Ukrainian partisans in occupied areas of the country are increasing attacks and sabotage efforts on Russian forces and their local collaborators, with organised underground efforts appearing to spread.
Six Russian border guarders were reportedly killed last week when their position came under fire near the Zernovo border checkpoint in Ukraine’s north. Two days later an explosion struck close to the office of Yevgeny Balitsky, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian official in Melitopol.
The increase in partisan warfare, particularly in the country’s south around Kherson, follows warnings at the outset of Russia’s war against Ukraine that any area under occupation was likely to see the emergence of guerrilla warfare.
The subject is one of the murkiest of the war in Ukraine. Both sides have an interest in exaggerating its prevalence: the Russians to justify crackdowns in areas they occupy and the Ukrainians to demoralise Russian troops.
Also complicating the issue is assessing the extent to which attacks are being carried out by Ukrainian military sabotage groups or homegrown resistance groups.
Partisans are usually defined as members of an armed group formed to fight secretly against an occupying force, for instance in Nazi-occupied Europe. The term holds more positive connotations than insurgent.
The Melitopol incident, involving a car packed full of explosives, was significant enough to focus renewed attention on a phenomenon that has been occurring since almost the beginning of the war.
Some analysts believe they are seeing evidence that partisan activity in Ukraine is escalating. Among them is Alexander Motyl, a historian and Ukraine expert at Rutgers University.
Writing for the defence-focused website 1945 last week, Motyl noted: “I gathered the data from Ukrainian websites that explicitly identified the perpetrators of these actions as partisans.
“It is, of course, possible that Ukrainian special forces may have been involved in some of these actions; it is also likely that the data are incomplete, inasmuch as some actions probably went unreported.
“Even so, the number of guerrilla actions is impressive and bespeaks a trend toward ever-greater partisan activity.”
Commenting on the Melitopol explosion, pro-Kremlin authorities in the city explicitly blamed Ukrainian partisans. Russia’s Investigative Committee blamed it on “Ukrainian saboteurs”.
The attack in Melitopol came just days after a reported assassination attempt on Andriy Shevchyk, a pro-Kremlin and self-proclaimed mayor of Enerhodar, in the Zaporizhzhia region, who was badly injured in an explosion.
In other incidents, railway lines in Russian-occupied areas have been damaged while leaflets have circulated threatening Russian troops and collaborators.
The Institute for the Study of War, a US thinktank, suggested that Russian authorities in Luhansk oblast – which has been the scene of the heaviest recent fighting – were gearing up for an increase in partisan attacks in the area.
“Russian authorities are likely anticipating Ukrainian partisan pressure in Luhansk,” it suggested in its 1 June update on the fighting.
“The Main Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate (GUR) announced on 1 June the launch of the “Luhansk partisan” project to galvanize resistance to Russian attempts to consolidate control of Luhansk oblast.
“A Russian Telegram channel reported that the Russian Internal Ministry is sending a special detachment of its employees on “leave” to the [self-styled separatist] Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), which is a likely attempt to reinforce Russian administrative presence in the LNR in the face of growing internal and partisan discontent.”
Some of the claimed incidents in recent months involving partisans are probably fanciful disinformation, in the same vein as the nonexistent fighter pilot ace “the Ghost of Kyiv” – who it turned out was a carefully constructed fiction.
While claims Russian soldiers fed poisoned pies are impossible to verify, there have been credible reports of collaborators and Russian soldiers killed or disappeared. Some claims suggest the number of soldiers killed by partisans so far could be in the low hundreds.
What is clear is that the plan for partisan warfare was long and well prepared.
Ukrainian partisan forces started being trained after Russia’s intervention in 2014 but they became part of Ukraine’s state structures last summer, according to Serhii Kuzan, head of the Ukrainian Center for Security and Cooperation, a Ukrainian thinktank that specialises in military analysis.
Partisan forces, along with Ukraine’s territorial army, were part of new self-defence measures introduced across the country, said Kuzan.
While thousands had joined the territorial army, hundreds had also volunteered to be trained as Ukrainian partisans, said Kuzan. Both forces are made up of people from a given region.
The Ukrainian partisan forces were trained to be an underground resistance movement in the event their region became occupied, said Kuzan. Their task is to build networks of informants, launch information campaigns against the occupiers, pass information back to the Ukrainian authorities, and to kill high-level political collaborators and the occupying commanders, said Kuzan.
Ukrainian partisans were led and trained by Ukrainian special forces, who were responsible for carrying out the higher-level acts of subversion, said Kuzan.
“The idea is for the occupier to always feel the presence of the partisans and for them never to feel safe,” said Kuzan. “Recently, the partisan forces in Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions carried out a coordinated sticker and flyer campaign against the so-called Russian world.”
As Ukrainian partisan fighters are legally part of Ukraine’s defence forces, the Ukrainian state is obliged to look after them. The families of most of the partisans were evacuated from areas that could be occupied before or just after the invasion, said Kuzan.
Ukrainian partisans operated only in occupied Ukraine and did not stray across borders because that would be seen as a pretence for escalation by Russia, said Kuzan.
But it’s clear that some subversive activity is being carried out on the other side of the border. As well as the claimed attack on the border guards, Russian oil storage facilities, railway lines, and Russian ministry of defence buildings, near the Ukrainian border, appear to have been targeted since the war started in February.
“We all understand that oil depots and military bases in Russia have been blowing up over the last few months,” said Kuzan. “But the Ukrainian official response is ‘someone was smoking in the wrong place and they must have done it themselves’. They joke about it and make it clear that it’s no one’s business.”