JOSHUA TREVIÑO, AUSTIN
Tambov, Petliura, the Chechens, the Forest Brothers, the Polish Home Army, the OUN—and on and on. All crushed. Insurgency is an illusory policy option.
The defensive-war plan for Ukraine against a Russian invasion, such as it is, seems pretty straightforward: resist until you can’t, and then descend into guerrilla war. Western powers seem reasonably interested in supporting both phases—the battlefield combat and the insurgency—but it is not at all clear that anyone has thought through the prospects of success.
Insurgency possesses an appeal in the West as a sort of magic bullet in warfare, mostly because we believe, in the land of D.C.-commentariat groupthink, that insurgencies have beat us time and again. But they mostly haven’t. The insurgencies in Vietnam and Iraq actually failed versus the United States, which is why the former war wrapped up with a full-on conventional PAVN invasion, and the latter sees the Iraqi state still in existence. Going back further in time, American contentions with insurgencies including the Hukbalahaps, the pre-1950 South Korean uprisings, the original Sandinistas, the American Indian campaigns, and beyond, were almost uniformly successful.
The major counterexample is of course the Taliban, an insurgency that definitely beat the United States in every sphere of contention except that of direct force-on-force. Their advantages were the advantages an insurgency requires to win: an asymmetry of political willpower versus the counterinsurgency, a uniformly friendly base population, effectively unlimited foreign support, and a free-use geographic safe area. If you have all those things, as an insurgency, then your insurgency has a decent shot of winning. However, it may take you twenty years: quite a long time for policy to unfold.
These conditions are nearly a list of what a Ukrainian insurgency under Russian occupation would not have. There are a lot of unknowables here, but we can at least note what seems reasonable. It seems reasonable to assume that a Russia willing to invade and occupy Ukraine, in whole or in part, would not suffer an asymmetry of political will versus the Ukrainians. (That asymmetry could be created over time, but it would require a significant, strategic-level shift in the nature and quality of Russian national governance. In other words, not something to bank upon.) A Ukrainian insurgency would probably receive foreign arms and support to some extent, but likely not unlimited. It’s difficult to conceive of Western policymakers now thinking it wise to provide truly effective anti-air or anti-armor munitions to that effort. A Ukrainian insurgency may or may not have a friendly base population—for support, for recruitment, and so on—but that assurance would fade as it moved east into ethnically Russian lands. As for a geographic safe area, forget it. Cross-border raids launched from NATO member states are simply unthinkable.
A Ukrainian insurgency in nearly any incarnation is therefore likely doomed. It’s difficult to think of any insurgency that has ever defeated Russian (or Soviet) power in the modern era. Tambov, Petliura, the Chechens, the Forest Brothers, the Polish Home Army, the OUN—on and on and on. All crushed. The geography, the politics, and the force of will was never in their favor. Again, Afghanistan is the counterexample: but that was the one time the Russians simply ran out of money.
They aren’t going to run out of money now.
It is eminently understandable why the Ukrainian government and civil society would prepare for irregular warfare. It is a duty of citizenship, in any nation, and one cannot begrudge any forlorn hope. But the D.C. policy class that seems deeply interested in encouraging and supporting the effort ought to assess the thing through a realist lens. Perhaps there is a policy case for making Russia bleed slowly, from Kharkiv to Odessa: if so, they should make it. But if that’s the policy, it must be an end in itself, because Ukrainians will bleed too, and likely more. We, at a remove, may get what we want from it—but they won’t.
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.