If Russia invades Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin will face an immediate and difficult choice: how far to go. Most analysts believe he will probably move forward with an invasion, but is likely to have his military stop within the pro-Russian enclaves of southeastern Ukraine. This would allow him to declare independence for the Donbas region and secure a “land bridge” from Russia proper to its annexed territory in Crimea.
But what if he decides to drive to Kyiv, and overturn the democratically elected government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy? Putin has positioned enough firepower on the border — troops, tanks, missiles — as well as naval and cyberwarfare assets to conduct a shock-and-awe campaign similar to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
This is something the US and Western allies are thinking about seriously. In the aftermath of such a total invasion, would there be a strong Ukrainian resistance movement? And what would the West do to support it?
In my visits to Ukraine as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military commander, I found its troops and government officials to be fiercely proud of their language, heritage and national sovereignty. Ukrainian troops deployed to Afghanistan under my command, and also participated in several other NATO missions. What they may have lacked in training and equipment they made up through determination and toughness.
The Ukrainian collective memory stretches back through many involvements with Russian troops in the interwar years of the 20th century, during the famines and fighting of World War II, and during the Cold War years of the Soviet Union. As Timothy Snyder points out in his book “Bloodlands,” the Ukrainians suffered greatly and at the hands of Russians over the past century. They can and will fight. And the Western democracies can help.
The US has been on both sides of insurgencies, of course. It fought a long war in Vietnam that it ultimately lost to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. More recently, the Taliban simply outlasted US patience in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Washington supported a successful insurgency, ironically, against the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan — American Stinger missiles may have been the key technology that helped turn the tide. Allied support to the French resistance in World War II was a crucial element in undermining German control over the population in the months leading up to D-Day.
This kind of support can be done clandestinely, led by the Central Intelligence Agency. But in the situation of a democracy overrun by an authoritarian neighbor, there seems little value in hiding the ball. If the US makes the decision that it will support a potential Ukrainian resistance movement, it should be laying the groundwork immediately, while Russian tanks are still parked on the other side of the border.
This means getting supplies into the hands of Ukrainian special forces, who would be a central part of such a resistance force. They would need the ability to move out of the population centers, organize and live off the land, communicate collectively, and above all inflict damage on the occupiers.
This implies a need for transportable explosives, light but lethal handheld missiles to use against Russian tanks and close-air support, and plenty of conventional ammunition and hardware including sniper rifles, high-end optical sights and night vision devices. Cyberwarfare support would be a must. And trainers in-country — both military and CIA.
One key would be for the Zelenskiy government to get out of Kyiv before the Russians consolidated control. The government-in-exile should be welcomed in a NATO capital, and provided full support from the alliance administratively and diplomatically. It should continue to function via its system of ambassadors worldwide, and communicate effectively with the resistance leadership within the country. The model of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French government — despite occasionally being a challenge to the World War II allies — would be suitable.
And much as the mujahideen of the 1980s gradually turned Afghanistan in a killing field for Russian troops, so could a well-armed and supported resistance force make Ukraine a very deadly experience. This would entail cutting Russian supply lines, targeting senior officers, destroying Russian heavy equipment, using cybertools to damage Russian command and control, and rallying the populace for civil resistance (strikes, shop closures and transportation shutdowns).
No one wants to see an invasion of Ukraine, and we should all hope diplomacy and common sense will prevail. And if Putin chooses to unleash his forces, it’s likely they will be limited to the southeast of the country.
But combat has a way of getting out of control, of climbing the ladder of escalation. If Russian tanks roll across the Dnieper River to the capital, Ukrainians will fight — and a powerful resistance movement may be the best hope. The West should preparing now to help.