As Russian troops occupied more Ukrainian territory after the 2022 invasion, they found that most Ukrainian civilians were not cooperative. This was something the Russians have had to deal with before, but this time Ukrainian forces are fighting to drive the Russians out, which has greatly complicated the security situation for the Russians.
Local security forces in Crimea and Donbas have been there since 2014 but the fighting stalemated by early 2015 and there were no partisans. Before the Russian attack there were 6.2 million people living in Donetsk and Luhansk province, which together were called the Donbas (Donets Basin). The Russian attack in 2014 occupied about half of Donbas, an area that contained about 6.5 million people but the Russian occupied areas only contained about 3.8 million and migrations to Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere after 2015 reduced the population in Russian occupied Donbas to about two million.
In 2020 Ukraine and Russia agreed to move back more of their forces from the current front line in D0nbas. There was also an agreement to exchange prisoners and continue discussing measures to reduce the violence, most of it instigated by Russian-backed Donbas separatists. This fighting left about 14,000 military and civilian personnel dead. Most of the dead were military, with about 3,000 civilians living close to the ceasefire line killed by artillery and rocket fire. Russia spent over a billion dollars a year to subsidize the civilian economy in occupied Donbas. There were not enough men of military age in Russian Donbas to serve in the security forces and Russia sent in more and more Russian troops who pretended to be Ukrainians. The Ukrainian forces captured enough of these Russians to prove that Russian soldiers were there.
Crimea was different in that it was a peninsula with only a small land border with Ukraine. There was little fighting there. Crimea had a population of 2.4 million in 2014 and 65 percent of them were Russians. Crimea was more expensive to maintain, especially if you include the $4 billion cost of the Kerch Strait bridge that was completed in 2018. The railroad on the bridge became the main supply route between Russia and Crimea. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 but few nations recognized that as legitimate. Before providing details of their latest census, Russia announced that the population increased 1.4 percent since 2010. This was unexpected because the trend since 1991 has been falling birthrates and growing death rates. Russia solved this problem by seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and later annexing it and its 2.3 million people. These involuntary new citizens of Russia were included in the 2020 census and many Russians did the math and realized that without the conquered Ukrainians in Crimea, Russian population would have shown a continued decline since 2010.
After the 2022 invasion the high casualties suffered by front line troops meant a lot the troops occupying Crimea and Donbas were sent to the front, where most became casualties. Russia needs fewer troops in Crimea now that they have withdrawn most of their warships, aircraft and shipyard workers to Russia. 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 the 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.
In all the Russian occupied territories Russians and Ukrainian collaborators are leaving. This has led Russia to cancel plans to hold fake elections to approve these parts of Ukraine to become Russian territory. Russia is losing control of the 20 percent of Ukrainian territory they occupy. Even in areas like Crimea and Donbas they have occupied since 2014, the inhabitants are refusing to support the Russian war effort. Currently, few Ukrainians or Russians living in Crimea or Donbas are willing to join the military or police. This is the result of the populations in Crimea and Donbas realizing that Russia could lose control of these areas to Ukrainian forces, which does not work out well for “collaborators.” Returning to post-war Russia is not an attractive prospect either. One thing both Ukrainian residents and Russian immigrants of these occupied territories have learned since 2014 is that living standards are higher in Ukraine than in Russia. When Ukraine became independent of Russia in 1991, living standards were equal. Russian soldiers invading Ukraine since then were surprised at how much better Ukrainian living standards had become than Russia’s. Russian propaganda had implied that Ukrainians were repressed and impoverished, not better off and willing to fight and defeat their Russian “liberators”.
Work was already underway to carry out covert and sabotage missions in Russian occupied Crimea and Donbas but that was difficult before 2022 because Ukraine was not actively trying to take back Crimea and Donbas until after Russia invaded all of Ukraine in 2022. It took about six months to recruit, train and organize attacks on Russian bases, Russian officials and Ukrainian collaborators. This lifts the morale of the Ukrainian troops preparing to go on the offensive.
Currently Russia is trying to find enough local collaborators to allow convincing propaganda videos to be made. This effort is disrupted by the widespread and often violent resistance to the occupation, local collaborators and efforts to stage a fake election. Russian efforts to cut occupied areas off from the outside world have been energetic but not enough. Replacing Ukrainian cell phone service with Russian based service is not enough. Civilians risk arrest and worse by keeping their Ukrainian cell phones to collect and smuggle out videos of what is really going on. This includes threats, sometimes carried out, to cut electrical service and access to clean water. Threats were made to take children from families and send the kids to Russia as hostages. Russia used a process called Filtration to identify the Ukrainian civilians most hostile to the occupation and the planned referendum to justify Russian annexation of these areas. Filtration had worked in the past but was ineffective when the civilians knew that there was a war going on to liberate them from Russian occupation. This changed civilian attitudes in Crimea and Donbas that had been under Russian control since 2014. Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces had been occupied by the Russians in the first month of the 2022 invasion and proved largely immune to Filtration because the initial Russian offensive in the north was quickly defeated with heavy Russian losses. Russian troops who escaped that defeat were sent to Donbas, Crimea, Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia where they confirmed the defeat in the north. The Ukrainian military kept expanding and receiving more weapons from NATO allies. This led to the September Ukrainian offensive that drove Russian forces out of northeast Ukraine and portions off Donbas. Large quantities of Russian tanks and other armored vehicles as well as munitions and other supplies were captured. Within weeks the captured vehicles were equipping more Ukrainian units that were now attacking in Donbas, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya. The September offensive also put about 20 percent of Russian troops in Ukraine out of action. This caused problems in Donbas and Crimea where local men who had been conscripted into the armed forces refused to serve outside the provinces they came from. They would defend their home province but would not fight anywhere else. Russia was having problems getting any new troops to serve in Ukraine because the news that Russia was losing in Ukraine had become common knowledge in Russia and military-age men were desperate not to be “mobilized” to serve in Ukraine. Those who did find themselves in uniform soon discovered that all the stories were true. The new troops were given decrepit equipment and less than two weeks training before being sent off to die in Ukraine.
It wasn’t just Ukrainian soldiers the Russian troops had to worry about. More civilians in Russian occupied areas were getting armed and organized so they could attack Russian officials and Ukrainian collaborators. The Russians sent to operate the Filtration process were sought out for attack and Russian troops found that the safest thing to do was stay out of the way of the armed and angry partisans. A growing number of Russian civilians and Ukrainian collaborators were leaving occupied Ukraine for Russia.
The Ukrainian offensive in the south and Donbas had to adjust their tactics because they no longer had the element of surprise and they now faced Russian and local forces in fortified positions, often surrounded by landmines. The offensive slowed down but did not stop. The Russian defenders were also 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. The 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. Ukraine exploits this by letting Russian troops know that if they surrender or allow themselves to be captured, they will be well treated according to the commonly accepted laws of warfare. That means Red Cross officials will interview them to get their names so the family can be notified that they are safe. To help with that the Ukrainian military operates a website, accessible by most people in Russia, that lists those captured and their condition.
The war isn’t over in Ukraine but it is going against the Russians and, despite Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Russia will never leave all Russian occupied territory, a growing number of Russian officials, including some who work closely with Putin, believe there does not appear to be any way to avoid a Ukrainian victory. Putin threatens to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, which risks nuclear retaliation by the Americans and other NATO countries with nukes. Putin met with Chinese and Indian officials recently and was told that using nukes was a bad idea and the Ukraine War and the sanctions on Russia was interfering with economic and other relations with China and India. Putin told his two trading partners that he understood their concerns but no other details were made public. Putin risks losing his position as Russian leader. He has held that job for two decades and success in Ukraine was supposed to help him keep that job.