Ukraine is preparing a partisan resistance that will operate behind Russian lines should President Vladimir Putin order a full-scale invasion and attempt to occupy Ukrainian cities.
A senior Ukrainian security source directly involved in the preparations said the plan would involve sleeper agents already in place in the occupied Crimean Peninsula, as well as the Donbas region that is under the control of a pro-Russian militia. Other agents are setting up now in places such as Kharkiv – a city of 1.4 million people less than 50 kilometres from the increasingly militarized border – that are considered possible targets of any Russian aggression.
The source, whom The Globe is not naming because of the sensitivity of their post, said they could not discuss details such as the number of agents currently in the field, or the kind of insurgency campaign they might be planning.
“No one’s saying it, but it would be based on UPA,” the source said, using an acronym for the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a Second World War-era formation that first waged a guerrilla campaign against the Soviet Union. UPA members are today regarded as heroes by many nationalist Ukrainians, but Russian history vilifies them as Nazi collaborators.
Details of plans for Ukraine to resist – potentially even after its conventional military forces were overwhelmed by a Russian offensive – came as the Pentagon said on Thursday that it continued to see a build-up of Russian forces in the 24 hours since the United States and NATO delivered written replies to security demands from Moscow. The Kremlin has said it wants a legally binding guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the 30-member NATO alliance.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after the documents were delivered to Moscow on Wednesday that they contained no compromises on the principle that Ukraine can choose its own geopolitical direction. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that the replies from the U.S. and NATO, which have not been published, created “little ground for optimism.”
Russia has repeatedly denied it plans to attack Ukraine, although it has warned it could intervene to protect residents of the Donbas region, many of whom have been given Russian passports over the past eight years, in certain circumstances.
The Ukrainian security source told The Globe it was unclear whether Mr. Putin plans to order a full-scale assault, or some other action aimed at destabilizing Ukraine from within. February was seen as the most likely time for any Russian move, the source said.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, told The Globe this week that Ukraine sees an internal destabilization campaign – perhaps an attempt to topple Mr. Zelensky’s government – as more likely than an invasion. Mr. Podolyak estimated that 127,000 Russian soldiers are gathered on three sides of Ukraine.
The security source said another potential scenario would be an escalation of the eight-year-old conflict in Donbas – with Russia and its allied militia pushing west towards cities such as Kharkiv, Dnipro and Mariupol that sit on the east of the Dnieper River, which bisects Ukraine. Another worry is that Russian forces could make an amphibious assault from the Black Sea. Such an offensive could seek to connect Donbas with Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and perhaps also to Russian forces that have been stationed in the breakaway Trans-Dniestr region of Moldova since the 1990s.
Of less concern for Ukraine, the source said, were the newly arrived Russian soldiers in Belarus, since it would be difficult for the heavy equipment there to push through the dense forests along the Belarus-Ukraine border. Those units are seen as a separate geopolitical play that could leave the Russian troops in Belarus long-term.
There are two levels to the plans for urban resistance should Russia push deep into Ukraine, the source said. One would organize residents of cities such as Kharkiv into reservist units, known as the Territorial Defence Forces, that are currently being armed and trained to resist an invading force house-by-house and street-by-street. The second force would be comprised of agents who would remain low-profile and then strike after an occupation had begun.
“There are a lot of people here who are ready to fight,” said Olexander Vorobey, a 40-year-old Kharkiv resident who recently attended a gathering of those willing to join the Territorial Defence Forces. He said “thousands” showed up for the briefing on how and when the reserve force would be deployed. “I thought that there would be maybe 200 people there. But I understood something was happening when I couldn’t park my car anywhere within several blocks.”
While some of the new recruits have never held a weapon before, many others, including Mr. Vorobey, are veterans of the Donbas conflict, which has killed more than 14,000 people. Although Mr. Vorobey – who runs a knife-fighting school – hasn’t fought at the front line since sustaining shrapnel injuries in 2014, he said he’s ready to fight again if the Russian army comes to Kharkiv.
“The most important thing is that we get weapons. It won’t be like in 2014 when we fought with baseball bats and palm guns,” he said, referring to the street fights that took place that year between supporters of Ukraine and pro-Russian activists in Kharkiv after a pro-Western revolution in Kyiv. “This time we need antitank weapons, because we understand that heavy armour will be pushing towards us.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Wednesday that Canada would expand its 200-soldier training mission in Ukraine and supply non-lethal military gear such as sniper scopes and bulletproof vests. But the Liberals have thus far resisted calls from the opposition Conservatives and the influential Ukrainian-Canadian lobby for Canada to provide lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military.
Sergey Utkin, head of strategic assessment at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow think tank, said he believes war is still far from inevitable. All sides could still claim a win if they found a route to ease tensions, he said, since Mr. Putin could say he never had any intention of invading Ukraine and Western leaders could say they deterred him.
“I expect that we will manage to avoid the most catastrophic scenarios discussed in the media – and a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine would definitely be catastrophic for both sides,” Mr. Utkin said. “As long as tensions are controlled, they can be used politically in various ways … but keeping them under control is getting harder.”
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