How Ukraine is using U.S.-designed resistance fighting to push back against Russia

Russia’s near-bloodless takeover and annexation of occupied territory has stunned Ukraine and the West, spurring exploration of how to build a total defense plan that would involve civilians as well as the military.

But Putin’s larger war against Ukraine, launched in February, has become its testing ground.

The doctrine, also known as the ROC, offers an innovative and unconventional approach to warfare and total defense, which guides not only the Ukrainian military, but also the country’s civilian population as part of the concerted resistance of the Russian army.

“From the point of view of the comprehensive defense of the government of Ukraine, everything is in order,” said retired Lieutenant General Mark Schwartz, who was the commander of the Special Operations Command in Europe during the development of the doctrine. “They are using every resource, as well as some very unconventional means, to undermine the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”

Planning for national resistance

Ukraine, outnumbered, outgunned and outnumbered, nonetheless fought back against the Russian military, who thought they would sweep through the vast majority of the country in weeks, if not days.

“It’s a way to outplay a first world power,” Schwartz said. “It’s just incredible to see what, despite the incredible loss of life and casualties, the will to resist and the determination to resist can do.”

In a series of recent attacks and bombings on Russian positions in Crimea, Kevin D. Stringer, a retired Army colonel who led the resistance concept team, sees signs of it being used.

“Because you can’t do it in the traditional way, you will use special operations forces, and those [forces] it will take the support of the resistance – intelligence, resources, logistics – to gain access to these regions.”

A Ukrainian government report aired by CNN admits that Ukraine is behind the attacks on Russian bases and an ammunition depot. The attacks, carried out far behind enemy lines, were beyond the reach of weapons that the US and other countries had publicly sent to Ukraine, and no rocket or drone was visible in the video of the explosions. Russia blamed the blasts on sabotage or detonation of ammunition.

“With a high degree of probability it can be said that it is very plausible that [the ROC] principles are being played out in actual combat right now,” Stringer said.

In early April, U.S. Special Operations Command Commander General Richard Clarke told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the U.S. had helped train resistance companies in Ukraine attached to Special Forces over the past 18 months. When asked if he saw any success of this training in the current conflict, Clarke was forthright in his response.

Yes, Senator, we are.

Resistance in Ukraine

At the start of the conflict, the Ukrainian government set up a website that explains the various ways of resisting. The site describes ways to use non-violent action, including boycott of mass events, strikes, and even ways to use humor and satire. The aim is to undermine the ability of the pro-Russian authorities to govern by reminding the population of Ukraine’s legitimate sovereignty. The resistance doctrine also suggests violent acts, including the use of Molotov cocktails, deliberate arson, and adding chemicals to gas tanks to sabotage enemy vehicles.

Civilians take part in a military training course conducted by the Christian Territorial Defense Unit February 19, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.

The doctrine also calls for a broad messaging campaign to control the narrative of the conflict, prevent occupiers’ messages from spreading, and maintain population unity. Videos of Ukrainian strikes on Russian tanks, often set to a pop or heavy metal soundtrack, have gone viral, as have footage of Ukrainian soldiers rescuing stray animals. Intentionally or not, this becomes part of the resistance, allowing Ukraine to shape the headlines in the Western media in its favor and often humanizing the Ukrainian military, which, unfortunately, the Russian military failed to do.

At the forefront of the resistance is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has kept the conflict out of sight with his late-night speeches and frequent international appearances. His frontline visits cover world news, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is rarely seen outside the Kremlin or the Sochi resort.

The ongoing flurry of reports provoked a wave of support from abroad and successfully increased the supply of more weapons and ammunition by Ukraine’s Western governments.

Resilience and resistance

In general, the concept of resistance provides a basis for increasing the resilience of a country, that is, its ability to withstand external pressure, and planning for resistance, defined as the efforts of the whole country to restore sovereignty in the occupied territories.

“Resilience is the strength of a society in peacetime, which in wartime becomes resistance to an aggressor,” explained Dalia Bankauskaite, a researcher at the Center for European Policy Analysis who has studied resistance planning in Lithuania.

Instead of giving each country the same set of plans, the doctrine is designed to be adapted to each country’s population, capabilities, and terrain. It is not intended to create or support an insurgency; its goal is to create government-sanctioned forces that will carry out actions against foreign occupiers in order to restore sovereignty.

At first, only Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland expressed real enthusiasm for the new doctrine. But after Russia’s near-bloodless takeover and annexation of Crimea in 2014, which stunned Ukraine and the West, interest in the method of resistance has grown rapidly.

Latvian soldiers of the Home Guard, or National Guard, prepare to attack during a small unit tactical exercise in June 2020 during an operational concept of resistance with NATO allies and partners near Iecava, Latvia.

According to Nicole Kirschmann, a spokeswoman for Special Operations Command in Europe, where it was developed, at least 15 countries have taken part in some form of training in this resistance doctrine since its inception.

In mid-November, when the Biden administration issued the first public warnings of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, Hungary hosted a conference on the operational concept of resistance. Kirschmann told CNN that the conference was attended by the commander of Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces, as well as about a dozen other countries.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only increased interest in this concept.

“The Baltic states, in particular, are actively talking in their parliaments about the implementation of the ROC at the national level,” the US representative said.

Resistance in the Baltics

In May, nearly three months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Lithuanian parliament adopted a new strategy of civil resistance that goes far beyond simply resisting the occupation.

Martynas Bendikas, a spokesman for the country’s Ministry of National Defense, said that preparing for resistance includes developing the will to defend the country, improving the military and non-military knowledge and skills of citizens, and much more within the framework of national defense.

The existence of resistance doctrine and part of resistance planning is being deliberately made public, Stringer explained, and is intended to act as a deterrent against a potential attack, yet another aimed at Russia’s favored hybrid warfare instead of traditional military and nuclear deterrence. But the details of plans and organization within the country are carefully kept.

For Estonia, a country of about 1.3 million people bordering northwestern Russia, civilian resistance has always been part of the defense plan.

“Every Estonian has no other choice,” said René Toomse, a spokesman for the Estonian Volunteer Defense Union. “Either you fight for independence if someone attacks you, if Russia attacks you, or you just die.”

Estonia regularly updates and develops its defense plans, integrating its standing military forces with its general population and its volunteer forces, which Toomse said has weathered a surge in applications since the start of the Russian invasion.

Estonian officials have studied the war in Ukraine to learn lessons about what worked well against Russia and where Ukraine’s resistance could be improved. Toomse says Estonians remember Soviet rule well, and those who are too young to remember are taught in school.

Ukraine has succeeded in winning the information campaign, Toomse notes, using media reports across multiple platforms, a president who has become a high-profile international figure, and a steady stream of information about how well Ukrainian forces are fighting, “even if they don’t highlight their own losses.”

But Toomse insists that Estonia, if faced with an invasion, would be more active in any occupied territory, using small, well-armed and well-trained units. “I believe we can do much more damage behind enemy lines than Ukraine,” Toomse said. “All logistics, all convoys will be constantly attacked.”

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