LVIV, Ukraine — Even if Russia succeeds in its invasion of Ukraine and achieves a conventional defeat of the country’s armed forces, the war won’t end there, said a current member of the Ukrainian special forces. Instead, he said, a violent and organized struggle will continue, led by the most secretive branch of the Ukrainian military.
Experts and a Pentagon source see the path forward in similar terms: Even if the Kremlin defeats the Ukrainian military, a brutal guerrilla war will ensue. And given the country’s borders with key allies and a well-trained, secretive force ready to carry out insurgent activities, the war could continue indefinitely.
“Welcome to hell,” said the Ukrainian special forces soldier, in a message he directed to Russian forces. In between covert missions spanning the length of the country “hunting” Russian saboteurs, he spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity, and from behind a camouflaged balaclava. He, and soldiers like him, are prime targets for the assassination lists many believe Russian intelligence is already compiling.
“The enemy should know first: They are not welcome,” he said, staring out into a sunny street in western Ukraine. “Come on our land and in every window, in every building. We have ears and eyes and sometimes even hands to destroy them.”
According to him, Ukraine’s special operations forces have been entrusted with the organization of a future insurgency against Russia and are covertly preparing for it should the Kremlin succeed in its invasion.
“Special operation forces are in charge of preparation and coordination of national resistance,” he said. “So any insurgents and the resistance, we are in charge of that.”
Contingencies include creating agent networks across the country, hiding secret weapons stashes to be harvested for future use, and coordination with key allies such as Poland. Special forces members would be expected to fade into the civilian population and begin the work of guerrilla warfare against Russia. The same soldier said the Ukrainian government has both a public plan for resistance, posting instructions online for violent and nonviolent resistance, and top-secret plans beyond those.
A Ukrainian insurgency would have plenty of historical precedent. ISIS, to point to one, pooled its numbers from many of the former Republican Guard soldiers who slipped back into the civilian population following the initial invasion, while other insurgent Shiite groups were sponsored and supported by Iranian Quds Forces from the eastern border. Both groups killed American troops and made the occupation of Iraq nearly impossible for the most powerful military in the world.
The preparation for an insurgency, along with the stiff resistance by regular Ukrainian forces against the Russian invasion, is further repudiation of President Vladimir Putin’s initial prediction of a three-day war. (In 2003, the Pentagon vastly underestimated Iraqi resistance.) Instead, the Russian invasion promises to be a bloody, protracted military campaign at a scale not seen on European soil since World War II.
“Come on our land and in every window, in every building. We have ears and eyes and sometimes even hands to destroy them.”
As the war continues to devolve into bloodier urban combat and Russia proceeds to bombard civilian infrastructure and otherwise commit war crimes—as has been its modus operandi dating back to the war in Chechnya—experts believe the war will slowly turn in the favor of Russian forces without outside intervention. Ukraine’s military, underestimated by Putin and Western allies, has mounted an impressive resistance in spite of being outgunned and outmanned, further proof the NATO training and weapons it has received since 2014 are game changers. But still, cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv, under unrelenting aerial and shelling attacks, look vulnerable to fall.
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To its west, Ukraine has the benefit of several shared borders with allies. In this early stage of the war, Poland has emerged as both a key coordinator of the refugee evacuation and a vital supply line to the Ukrainian government. Weapons and logistics have already flowed across the border into Ukraine from Poland, a nation that shares a historical fear of Russian aggression.
The soldier said Polish support has already become vital.
“I cannot go into the details, but we have a very good partnership with our colleagues in Poland,” said the soldier. “That's all I can say.”
Before the invasion occurred, chatter coming out of the Pentagon suggested the Biden administration was busy investigating ways to support a future insurgency within Ukraine and to supply it—lessons hard learned from decades in the Middle East and Afghanistan unsuccessfully fighting insurgents. The Ukrainian special forces soldier also confirmed that U.S. advisors had already coordinated (“for many years”) with his government on the preparation of an insurgency.
“What I can tell you or what I can share with you is that we have a great level of cooperation between our forces and our colleagues in the United States and in Europe and other NATO member states,” he said, adding that time will tell if some of those insurgency tactics allied militaries have shared with Ukraine will be of use.
The Pentagon declined to comment on any future plans to aid an underground Ukrainian fighting force against Russia, but it pointed to a recent re-upping of an additional $200 million of security assistance to Ukraine. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters at a Monday briefing that U.S. weapons and aid continue to flow into Ukraine via Poland using “multiple routes,” despite Russian airstrikes 15 miles from that border.
So far, the fearsome Ukrainian war effort, which includes stories of grandmothers throwing cans of pickles at Russian drones, Molotov cocktail factories, and paratroopers repelling elite Russian soldiers, has slowed Putin’s offensive to a crawl. Part of that success has included the steady supply of Western weapons, like Javelin anti-tank systems and shoulder-fired Stinger air-defense systems, which have already brought down countless Russian helicopters.
The strategic value of Poland as a safe haven and logistical nerve center to ensure support for Ukraine continues is essential for any future insurgency—sponsored by the U.S. or any other actors, overtly or covertly.
A Pentagon source with a high security clearance, who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak with media, said any support for Ukrainian forces in the event of full defeat will look like past CIA and covert operational aid to other paramilitary groups around the world. Poland, a NATO member with well-respected special forces, and its eastern border would likely be the staging ground for “man, train, and equip” efforts of a Ukrainian resistance. The 10th Special Forces Group, which operates in Europe, would likely be a possible U.S. military element tasked with coordinating that Ukrainian resistance.
Putin has warned Western powers that they should tread lightly on further arming and supplying Ukrainian forces, threatening an escalation in the conflict or broadening his war beyond the borders of Ukraine and into a nearby NATO member state. Over the weekend President Joe Biden shot down Polish plans to supply Kyiv with MiG-29 fighter planes.
The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy based in New York City, published a recent paper on the future of insurgency inside Ukraine and pointed out that American intelligence support could prove to be invaluable.
“CIA paramilitary units and elements of Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) can be force multipliers to the Ukrainian insurgency without ever having to step foot on Ukrainian soil, instead operating out of Poland or other NATO countries in Eastern Europe,” highlighted the report.
The same Pentagon source, who has knowledge of Russian tradecraft in the region, said the biggest test in the event of an insurgency would be the SVR, Russia’s most elite foreign intelligence units, who have successfully undertaken programs to eliminate and neutralize enemies of the Kremlin in countries all over Europe, even during peacetime.
The Ukrainian special forces soldier agreed that SVR death squads operating in a conquered Ukraine would be a major obstacle facing any future insurgent force. He said Russia had already hacked Ukrainian systems to get the names and personal data of Ukrainian servicemen in preparation for kill lists. (In parts of the east of the country that Russian forces have claimed as their own, Ukrainian political figures have already started disappearing.)
As for recent talk of Syrian recruits and other foreign fighters entering the war in Ukraine on the Kremlin’s behalf, the special forces soldier downplayed their effect, explaining that these soldiers, while successful in the Middle East, would be fighting on Ukrainian territory.
“Syrians, of course, they could be motivated in some way by money or something like that,” he said. “Maybe even they have some real combat experience in urban conditions in cities, but they have this experience in Syrian cities, and they are not quite the same as, for example, in Kyiv.”
“It's our land. We know every single tree, every single bush here, every single stone here, every corner, every building.”
For now, the same special forces soldier continues to operate across the country, from city to city, where his unit is required to further fortify a nationwide web of would-be insurgents or to “eliminate” (as he put it) Russian agents deployed across Ukraine.
“Ukraine has a long history of national resistance against occupation,” he said. “Maybe it's in our blood because unfortunately, our land was occupied too many times, and mostly by (Russians).”