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Free War: A Strategy for Ukraine to Resist Russia’s Brutal Invasion of Ukraine?

NLAW being fired. Image credit: UK Military/Creative Commons.

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.


Members of the 56th Guards Air Assault Brigade of the Russian Airborne Forces (2018).

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.


Javelin anti-tank missile. Image Credit: Creative Commons

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 and

Written By

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 and



  1. Commentat

    March 10, 2022 at 11:23 am

    This ‘resistance’ exists more in the social media and western media reports rather than on the ground.

    Russian forces have crept into cities but were described as saboteurs and local curfews imposed with ‘suspects’ threatened with death. Doesn’t sound like resistance, but more of suspicions heaped on fellow citizens.

    There have been battles, but none seen on the scale of eastern front of ww2 despite media reports about ‘biggest’ attacks since 1945. The air strikes against yugoslavia were heavier as the country was bombed round the clock.

  2. Alex

    March 10, 2022 at 11:28 am

    Data to date:
    Air defense of Ukraine destroyed,
    90% of Ukrainian airfields destroyed,
    74% of armored vehicles destroyed,
    more than 40% of the territory of Ukraine under the control of the Russian army,
    Many Ukrainian soldiers surrender.
    Question: why the Russian army does not put an end to the war?
    Answer: the tactics of the Bandera Nazis are based on the fact that they hide behind civilians as a human shield. Mortar crews, ATGMs are installed on the balconies of multi-storey buildings, MLRS near schools and kindergartens. No one is released through humanitarian corridors. This is a real terrorist tactic. This is how they were trained by the Pentagon and the CIA. But the special military operation will be brought to an end. There is no doubt about it.

  3. Chris Kyle

    March 10, 2022 at 1:21 pm

    russian troll farm tears delicious. moar cheese with your whines vladniks.

  4. Alex

    March 10, 2022 at 1:47 pm

    Chris: You missed your Xanax again.

  5. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 10, 2022 at 3:12 pm

    Two people, male, born into different countries. That’s a choice of arrival in the world that cannot be proven to have been made by them.

    Two people, female, the same.

    One country is regarded as democratic. One regarded as autocratic.

    They are destined to grow up and kill each other. They do so because of that difference in the way the country has grown to organise its society.

    They are destined to die in different ways, because one is male and one is female.

    But they’ll each be dead. Human life, extinquished. For whatever reasons they had, in life, to smile, they can smile no more.

    Had each of them been born in the same country, under the same organisation, in the same society, would they still kill each other, and be killed. Dead. Or would they still be living.

    Still in the world. Still able to smile.

    Humans feel this need to arrange and create order in their congregation, their societies. Humans kill each other because of it.

    There is no glory in war. There is no victory. There is nothing for which to be proud.

    It is a mongrel, decrepit business.

    The article above shows it so.

    Believe whatever you like. If you want, believe that war is a solution to having one way of organising society prevail, in humanity, in the world.

    Or believe as I do that such a goal and means to achieve it is stupidity unleashed.

    So let’s not argue about that. In fact, let’s not argue at all.

    The point being, to this, is that we can all decide on an inventive, creative, useful way of minimising the heretofore allowance of stupidity unleashed.

    If you are taken by the impacting sight and sound of artillery, mesmerized and captured by the power of war, by its methods, then you can think of this creative, useful proposition as your own battle to win. If you are not taken and captured by the sight and sound of war, then you can enjoy thinking about this as a creative, useful means towards peace.

    Let’s face it. One way of organising a congregation of humanity, of arranging and ordering society, is not going to remove the other by means of war, even if you regard that goal as valid.

    Try it, in mind. One nation, of a type of societal orginization, whichever, wins an imaginary nuclear war, and eliminates the other. Sooner or later, the hurt and pain and injustice of that will give cause and reason, in their minds, for another organisation to grow and, then, there will be more war. This is how organised societies have ever been, convoluting and rearranging since humanity began, defined, to walk on two feet.

    One way of organising its society, trying to defeat another, in the days and months and centuries ahead evolves into another, trying to defeat yet another.

    So what has been missing all along? Since our organisations of various societies have developed, with leaders and citizenry, all the while? Since ever? Since we began walking on two feet?

    What isn’t missing, as this article also shows, is that means of warfare hasn’t been innovative and creative. It has.

    What has been missing is an innovative and creative piece of legislation.

    What’s been missing all along is a Code of Conduct for leaders of those societal orginisations.

    Get to the place of being a “leader” and you can do anything you like. You are off the leash. Stupidity – no, ‘inhumanity’ itself – is off the leash. Run amok.

    Why do we continue to arrange and order our countries’ societies and structures, with incredible sophistication, yet continue to allow a leader to behave in world affairs however they like?

    Can anyone else see how this fundamental element is absent?

    We go through incredible pains and structures and focus and everything else, no matter the country, no matter the societal structure, democratic or autocratic, to obtain a leader. Every nation has a profoundly involved way of achieving and obtaining a leader and it does so through this phenomenal application of reasoning and thought and assessment and, each in its own way, of respect and care for that process.

    Then, having obtained its leader, each nation of the world throws that procedural care and sophistication away!

    The country’s leader, having undergone and been subject to that careful application of procedure is, by mere advent of becoming that country’s leader, now in world affairs utterly free of those same procedures and that same intense application of care and thought and assessment.

    Can you see this?

    Consider what each country, whatever its societal order, does to obtain a leader. Consider what that leader has undergone and been subject to, within each country.

    Then, as a country’s leader, that leader is now operative on the world stage, in world affairs. And is suddenly no longer subject to any constriction at all.

    Think there are constrictions, at law? Then how are those constrictions working now? In this war? Current constrictions for how a leader behaves in world affairs are only effective in retrospect — after a leader has acted. Long after.

    It takes how long, five years, ten, for a leader to be brought before an international court of law? That’s if you can.

    There are no legally effective paramaters by which a leader must behave that have immediate effect.

    A leader is an individual. A person.

    What’s missing is a personal, legally effective, code of conduct for the individual, the leader.

    Isn’t it time, now, humanity having walked on two feet for long enough, for our countries to establish a personal code of conduct for each country’s leader? For how they are to behave now that they have, by way of a country’s internal procedure and selection, by mere advent of it, instantly also become an individual operating on the world stage and in world affairs?

    We’ve – humanity – in all other organisations proven we can do it, and do it very well. There are Codes of Conduct for individuals in every organisational structure you can think of.

    A personal code of conduct.

    A reasonable way, defined at law, for an individual in a position of leadership to behave.

    We have done it everywhere except at one place: as a leader of a country who then by default becomes an individual operating in world affairs.

    No leader is going to propose and accept this. They love their freedom. At the top, there are no effective standards by which they are bound in wielding their power, paramaters in which to behave.

    Want to be released from any reasonable parameters of behaviour? Become a country’s leader. You can do anything you like.

    What we need is an International Leader Code of Conduct.

    Sign it, and you and your country can participate in world affairs. Don’t sign it, you and your country are not recognised at law. You are invisible, you don’t exist, in the eyes of international law.

    Breach it, you and your country can no longer participate. Your country is no longer eligible. In the eyes of international law, you have no power, no relevance, nothing.

    That’s the principle. It can be achieved. The definitions, at law, for what constitutes ‘unrecognized’ should there be a breach of personal behavioral conduct can be decided. These can be complete (the country can no longer trade), or skeletal (the country can trade at a level of subsistence), or there can have some flesh on the bones (the country can trade such that its citizens have a higher level of basic comfort).

    But what is certain, after that is worked out, is that the individual who has breached those paramaters of behaviour, the leader, is instantly no longer capable of enacting anything on his or her country’s behalf. Instantly unrecognised.

    Economies of the world are now in upheaval, like never before nor imagined or expected. International trade will re-settle in time.

    Now as world trade is in a state of flux is the time to bring in an International Leader Code of Conduct so that national economies settle with it in place.

    A leader won’t bring it in. But there are a tiny few of them, relative to individuals who aspire to leadership. They’ll bring it in. It gives them crediblity in their leadership quest. They can be chosen with trust. Being a signatory, their country can participate in world affairs, in world trade.

    And, because national economies are interconected already, the penalties for a breach may need to be phased in. Countries phase in enforceable legislation all the time.

    With some apologies for the lengthy post. Hopefully a reader will see value in this.

    If you do see value, it is our own way as citizens that we can provide incredible positive change on account of the tragedy and failings brought into stark reality by this war. If it’s good, an International Leader Code of Conduct (working title) is worth fighting for. It’s a battle we all can win.

  6. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 10, 2022 at 4:46 pm

    How this proposition may apply to Russia goes something like this:

    After this war is over, or if it’s not and devolves into an ongoing theatre, an International Leader Code of Conduct nevertheless already sits before every national leader in the world. If the leader signs it, her or his country is legally eligible to trade internationally.

    Vladimir Putin, if still leader, has the International Leader Code of Conduct also on his desk before him. If he signs it, Russia is eligible again to trade internationally. His actions in this war are dealt with under current international law. Countries can still choose whether they want to deal with Russia, or not.

    If Putin does sign it, from then on he is bound by the International Leader Code of Conduct, and he and his regime and his country and every other country in the world knows that if he breaks it Russia is instantly penalised. Instantly unrecognised. Sanctions, perhaps far stricter (according to the terms of the Code), instantly apply.

    We know that the individual that is Vladimir Putin has brought incredible damage and harm to Russia and it will be extremely difficult for countries, and companies, to want to deal with Russia again while he is leader. Many if not most if not all companies just may not trust in him.

    And nothing but Russia itself has the ability to decide if Putin is to stay or go as leader.

    So if Putin is still leader of Russia, he has the choice to become a signatory, or not. He knows the consequences one way or the other for him and his country.

    If he is still leader and does not sign it, sanctions remain in place, perhaps more strict, and no further trade with Russia can occur. If he does not sign it, Russia is not internationally recognised and no country or company can trade with Russia until an individual who is the Russian leader signs it.

    The terms of the Code of Conduct and its consequences of course have to be determined, if or how they’re phased.

    So what happens then is this:

    Countries, companies and everyone else know where they stand. We all know, including Putin and Russia, the consequences of signing or not signing.

    If Putin doesn’t sign the International Leader Code of Conduct, the regime in Russia may take action swiftly. Or may not. It’s up to the regime to decide if they want to particpate in world affairs, in world trade, or not. If the regime does want to participate, it has paramaters of reasonable behaviour within which it must operate. They know that if they breach these paramaters, of reasonable personal behaviour, then the consequences are immediate.

    The penalties for a breach by a leader are akin to how we understand sanctions. So the blueprint is there as a starting point to determine them. Further elements other than sanctions that are workable and useful can be included in the document.

    In other words, penalties for a breach of the Code are currently being worked out and applie, anyway.

    It’s really simple, in prinicple. And it can be enacted in practice if there is a will for it. The principle is perfectly reasonable: if you want your country to participate in world trade (and world affairs as determined) then your country’s leader has to behave reasonably.

    What this also does, then, is inspire and bind leaders to diplomatic avenues in pursuing their own individual and country’s goals.

    The world will become a lot more civilised.

    Moving into the future, people wishing to become leader of their country know where they stand in their quest, and each country chooses that leader with set, legally binding paramaters for how that person is to behave.

  7. Anton

    March 10, 2022 at 4:53 pm

    Jan Kallberg – очередной долбаеб, который верит в злобную Россию. И кстати, твоя Шведция- обязана своей государственностью именно России, как и половина стран в мире. Учи историю, лживый ублюдок!
    Jan Kallberg is another motherfucker who believes in evil Russia. And by the way, your Sweden- owes its statehood to Russia, like half of the countries in the world. Learn history, you lying bastard!

  8. Sam McGowan

    March 10, 2022 at 6:02 pm

    Hmmm, I believe this is the same as the guerrilla warfare practiced in areas in the South that had been occupied by Federal forces during the War of Northern Aggression. The Confederacy authorized the formation of Partisan Ranger companies of mostly cavalry. Two companies, at least, were raised in my county in West Tennessee. They operated inside Union-held territory attacking communications and supply. Most of them were brought into conventional units such as Forrest’s army of cavalry in Mississippi. Forrest was encouraged to continue the war but was convinced it would result in continuing bloodshed and surrendered.

  9. Jacky

    March 10, 2022 at 6:26 pm

    The current situation is what NATO has been clasping its fingers for a long amount of time. By may or june, its forces would be directly involved in the conflict, never mind the recent statements of ‘not getting involved.

    Inflation will go sky high, and social unrest will reign. The ones to benefit are federal bodies granted extraordinary powers to safeguard the well-heeled and the powerful. Looks like ww3 coming.

  10. Slack

    March 10, 2022 at 6:51 pm

    The ukraine war is just another proxy war by the deep state and its war machine but this particular one has the potential to go out of control with the fully inevitable inescapable and irreversible consequences.

    It is best to observe the movements of prices of essential items each week or even each day, starting now, as unexpected natural disasters like floods have exacerbated the grave situation already unfolding at this very moment.

  11. samir sardana

    March 11, 2022 at 5:31 pm

    Putin is bringing in,Syrians in UKR

    What is the Putin plan here ?

    Using Arab Baathist fighters in UKR ?

    Using the Chechens and the Arabs as the front line – with Russian forces 10-15 kms behind – providing drone,ART and Missile cover – is the plan.


    The aim is TO PIT MUSLIMS AGAINST CHRISTIANS in UKR – and then,there are bound to be massacres,beheadings,body mutilations,sacrilege and killings – and that will start the war of Islam Vs Western Christianity (minus Russia),and also,combined with food shortages in GCC,force GCC not TO OFFSET THE OIL EMBARGO ON RUSSIA ! dindooohindoo

    The FACT is that the popular view in Arabia , is that the DESTRUCTION OF IRAQ and SYRIA, and the planned attack on Persia, is a conspiracy by the Christian WEST.THE TRUTH IS IRRELEVANT

    So there will be many Arabs who will fight for Russia against US proxies in UKR – and there will be several Muslims in the West and GCC,who will fight against Russia,in UKR.

  12. Alex

    March 12, 2022 at 2:17 am

    1. Mercenaries from around the world are already fighting in the Ukrainian army, incl. and Islamic.
    2. What does Western Christianity mean? Is it somehow “better” than Eastern Christianity? You are very close to inciting hatred on religious grounds. Dangerously close.

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