Attrition: Partisan Power Proliferates


November 9, 2022: As Russian manpower (too few and untrained) problems increased, so did Ukrainian Partisan activity in Russian occupied Ukraine, which now covers 110,000 square kilometers. This includes Crimea, which Russia took in 2014 and declared part of Russia. Not all inhabitants of Crimea, which comprises a quarter of the occupied territory, agree because there has been increasing partisan activity in Crimea for nearly six months. The Ukrainian government does not say anything specific about this because that could endanger the partisans and their operations. Some proof of government support comes from commercial satellite photos or rare reports from the Russians. Known support techniques include low night-flying helicopters and, if coastline is available, small boats used at night.

Currently partisan violence is most widespread and frequent in Kherson province, which is due north of Crimea. Russia is losing ground there at a rapid pace because there are less than 200,000 Russian troops in Ukraine, few of whom have much training beyond a few days with assault rifles some were never allowed to fire, and pretty much uniform desire to be anywhere but Ukraine. Partisan groups are usually led by someone with military experience and months of operating as a partisan. Most partisans are local and operate in areas where they grew up. That means lots of local support for the partisans and little help for the Russian soldiers. This has resulted in Russian forces deliberately withdrawing from Kherson City and the west side of the Dnieper River. The Russians are no longer forcing Ukrainian civilians to retreat with them. Getting across the rover is difficult with all the bridges destroyed and Ukrainian forces constantly and accurately attacking Russian boats or barges trying to move troops to the east bank or supplies in the other direction. Russian troops are short on essential supplies like ammunition and other items of military equipment. Staples like food and warm clothing can be taken from Ukrainian civilians. This situation indicates that the Ukrainians are receiving timely updates on where the Russians are trying to cross in boats. That’s because of the partisans, whose most valuable mission is reporting on what the enemy is up to so more powerful allies can act on that. Only in extreme situations do partisans themselves attack alert and well-armed troops.

Russia added another incentive to being or supporting partisans by increasingly exiling Ukrainian civilians to Russia. There, it is hoped, the Ukrainians will be “Russified”. With the Russians continuing to lose in Ukraine, the Russification of Ukrainians is not likely to happen because the partisans actively attack the Russians who are doing it and maintain records of who was deported and when as well who was killed or wounded while resisting deportation. These reports go to the Ukrainian government, which passes them on to UN war crimes investigators. These UN personnel are kept busy because each liberated town reveals additional evidence of Russian brutality. Reluctant Russian recruits sent to Ukraine are less prone to such bad behavior because they also wish Russian soldiers were gone from Ukraine, starting with themselves.

The main priority for the partisans is to disrupt Russian military operations. This often means attacking supply convoys or damaging roads, rail lines or bridges. For this the partisans need explosives and often help in preparing and placing the bombs. This is where the clandestine supply efforts by the government come in. Ukrainian armed forces have a section devoted to partisan support, including sending in supplies and often technical experts. Some of these flights take out badly wounded partisans. Partisans are often equipped with long-range radios and instructions on how to use them without being detected or having messages intercepted and read. The partisans have been getting better at this while Russian countermeasures diminish. The Russian ability to organize and carry out large scale anti-partisan operations is gone in most of the occupied territories.

Ukraine has also received covert in-country training and support from NATO nations with special operations troops who specialize in supporting partisan operations. This is primarily the United States and Britain, which were doing this in Ukraine since 2014 and more discreetly since early 2022. NATO also provides the partisans with timely satellite or aerial photos of Russian operations as well as special equipment for some attacks.

Ukraine has a long history of partisan operations. During World War II, Russian and Ukrainian partisans played a role in defeating the Nazi invaders, who had some initial local support until they graphically demonstrated their genocidal intent towards all Slavs. When the Nazis were driven out of Ukraine, many of the Ukrainian partisans continued fighting the Russians. Some of these partisan groups remained active into the 1950s. That was ten years after the Nazis were driven out of Ukraine. In early 2022 Russia claimed it was liberating Ukrainian from neo-Nazi groups. Russian troops soon discovered that they were the Nazi invaders and the Ukrainians still had lots of partisans with long-memories and determination to defeat the new Nazis.

One reason for the continued Ukrainian counteroffensive was the early appearance and growth of partisan forces in occupied territories and their ability to communicate with and support their government. Two months before the Ukrainian counter offensive began in late August, Russia openly denied the extent of the resistance in Kherson, calling armed partisans local bandits and gangsters. Video proof got out of Kherson, often in the form of video or audio of Russian troops stationed in Kherson complaining to friends and family back home about the partisans.

By September the offensive in Kherson province slowed down but did not stop. The Russian defenders were also increasingly threatened by partisans in the rear, who were disrupting the movement of supplies to keep the defenders fed and obtaining ammunition and medical supplies. Winter was coming, which made the supply lines even more important. Ukrainian commanders take better care of their troops and that means lower casualties and higher morale. Ukrainian soldiers have lots of local support while the Russian troops are poorly supplied and commanded by officers who pay little attention to morale or keeping casualties down.

East of Kherson, in Zaporizhzhya province, Ukrainian partisans blew up part of the railroad running through the city of Melitopol. This rail line runs from Russian controlled Donbas to Crimea and supplies Russian forces with fuel, weapons and other supplies. The partisan attacks on the Zaporizhzhya province railroad have been going on for months and prevent full use of those vital rail links.

Several months after the 2022 invasion began in February, the high casualties suffered by front line troops meant a lot of the troops occupying Crimea and Donbas were sent to the front, where most became casualties. At the time Russia needed fewer troops in Crimea because they had withdrawn most of their warships, aircraft and shipyard workers to Russia. Despite that, Ukrainian partisans have been more active in Crimea, destroying military aircraft with seeming impunity. Similar attacks are made on prominent Russians in Crimea and Ukrainian collaborators. In Donbas ethnic Russians and their Ukrainian collaborators are also under attack and departing for Russia or, if Ukrainian, quietly switching sides. Donbas used to be a good source of Russian troops but heavy casualties and Ukrainian offensive and partisan activity in Donbas has put an end to Russian recruiting efforts there.

The continued success of Ukrainian forces resulted in more Ukrainians believing the situation was improving for them personally and for all Ukrainians. This shift in attitudes towards Ukrainian success and against Russia has created a growing partisan movement in the occupied territory, and open displays of hostility towards Russian civilians and Ukrainian collaborators. More of these pro-Russia civilians are fleeing to Russia and Russian troops in the occupied territories find themselves under growing attack by the partisans, who are directly supported by Ukrainian special forces with clandestine supplies of weapons and air and missile attacks on targets identified by Ukrainian civilians in the occupied territories. This sort of thing hasn’t been seen in Europe since World War II, when it played a major role in driving the Germans out. The Russians never expected this degree of popular resistance and are unable to deal with it.

Ukraine has been trying to recapture Kherson City and province ever since March, and is making progress, aided by the growing partisan movement inside Kherson province and passive resistance to Russian occupation by most Ukrainians there. Some Ukrainians agreed to work for the Russian occupation, including pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians that were so unpopular in post-2014 Ukraine that they fled to Russia. These officials returned to administer the occupied territories and were soon the targets of attacks by Ukrainian partisans. Some of the turncoats were killed but more worrisome to the Russians were indications that other Ukrainian officials quietly agreed to work for the partisans. The Russians now believe that many of their Ukrainian administrators were working with the resistance from the beginning. At the same time the Russian occupation forces still have their orders to try and win over the Ukrainians or at least discourage them from joining an armed insurrection. To help with that the Russians sought to Russify the province as quickly as possible. That meant replacing the Ukrainian cell phone service with a Russian one. Ukrainian TV and radio transmissions are blocked. Russian ID documents became mandatory and use of any currency but the Russian ruble was forbidden. Russia controlled utilities (especially water and electricity) and every effort was made to link Kherson to the Russian economy.

The initial reason for pacifying the population was to make life safe for Russian troops in Kherson. That was never fully achieved and now Russian troops have to worry about roadside bombs, anti-vehicle mines, sniper fire and assassination via pistol or a bomb planted in a vehicle. Russian efforts to impose conscription on Ukrainians in Crimea, Donbas and other occupied areas failed, often violently. Sometimes with the help of the partisans, who could assist conscription resisters in avoiding Russian retaliation.

The full story of the Ukrainian partisans won’t be known until the war is over and probably many years after that. What is obvious now is that the partisans have become a major factor in defeating the Russians.




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