Resistance operations are enjoying a renaissance, heightened by the war between Russia and Ukraine. Resistance operations are the last resort when a force has no other options and refuses to surrender to an adversary.
Only a few countries have made resistance operations a part of their doctrine. Sweden was one of them. With significant exposure to a potential Soviet assault during the Cold War, Sweden trained every soldier in the Fria Kriget (Free War) resistance operations. Each soldier, logistics, signal, artillery, and infantry, had at least a week of training, and officers had several weeks of training to prepare them for leadership roles. The doctrine was phased out in the early 2010s, but recently reintroduced in the context of a renewed focus on territorial defense triggered by an aggressive Russia. As a former Swedish light infantry company commander during the Cold War, I draw upon my experience to explore how feasible it would be for Ukraine to use something like the Free War concept to defend against a Russian invasion.
The Free War
Free War was the final stage for units operating behind enemy lines, mainly formed ad hoc from individuals cut off from the main force and remnants of beaten infantry platoons. The units are made up of around 15 to 25 personnel plus officers, staying small to avoid detection, maintain the ability to hide, and remain capable of ambushes. The unit has the freedom to conduct any operation it finds suitable within the boundaries of the laws of armed conflict. A unit leader uses his or her judgment to inflict casualties on the enemy and undermine their logistics through guerilla tactics such as ambushes, raids, sniping, mines, and improvised explosive devices. Focused targeting is based on earlier orders from a battalion or company commander, who would have indicated as the command structure disintegrated that the fight likely would continue under Free War doctrine.
These orders give unit leaders a shared understanding of priorities, such as ambushing enemy fuel transports to create a resource shortage, even when cut off from the main command and control. A Soviet mechanized formation normally carried enough fuel for 300 miles of road march, but could only get a third of the mileage from that same fuel when performing tactical movements. Free War resistance operations thus focused on heavily forested areas with few roads, limiting the Soviet ability to root out the units and exposing vulnerable supply lines, and smart tactics could allow a small unit to force an armored Soviet spearhead to a halt due to dwindling fuel. These tactics appear to be replicated by the Ukrainian forces today.
As the prospect of a major Soviet attack on the West emerged in the late 1940s, Sweden developed the Free War concept to delay and degrade a Soviet mechanized onslaught by leveraging Sweden’s vast forests and numerous terrain obstacles. The resistance concept emerged out of the total defense doctrine, with considerable influence from Finnish tactics. Thousands of Swedes volunteered in the Finnish armed forces during World War II: Swedish officers and active-duty personnel could leave to volunteer in Finland and be automatically reinstated on their return. The strong connection between Sweden and Finland, bolstered by the many soldiers who had fought together, led to the rapid integration of Finnish small unit tactics from the Winter War and the Continuation War into Swedish infantry doctrine in the 1940s.
The Swedish directly implemented the Finnish experience of creating tactical superiority by leveraging terrain and harsh climate, but there were still differences. Finnish Motti tactics slice and dice enemy columns to annihilate them, while Free War units ambush and raid when an opportunity occurs to degrade and delay the enemy. Due to the Free War unit lacking indirect fires, logistics, and medical support, the ambushes avoid maneuver units and strike softer targets. Lethality is not the priority, as under these climate conditions wounded personnel are a more significant challenge for the target forces than deaths.
In northern Scandinavia, the winter weather is harsh, with increasing challenges the farther north you go. In traditional central European war, the threats to your existing line up are as follows: enemy, logistics, and climate. The order is reversed in an Arctic or sub-Arctic environment: climate, logistics, and then the enemy. An enemy will engage you at various times, but the climate will be an ever-present challenge. However, as the climate affects both you and the enemy, once you are comfortable in this environment you can leverage the enemy’s discomfort. After visualizing how we planned the resistance operations in the 1980s, these experiences can be contrasted to the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian War.
Resistance Today in Ukraine
In the light of the Russian-Ukrainian war, there is a renewed interest in resistance operations. In my mind, modern resistance operations face tougher odds than during the 1980s and the Cold War.
In the current moment, the Russian Army appears unorganized and failing on many fronts to execute but if they can occupy large parts of Ukraine then will have the infrastructure, time, and focus to fight and hunt an insurgency.
Technological developments in the intervening decades have favored the aggressor, changing a 1980s advantage to a disadvantage on the modern battlefield. Naturally, the latest technology will not appear all over the battlespace as it is often limited, but the very existence of the capabilities is concerning for resistance operations units, who cannot afford surprises.
In the 1980s, fog, sleet, icy rain, and snowstorms enable you to pass undetected on foot close to an enemy sentry or unit. A cloudy night allowed infiltration, escape, or the repositioning of a resistance force. Today, thermal imaging, drones, and live-feed aerial images will detect your presence far more easily. Thermal gunsights on vehicles, loitering munitions, inexpensive kamikaze drones, and missile-firing drone platforms to the mix, none of which existed in the 1980s as fielded and operational threats. These systems will not be present everywhere, but their existence is a risk, fundamentally changing the probability of a Free War unit being hit. Resistance operations have no medical support, so any wound affects the whole unit.
In resistance operations, the essential element is to control when to disengage and do so in a low-risk manner. Ukraine has terrain that favors resistance operations – but it is in the far Western and Northern parts of the country where forests and hills dominate. Most of the Ukrainian terrain is not suitable for sustained and successful armed resistance operations. Central and Eastern Ukraine has an open landscape mixed with towns and villages, which are also the most likely invasion routes if it happens. In an opened and urbanized terrain, the disengagement will likely fail because there is no safe escape route. If you engage in built-up areas, your unit will be trapped, and the fight would create avoidable civilian harm and losses.
If an insurgency is supplied with modern armaments, such as antitank guide missiles NLAW and Javelin, night vision, and surface-to-air missiles, the playing field becomes more level. For an armed Ukrainian insurgency to continue the fight they would need support from friendly nations otherwise the insurgency could not be sustained.
As seen in Ukraine, the upside today compared to the 1980s is the will to fight. In the 1980s, Soviet soldiers were highly indoctrinated, knew very little about the rest of the world, and had no accurate perception of those they were fighting — beyond the propaganda fed to them. Their will to fight is not replicated in today’s Russian forces. The invaders’ lack of will to fight, in my view, represent a decisive factor that could offset the technological advances in the aggressor’s favor. In 2019, a study showed that 20 percent of the Russian population wanted to emigrate — and a higher proportion among the younger age groups. Any nation with a fifth of its younger people wanting to emigrate has serious underlying issues.
Access to global media and information via the internet has undermined the will to fight among conscripted and contracted Russian personnel, and these connections also allow information operations to support the case for Ukraine’s resistance. Even if Ukrainian online content is blocked for the Russian soldiers, information will make it through, and their mindset is different than earlier generations. Traditionally, Soviet (Russian) conditions for the soldiers during training and campaigns have been harsh, to harder the force and instill obedience, but apparently is does not work against an independent and free Ukrainian population. If the invading force lacks the genuine will to fight, resistance can have an impact even if the conditions are unfavorable.
Armed resistance operations to serve as a deterrent require a long-term commitment to training, capacity building, and organization ahead of conflict. In my view, scrambled resistance when a nation is already at war is likely a challenge – especially without access to foreign military aid.
Jan Kallberg, Ph.D. served over two decades in the Swedish Army, mainly as a reserve officer, and was a light infantry commander during the Cold War. Today, his focus is cyber, and his works have appeared in publications such as Joint Forces Quarterly, Strategic Studies Quarterly, and Military Review. The views are personal opinions and do not reflect any employer’s position. Follow him at cyberdefense.com and @cyberdefense.com