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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

How to Stage an Insurgency in Ukraine Against Russia

Ukraine
Soldiers with the Ukrainian army’s 1st Battalion, 95th Separate Airmobile Brigade train with a DShK 12 mm machine gun during their training cycle at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center on the International Peacekeeping and Security Center near Yavoriv, Ukraine on Sept. 6. Yavoriv CTC Observer Coach Trainers, along with mentors from the Polish army and the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, led the training for soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 95th Separate Airmobile Brigade during the battalion's rotation through the Yavoriv CTC. The 45th is deployed to Ukraine as part of the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine, an international coalition dedicated to improving the CTC's training capacity and building professionalism within the Ukrainian army. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Eric McDonough, 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team)

Assume for a second that Ukraine’s armed forces cannot prevail in a conventional fight against the Russian host currently besieging the country. What then?

Start by consulting the strategic canon.

The grandmasters of military strategy would tender Ukraine some advice. Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, to name one, called a country confronting Ukraine’s plight a “nation in arms.” Such a nation, staring defeat in the face on the conventional battlefield, contemplates mounting a “general uprising,” a.k.a. insurgency, to overturn the battlefield result. Though steeped in conventional warfare during the Napoleonic era, he has some sage counsel to offer.

First of all, Clausewitz beseeches a nation in arms not to yield to despair. “A government must never assume that its country’s fate, its whole existence, hangs on the outcome of a single battle, no matter how decisive. Even after a defeat, there is always the possibility that a turn of fortune can be brought about by developing new sources of internal strength or through the natural decimation all offensives suffer in the long run or by means of help from abroad.” For him it verges on a law of nature that “a nation that finds itself on the brink of an abyss will try to save itself by any means.” Indeed, it must do so. “No matter how small and weak a state may be in comparison with its enemy, it must not forego these last efforts, or one would conclude that its soul is dead.”

A Ukraine whose soul was dead—whose ardor to resist had been shattered—would find it hard to summon new strength from within, let alone attract succor from abroad. It would be a losing cause, and few outsiders pool their fortunes with a losing cause for fear of sharing the wages of defeat. Ukrainians must show pluck—and hope for better days.

Second, the nation in arms must make time and the countryside its allies. Clausewitz is probably history’s most forceful advocate of concentrating military might for decisive battle, but he also acknowledges the power of defense. In fact, he deems tactical defense the strongest form of warfare. In other words, holding something is easier than seizing it. Prolonging a war can work in the defender’s favor, especially as the aggressor’s legions lumber deeper into its territory. The aggressor tends to build up relative superiority on the battlefield in the early going. Surprise, the initiative, and other factors work on its behalf. Ultimately, though, these advantages crest and start to decline as the advantages of tactical defense—the advantages that go to even an outmatched home team—start to tell. If the defender can draw out the campaign long enough, the aggressor may overshoot what Clausewitz calls the “culminating point of the attack.” If it does, the balance of forces will flip. The aggressor will be the weaker contender, beleaguered in hostile country. Its offensive will stall.

So the defender could come out ahead by protracting the conflict. Russian leaders are banking on a quick, decisive victory; Ukraine must deny it to them, letting the Clausewitzian rhythm of battlefield advances and reverses take hold. This is an insight on which Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong built during the Chinese Civil War and World War II. Mao advised the Red Army to lure enemies deep into the Chinese interior and wage an insurgency on a continental scale. The Red Army would wear down the enemy, cause its leadership to lose heart, and induce it to lay down arms or withdraw—leaving Chinese Communists holding the ground. Ukrainian commanders should read Mao and put his teachings to work for them.

And third, resistance forces must disperse. Admiral J. C. Wylie partitions military strategy into “sequential” and “cumulative” variants. Sequential operations are the Clausewitzian ideal, whereby one force bashes away at another in sequence, remaining more or less constantly in contact, until it reaches its goals or the foe capitulates. Each engagement comes after the preceding one in time and geographic space and is shaped by it. Cumulative operations are different. A combatant pursuing a cumulative strategy scatters small force detachments all over the map. Tactical engagements are unrelated to one another in time or space. Cumulative strategies grind down an opponent over time. One tactical encounter is unlikely to have debilitating impact on the opponent; many small-scale clashes of arms may add up to something big.

Air and naval warfare are cumulative in nature. So is what Wylie calls the “Mao theory” of insurgent warfare. Now, Wylie does caution that cumulative operations are seldom if ever decisive in themselves. He regards them more as a difference-maker in an evenly matched contest between peer competitors unable to get the best of each other through sequential operations. They’re also an interim strategy for a combatant that needs time to augment its martial prowess so it can take the field with confidence. Even so, scattershot endeavors do draw out a conflict, buying their purveyors time to inflict incremental damage on an aggressor, sap its morale, and frame a persuasive appeal to potential outside supporters.

That might be the most Ukraine can hope to accomplish for now.

Clausewitz agrees with Wylie on the virtue of dispersal for a nation in arms, adding that a “general uprising . . . should be nebulous and elusive; its resistance should never materialize as a concrete body, otherwise the enemy can direct sufficient force at its core, crush it, and take many prisoners. When that happens, the people will lose heart and, believing that the issue has been decided and further efforts would be useless, drop their weapons.” In other words, the insurgents should deliberately refuse to coalesce to form a “center of gravity,” offering a singular target that the aggressor could pummel into oblivion enroute to a definitive victory.

On the other hand, there are limits to the value of dispersal. It’s not enough just to melt away into the populace. Insurgents must strike blows against the foe to start evening the military balance, and thus, on occasion, they must concentrate forces at opportune points to strike. Or as Clausewitz puts it lyrically, “the fog must thicken and form a dark and menacing cloud out of which a bolt of lightning may strike at any time.” Candidate aimpoints for insurgent assaults “lie mainly on the flanks of the enemy’s theater of operations,” where “insurgents should build up larger units, better organized, with parties of regulars that will make them look like a proper army and enable them to tackle larger operations.” Clausewitz, like Mao, urges insurgents to make themselves into a regular armed force over time.

In the Clausewitzian and Maoist schemes, coordinating actions between insurgent bands and the remnants of the regular Ukrainian army will pose the chief challenge for rebel commanders. Performing this function successfully would empower the resistance to hurl Clausewitzian lightning bolts at the Russian expeditionary force, harrying and enfeebling it. Over time the war might stalemate—preparing the way for a Russian withdrawal, or winning the resistance time to amass armed might sufficient to take on the occupiers.

And that would be a triumph from the standpoint of these dark days in Ukraine.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone”

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Commentar

    February 26, 2022 at 9:21 pm

    Assuming that Russian forces successfully take over left bank ukraine (aka east bank), or the region east of the Dnieper river, insurgency is UNLIKELY to be a problem for Russia.

    Thus Putin must be determined in his mission to kneecap Kyiv, in the next several days.

    Remember the determination seen in the Six-Day War where a significant amount of territory was quickly taken but no insurgency (until much later) occurred as there was no time to set up or organize ‘saboteur’ groups.

    So Russia must not waver or falter at this crucial moment, cuz NATO could soon inject rapid reaction forces into the conflict WHICH will then make insurgency possible.

  2. Slack

    February 26, 2022 at 9:57 pm

    Russian forces are advancing at numerous places, having lready taken Melitopol, a city with a major population size, and now already on the outskirts of Kyiv, the capital city.

    Thus Russia must keep the momentum going, ensure vital supplies reach vanguard units, and continue the critical or important rocket fire.

    Priority therefore must be to upend Ukrainian military STRAIGHTAWAY and end the fight within a week or two. Thus making it impossible to create or foment any insurgency in the post-fight period.

  3. FRAZIER STALL

    February 26, 2022 at 11:17 pm

    Capturing Kyiv is a must for russia to come out on top, just like taking Berlin in may ’45 was needed to win the war.

    Thus, Putin must take Kyiv in the next few days using thermobaric weapons (rockets) if their use is needed.

    Before using them, warning must be given to Kyiv, to let civilians escape and let Kyiv soldiers decide if they want to surrender.

    Then, after the thermobaric punch, tanks should move in and secure the city thus bringing an end to the war and importantly, also preventing insurgency from happening.

  4. Chris Kyle

    February 27, 2022 at 12:16 am

    The russian troll farms are scrapping the bottom of the barrel here.

  5. David Chang

    February 27, 2022 at 4:13 am

    Kissinger said in the 1999 hearing,
    we should promote human rights of people in Russia and stop cooperating with socialism party,
    we should not provoke Russia, but let all people understand America Constitution thought.

    God bless people in America.

    So Clausewitz is wrong, but Admiral J. C. Wylie shall admit that Navy’s strategy should think about the principle of avoid nuclear war with avoiding from provoking enemy, and expose our weaknesses.

    The mission of soldier is not to provoke socialism parties, but help people to trust God.

  6. David Chang

    February 27, 2022 at 4:29 am

    Correction:

    Kissinger said in the 1997 hearing, S. Hrg. 105-285,
    Central and Eastern European governments should avoid war and understand each other’s thought.

    We should promote human rights of people in Russia and stop cooperating with socialism party,
    we should not provoke Russia, but let all people understand America Constitution thought.

    God bless people in America.

    So Clausewitz is wrong, but Admiral J. C. Wylie shall admit that Navy’s strategy should think about the principle of nuclear war with avoiding from provoking enemy and exposing our weaknesses.

    The mission of soldier is not to provoke socialism parties, but help people to trust God.

  7. Alex

    February 27, 2022 at 9:30 am

    History remembers how the Bandera Nazis organized a partisan movement during the Second World War. They were all destroyed in the next 5 years. Now their descendants will be destroyed much faster. This will be done by real Ukrainians with the help of their brothers from Russia.

  8. Ben Colder

    February 27, 2022 at 12:59 pm

    If and when the Russian son of a bitch wins I would hope the Ukrainians would go under ground and fight the Russians.Who in the hell does Russia think they are?they think they can just waltz in and take over any country that borders them I guess so .I blame Traitor Joe Biteme for this whole mess he told The Russian son of a bitch to go ahead and now he messes his pants over it the senile old bastard.

  9. Alex

    February 27, 2022 at 2:03 pm

    Ben. You, like your Nazi ancestors, will be taken out of the forest and you will answer in the same way to the Ukrainians, like your ancestors. I hope you remember the story, how they responded.

  10. Death to nazis ukranians battalions!

    February 27, 2022 at 2:30 pm

    Russia fights with nazi battalions and Kiev regime ukranians forces which terrorized from 2014 russian people in eastern regions of Ukraine. Every day nazis battalions artilery strike to Donetsk,Lugansk, cities and willages of these regions. 8 YEARS. Eight!!! Thousands(13000 estimated)russian-speaking, including 91 children killed by ukranian forces. We remember Odessa May,2, 2014. And now day of reckoning to ukranian nazis and chastisers, not for people of Ukraine. It’s not your’s war, americans, ungrateful europeans. Where are you live? Just come to Donetsk and see destroyed houses. All of you just inveterate rogues,bastards and clinical zombi-idiots far from Donbass, Odessa, Ukraine regions. Death to nazis ukranians battalions! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FG1fuhKwXVA

  11. from Russia with love

    February 28, 2022 at 3:38 am

    Slack:
    “Priority therefore must be to upend Ukrainian military STRAIGHTAWAY and end the fight within a week or two.”
    Russian professional troops are working in Ukraine. they know what they are doing.
    Last night, the encirclement of the eastern grouping of the Ukrainian army was completed. during this week the grouping will be liquidated. Mariupol was given to the LDNR militia. neo-Nazi gangs Aidar and Azov dug in Mariupol. the LDNR militia has a lot of questions for them and there will be very few prisoners from Mariupal. the rest of the eastern grouping of Ukrainian troops has a good chance of staying alive by surrendering. after that, take the western direction. I think that Kiev will be taken up only next week.

  12. Borris and Natasha

    March 1, 2022 at 8:46 am

    Wow, even the russian troll farms have degraded in quality. It’s like a bullwinkle cartoon in here.

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