to confirm.

The true size of the Ukrainian resistance forces in occupied territories is also difficult to assess reliably. Besides the “partisans” specially trained and equipped to fight, there seems to be a place for anyone who wants to resist the occupation. Of course Ukraine will emphasize the impact of resistance movements, while Russia wants to undermine the legitimacy and scale of any Ukrainian activity behind its front lines.

It is not inconceivable that some Ukrainian resistance actions fall outside the legal rules. But by the most reasonable standards, Ukraine’s resistance forces will fall under the definition of combatant, not terrorist, as long as they respect the Geneva Conventions. In this regard, portraying the Ukrainian resistance actions as a terrorist has more to do with the Russian worldview than with objective reality – after all, this is also how they have referred to the Ukrainian conventional armed forces.

Russia has clearly had to make major changes to its original objectives since the start of operations, although it no doubt wants to retain control over the regions it has conquered so far. As for conquered territory in the south of Ukraine, Russia has announced that it plans to stay “forever”.

A man cycles past a poster that reads 'Great Patriotic War 1941-1945' in Kherson, Ukraine, May 2022.
Hearts and Minds: The Russian Armed Forces use messages, such as World War II memories, to gain the support of people in occupied territories.
EPA = EFE / Sergei Ilnitsky

To achieve this, it seeks to “Russify” conquered territories, strengthening its control by replacing the civilian administration with pro-Russian collaborators. Occupiers are also changing currencies and providing humanitarian aid, eventually eyeing an annexation of Crimean-style cities like Kherson. This will be extremely difficult to achieve. Given the level of resistance, Russia may even have to revise its adjusted objectives for the conflict.

Consequences for the conflict

By some estimates, Russia owns more than 20% of Ukrainian territory. In this regard, it may have bitten off more than it can chew. At the moment, Russia has to face both a conventional army and irregular partisans, which puts it in an uneasy position.

If the resistance were to expand beyond the areas Russia has conquered since February, there would be further consequences. Russia has controlled Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine since 2014. The emergence of seriously organized resistance in these areas would not only further drain Russia’s limited resources, but would also further damage Moscow’s self-image as a liberating force.

In order to respond effectively, Russia may need to fall back on the more brutal means of submission it has used in the past. The recent Russian history with counterinsurgency has been summarized as grim but successful. Conflicts against Chechen separatists and in support of the Syrian regime have shown that Russia makes effective use of terror and reprisals to crush resistance movements.

Of course, Russian solutions are creating Russian problems, and a more aggressive approach in occupied territory could ultimately create problems for the regime, further isolation of the nation. We also do not know how the Russian army fare in those other theaters today, despite its previous successes in the fight against the insurgency. The deeply traumatized and demoralized Russian land forces may simply not have the resources they need anymore.

The Ukrainian resistance is clearly capable of more than a few isolated bombings. It is capable of imposing significant costs on the Russian occupation, and its success exacerbates the failure of both Russia’s imperial vision of Ukraine and its program of Russification. Ultimately, it may be more expensive for Russia to maintain territory than to acquire it in the first place.

Rather than expanding and renovating the Russian Empire, territorial expansion into Ukraine has opened a series of bleeding wounds that will remain open as long as Russia continues to have a presence in Ukraine.

Leave a Comment