“#Why Russia should fear the coming insurgency in Ukraine”
Over the first week of its war with Russia, Ukraine’s military has demonstrated remarkable competence and bravery, in part due to the training it has received from NATO countries, including Canada. The expected Russian military juggernaut, meanwhile, has been massively underwhelming, suffering successive battlefield defeats and failing to the achieve the air superiority it was expected to quickly win.
But as the fighting moves into Kyiv, and other major cities like Kharkiv, the war is expected to shift gears. Urban warfare is the bane of any conventional army. No proven doctrine exists to tackle the complexities of fighting a war in the maze of city streets, where the local population is motivated to resist. And Ukrainians are deeply motivated—both by a president who has risen to the challenge of wartime leader and an international community that has rallied behind them in unprecedented ways.
Thousands of Ukrainian civilians are lining up at recruitment centres to join the fight. Meanwhile, in Canada, the U.K., and elsewhere, leaders have suggested that citizens who wish to join the fight are welcome to do so, even encouraged.
This is looking like the start of an insurgency.
Maclean’s spoke to Dr. Eric Ouellet, a professor at the Royal Military College’s Department of Defense Studies in Toronto and an expert on insurgencies. Ouellet broke down what might be in store for the Russians and why, if Putin is at all rational, he should avoid it at all costs. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why do you think a Ukrainian insurgency will be so costly for the Russians?
A: Well, the best way to understand what the Russians face is to look at what makes an insurgency successful. There are three main ingredients. One is legitimacy. The insurgent force has to be seen as legitimate by the population. That way they get all the logistics support they need—hiding weapons, hiding people, helping with transportation, money, recruits, etc. So that’s one aspect that makes Ukraine very strong from the get go.
The second characteristic is the insurgency’s actual capacity to inflict damage. In Ukraine, they have a very high level because of the military training they have received from countries like Canada, as well as the fighting in the Donbas region, where you have had independent Ukrainian battalions made up of volunteers. These people are still around, and they have real military experience.
Q: Afghanistan is an interesting historical example, as well as Syria. The Soviets in Afghanistan were somewhat sensitive to civilian casualties, but in Syria, the Russians have shown a total disregard for the rules of war. What posture will they take against a Ukrainian insurgency?
In Syria, they absolutely did not care about collateral damage. But in Ukraine, the situation is different. These are people Russia wants to absorb as part of greater Russia. So they won’t want to alienate them.
Q: Can an insurgency win here? Or what does winning look like?
A: I think he just made errors in calculation. First, he really underestimated the Ukrainian military. He really thought Russia would do a blitzkrieg and it would be over. He was like the Borg in Star Trek, saying: You will be assimilated; resistance is futile. That was the first miscalculation.
Q: Do you think Putin will realize his mistake and de-escalate?
A: It is possible. I mean, you never know but the European Union has announced it is now seriously considering the membership of Ukraine, the exact opposite of what Putin wanted. If there is any reasonable discussion still happening in Russia, there must be a sense that things are not going well. From a strategic perspective, the Russians should be looking for ways to de-escalate. I hope this is the case because if this continues, it will be very costly for civilians.
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