Ukraine’s Insurgency-in-Waiting

Ukraine’s Insurgency-in-Waiting
A month before the Russian invasion, Ukrainian servicemen attend a military drill near Lviv / AFP via Getty Images

“Call me Anton.”

The voice on the other end of my Signal chat speaks fluent English, with an accent tinctured slightly by a Western education, which I’m soon to discover isn’t just any Western education. Anton spent a year at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Britain’s West Point. He retired as a major in the Ukrainian army in the 1990s.

He sounds as if he’s in his 50s, although I don’t press him on this detail because the less Anton says about himself — even over a supposedly encrypted platform — the better. His bona fides were vouched for by an active-duty U.S. lieutenant colonel who was recently in Kyiv and was impressed by Anton’s depth of knowledge and Rolodex of high-level military contacts.

Anton is the second in command of a Ukrainian insurgency-in-waiting, one of many, no doubt, that plans to resort to guerrilla warfare in the event that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempted conquest of Ukraine turns into a prolonged occupation of major population centers.

Twelve days in and that has yet to happen. The only major city Russia has nominal “control” over is Kherson, in the southeast, along with other towns and villages in the surrounding region of the same name. Even there, however, pro-Ukrainian protests occur daily in open defiance of Russian soldiers. Some civilians have even lain down in front of armored vehicles to halt their advance.

The not-very-imaginatively named “Free Ukraine Resistance Movement,” which Anton helps command, puts its numbers at about a thousand-strong. He claims it has already got operatives working “undercover” behind enemy lines in contested areas of Ukraine such as Mariupol, Sumy, Kharkiv and Irpin, near Kyiv.

“Doing what?” I ask.

“Diversionary tactics,” Anton answers. They are blowing up Russian equipment and Russian soldiers.

The Resistance Movement liaises with the Ukrainian military, law enforcement and the territorial defense (akin to the National Guard), but it is not formally integrated into the nation’s current command structure — with an emphasis on “formally.”

According to Anton, 250 fighters have fanned out all around Kyiv, but 800 more are embedded in different units of Ukraine’s armed forces or territorial defense, fighting to keep the Russians out of the capital.

“If these units are destroyed or moved back,” he says, “they will remove their fatigues, put on civilian clothing and become insurgents that very day. They can operate autonomously, with their own resources, and make life a living hell for the invaders. Morale is extremely high.”

Not only that, the Resistance Movement has apparently fielded any number of scouts, informants and civilian reconnaissance teams, including, Anton says, “little old ladies and old men with canes, who watch the enemy’s movements and then call in their location.”

Such activity is perilous, especially for an invading army that shows, at best, a wanton disregard for civilian casualties and, at worst, a willingness to kill as many civilians as possible. “Six people have been killed and 20 wounded. Two we lost in the Vyshgorod region, north of Kyiv, three in Sumy and one in Mariupol.”

More potential guerrillas are being produced daily. “We have two training camps, one in central Ukraine, one in western Ukraine,” Anton says. “We teach our fighters how to stop a tank, how to bomb it, how to burn out Russian vehicles. We’ve been instructing people for the last seven days.”

Six hundred are being trained collectively in both camps: “They train in masks, so no one knows anyone else’s identity. In case one person is captured, he cannot lead the Russians to anyone else.”

Has any third party or foreign country helped with supporting the Resistance Movement?

“Not yet,” Anton insists, although he is hoping to change that. His organization addressed a letter to a top Ukrainian official urging him to ask U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, as well as CIA Director William Burns and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, to help support his guerrilla battalion.

“At the moment we have only materials sent from the West, but no Western instructors on the ground. We’ve been in communication with retired SAS [British special forces] and former U.S. military guys, but they’re not deployed here.”

Nevertheless, the Resistance Movement is teaching NATO warfare tactics acquired from former Western military trainers, particularly those from the United States.

Gen. Mark Hertling, the former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe and the 7th Army, messages me that U.S. exercises with Ukrainian forces began as early as 2010 and were “formalized by something called the Joint Multinational Readiness Group Ukraine (or JMRG-U) outside of Yavoriv,” in the Lviv region in western Ukraine.

“We then had a training center at Grafenwoehr, Germany,” Hertling writes, “and started to send out extension centers to Romania, Poland and eventually Ukraine in 2014,” after Russia seized Crimea.

The New York Times has reported that the Biden administration has signaled to allies that in the event Ukraine’s conventional military capability collapses, both the CIA and the Pentagon would foster Ukrainian partisan warfare. A senior European intelligence official I’m in regular contact with says that what’s been amply demonstrated within the last two weeks is that “Russia’s way of war has destroyed any likelihood that Moscow will win over ‘hearts and minds’ on a meaningful scale in Ukraine. This means insurgency will spread in occupied territories.”

“Supporting a Ukrainian insurgency is built into the DNA of both the U.S. intelligence community and special operations forces,” Marc Polymeropolous, who oversaw the CIA’s clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia, tells me. “For years, the U.S. provided our Ukrainian friends with training and material assistance. The military’s Special Operations Command Europe was created nearly seven decades ago for just this moment, countering a Russian invasion in Europe.”

The Resistance Movement, the U.S. lieutenant colonel who introduced me to Anton explains, may not be first in line to receive such largesse owing to its domestic political baggage.

It used to be known as the Capitulation Resistance Movement. That rather paradoxical name came about in 2019 upon the election of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who campaigned on a pledge of ending the war in eastern Ukraine and negotiating with the Kremlin on the basis of the now-defunct Minsk Agreement. Anton and his comrades thought such a policy dishonorable, a sellout of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

“We established this movement to fight in the event Russia was formally handed Crimea and the occupied areas of Donbas,” Anton says. Over time, Zelenskyy came to see it much the same way, and his heroic leadership since the start of the war — and refusal to agree to a U.S.-offered evacuation from Kyiv — has only impressed those who organized in defiance of his campaign promises.

“At the moment,” Anton says, “we have no doubts about Zelenskyy. He seems very strong. We are all shocked in a good way.”

“We removed the ‘Capitulation’ from our name because as of right now, no one is talking about it. The entire nation is concentrated on fighting these dickheads.”

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