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The population deterrent – Asymmetric warfare in Ukraine’s population centres

The population deterrent – Asymmetric warfare in Ukraine’s population centres

The Ukrainian government has embarked on an ambitious plan to mobilise the country’s citizens in the event of an invasion. Will the threat of partisan urban warfare be enough to deter foreign military invaders?

The Ukrainian government has embarked on an ambitious plan to mobilise the country’s citizens in the event of an invasion. Will the threat of partisan urban warfare be enough to deter foreign military invaders?

Over recent decades, irregular forces have played a critical role in securing operational-strategic level victories in an often blurred battlespace.

Spurred by the democratisation of technology, whether cheap and accessible conventional weaponry, drones or even cyber warfare, military theorists have sought to integrate irregular forces into their order of battle to deny an enemy of their ability to seize and hold large population centres.


From the British Iberian Peninsula campaign against Napoleon, to the Partisans in World War II and the insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan, irregular forces will continue to shape the battlefield and serve as a deterrent to military commanders seeking to subjugate cities and strategic population hubs.

Brian Petit, chief executive of The Garfield Syndicate and retired US Army Colonel, explored the impact that irregular forces – especially those of citizen militias – will have on Russian military decision making in the event of an invasion of Ukraine in the Small Wars Journal.

“Ukraine is bracing for a Russian invasion. Undermatched, undersized, and militarily less capable, Ukraine will lose a conventional, combined arms fight, should it come. Facing this prospect, Ukraine is investing in and publicising its hedging strategy: citizen resistance,” Petit wrote.

“Ukrainians have enough resistance infrastructure that is visible and enough that is hidden to make this threat convincing and, beneficially, not entirely knowable. We cannot know the outcome, but the Ukrainian citizen resistance scheme, as is, will shape Russian strategic and tactical assessments.”

The Ukrainian government does not shy away from signposting its irregular warfare capabilities in the public and informational sphere. This advertised capability ultimately serves as a deterrent to a would be invader as the conflict is redefined to be a war of attrition (in a country of over 40 million people) rather than a territorial or cultural dispute. Simply, it underlines that the worst is still yet to come even if the Russian military dominates the conventional battlespace.

Co-opting citizens into the defence apparatus is not just military doctrine, however the population is completely aware.

Petit notes that the doctrine for a citizen-centric model has been stressed by the government and military to cognitively prepare the population for their role in conflict, with Commanding General of the Ukrainian Joint Operations Forces General Oleksandr Pavlyuk stating via radio that the Ukrainian people would “start a partisan war” in the case of invasion. This would be a worrisome scenario for an invader, Gen Pavlyuk notes, as the country’s population already possess significant combat experience.

In fact, the Ukrainian government has gone a step further in determining a complete supply chain for citizen forces to support the war effort.

“On the higher end, Ukraine has signaled to its population that the time is now to choose the manner in which one can appropriately contribute to national resistance. Ukraine has mapped out paths for its citizens to aid the resistance, from the front lines to the soup lines,” Petit noted.

Interestingly, Ukraine’s reserve forces – the Territorial Defense Forces – have positioned themselves to co-ordinate domestic insurgency operations in the event of an invasion, working in symbiosis with the citizen militia and professionalising Ukraine’s partisan efforts.

“Territorial Defense Forces, as the name suggests, are not designed to be expeditionary nor highly lethal. They are intended to leverage that classic insurgent advantage: intimate knowledge of the local area,” Petit explained.

“The wild-eyed, AK-wielding-citizen is a spectre that must trouble Kremlin planners. Ukraine is signaling that, if invaded, it will open new and ambiguous fronts. In the Russian planner’s room, this introduces enough friction to alter calculations and require contingencies.”

Despite being approved by the Ukrainian government, Petit explained that such partisan responses can have significant humanitarian impacts – not only on the mobilised citizenry, but on the invading forces. As many of the militia movements have extremist political undertones and attract a litany of “extremists, sociopaths [and] loners”, it is unlikely that most of those in the nation’s irregular forces would fully comply with international humanitarian law during combat. Whether through a lack of institutional knowledge of the laws of armed combat or willful disobedience, partisan forces could promote further hostilities with poor treatment of prisoners of war or illegal activities aimed toward unfriendly civilian populations.

Despite this, the mobilisation of irregular forces from the civilian population nevertheless serve as an excellent deterrent for would-be invading forces. One needs to look no further than the First Battle of Fallujah when armed militias, operating in an urban environment and supported by an intrinsic knowledge of the local area, were able to force the United States into a tactical withdrawal before defeating – and mutinying – the US’ surrogate Iraqi forces.

Overall Defense Concept

Such acceptance among civil and military leadership of the importance of partisan conflict has also been evidenced in Taiwan, with the country’s concept of asymmetric defence.

Indeed, the realisation among some in Taiwan’s military apparatus that the island nation could no longer convincingly defend itself in the event of a PLA invasion spurred the introduction of the Overall Defense Concept in 2017 by Taiwan’s Admiral Lee Hsi-ming.

Michael Hunzeker, assistant professor at George Mason University and associate director of the Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies, explained Taiwan’s formula for a war of attrition on the Island.

“Asymmetry meant acquiring large numbers of small and cheap capabilities — weapons like coastal defense cruise missiles, short-range mobile air defences, naval mines, and drones — and using them to wage a prolonged denial campaign in the air, at sea, and on the ground,” Hunzeker noted.

“In this concept, Taiwan’s armed forces finally had a logical blueprint to help them to survive a first strike and wage a prolonged, decentralised, and multilayered campaign of attrition.”

National security reporter for The National Interest Mark Episkopos goes a step further in describing Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept.

“Taiwan will seek to inflict the most damage on the invading forces in the littoral zone, where their home-field advantage is the greatest. Taiwanese forces will then shift to preventing the PLA from establishing beachheads. If the PLA gets boots on the ground, then not just the army but also the civilian population will be mobilised for a whole-of-society guerilla effort to prevent the occupying forces from advancing inland and establishing re-supply chains,” Episkopos said.

“At that point, every Taiwanese citizen will be conscripted into what could escalate into a wholesale urban war. As Lee Hsi-ming put it, ‘It is the onus of the Taiwanese people to decide their fate and fight for their existence.’”

If military theorists have learnt any lessons over recent decades, it’s that such irregular asymmetries are difficult – if not impossible – for the invading force to overcome in such littoral, urbanised and populated environments.

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