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  • Alex Pack

A Ukrainian Insurgency?

What is an insurgency? How does it develop? And is a Ukrainian insurgency likely? A brief explainer

From the first moment that Russia invaded #Ukraine on 24 February 2022, different outlets have repeatedly highlighted significant differences in the #military strength between the two nations. But, as we have seen for the last nearly two weeks, the Ukrainian people continue to resist Russian forces. While their ability to withstand this invasion is impressive, recent reports suggest that the Russian military is gaining ground, having allegedly taken control of Kherson, a strategic port city in southern Ukraine.

While allies of Ukraine continue to offer varying degrees of support and the Ukrainian people continue to resists the Russian invasion, the question still remains, what happen is Ukraine loses? If the Russian regime is successfully able to conquer Ukraine, the world will likely witness the rise of the #UkraineInsurgency.

Protest in Support of Ukraine in Washington, DC

Photo by Yohan Marion on Unsplash

What is Insurgency?

Before digging into the potential for a Ukrainian insurgency, it is important to understand what insurgency is in the first place. Throughout the years, scholars have attempted to define #insurgency, with varying degrees of detail. One of the most comprehensive definitions for insurgency comes from the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency. They suggest that: "Insurgency is an organized, protracted political-military struggle directed toward subverting or displacing the legitimacy of a constituted government or occupying power and completely or partially controlling the resources of a territory through the use of irregular military forces and illegal political organizations."

Based on this definition there are four criteria that define an insurgency:

  1. It is a political-military conflict

  2. It is targeted against a controlling government or occupier

  3. It utilizes both political and military forces

  4. The ultimate goal is to gain popular support and control of the territory

Phases of Insurgency

To understand whether an insurgency would develop, it is helpful to know the phases of insurgency. While the literature is rife with different models for development, the most detailed model comes from the Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency. In it, the authors suggest that there are four critical phases that insurgencies may operate in during their life-span: (i) Pre-Insurgency, (ii) Incipient Conflict, (iii) Open Insurgency, and (iv) Resolution.

Model of Insurgent Development


In the pre-insurgency stage of development, the would-be insurgent works to develop some level of political support. They typically do this by identifying a popular grievance to unite the population. At the same time, the insurgent will work to foster a sense of group identity separate from the ruling regime. Finally, during this phase of development, the would-be insurgent will begin training militarily and forming paramilitary organizations.

Incipient Conflict

During the incipient conflict phase, the insurgent begins to utilize violence and sabotage operations in order to "demonstrate its viability, publicize its cause, [and] rally supporters." While the amount of time spent at this phase varies, the ultimate goal for the insurgent is to grow its base. Increased public support and those willing to engage in operations, are crucial for the insurgency to transition to the next phase, open insurgency.

Open Insurgency

The open insurgency phase is the period when an insurgency has fully emerged and poses an imminent threat to the existing regime. At this phase, the insurgency has a broad base of public support, and a significant body of capable fighters. Given their increased capabilities, the insurgent also begins to engage in increasingly frequent and sophisticated attacks to weaken the regime. In addition to continued attacks, during this phase, the insurgent also begins to oversee and administer territory that it has captured from the regime.


The resolution phase is the theoretical end to an insurgency. Historically, there are three types of conclusions to insurgency: (i) insurgent victory over the existing regime, (ii) a government victory over the insurgent, (iii) or a negotiated settlement between the two.

The remainder of post will try to determine if a Ukrainian insurgency in is likely, and what it would look like.

Elements of a Potential Insurgency

A Common Grievance & In-Group Support

One of the central elements of the pre-insurgency stage of development is identifying and exploiting a common grievance. This is the issue that the would-be insurgent utilizes to unite the population and inspire action against the regime. The grievance that could unite a Ukrainian insurgency is easy to identify: opposition to Russian rule.

Protest outside of the Russian Consulate in New York City

Photo by Tong Su on Unsplash

The vast majority of the Ukrainian population has made it clear that they are against any form of Russian control, from soldiers on Snake Island telling a Russian warship to "go **** yourself," to a lone woman standing up to Russian soldiers, calling them "occupiers," "enemies" and telling them to put seeds in their "pockets so sunflowers will grow when [they] die." All of these statements are testaments to the will of the Ukrainian people to resist an occupying government.

In the event of a Russian victory, this resistance to an occupying force would likely continue and be used as a "common grievance." Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky has even stated publicly that as long as Russian forces are in Ukraine they "will have no peace. They will have no food. They will not have one quiet moment." It is not difficult to imagine individuals being able to use the occupation as the grievance which unites an incipient insurgency.

Additionally, as many Ukrainians view the Russians as an invading force, it would be relatively easy for a would-be insurgent to begin fomenting an in-group (Ukrainian) and out-group (Russian) or "us vs. them" dynamic, another critical element of insurgencies in the early stages of development.

Gathering Arms & Recruits

In the weeks before the invasion, when Russian troops and materiel began to build on their borders, Ukrainian civilians began earnestly training in "rudimentary military skills" in order to "push back a Russian invasion." Since the invasion began, citizens have continued to work side-by-side with the military to defend their country; with some producing "Bandera smoothies" (a play on the "Molotov cocktail") while others work to care for the wounded, organize uniforms and equipment, and even cook for the troops. This all-hands approach to defense could easily be transitioned into a covert insurgent force if the Russian regime is ultimately able to claim victory.

In addition to general training and support from citizens, the Ukrainian government has begun deputizing regular citizens into paramilitary cells. After arriving at army recruiting centers throughout the country, interested individuals "form ad hoc units of about 10 men each and choose a commander." Once they have defined their "unit," these improvised troops are issued weapons. These citizen militias have even begun to set-up "checkpoints," looking to root out Russian troops or pro-Russian separatists.

The behavior of these "Territorial Defense Detachments," is quite similar to what has historically occurred during insurgencies, with regular citizens becoming combatants. Historically, during the early phases of insurgency, these troops have been responsible for executing minor attacks and acts of sabotage. Later, as the insurgency grows stronger and begins to control territory, these detachments transition to more administrative and defensive roles. Although these units have been primarily used in a defensive capacity during this conflict, it is not difficult to imagine that they could transition to more active, insurgent forces should the Ukrainian government fall.

Protest of the Ukraine conflict in Germany

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Propaganda & Political Support

Another critical element to any insurgency is the ability to effectively develop popular support from the local, regional, and international communities. In doing so, the insurgent works to gain legitimacy for itself, while simultaneously delegitimizing the existing or occupying regime.

While the international community--to a large extent--automatically rallied around Ukraine after the invasion, the Ukrainian government and citizens have proved themselves extremely capable at developing political support. Ukrainian President Zelensky has led this effort, adeptly applying his skills as a former performer to an international audience. Drawing on his acting repertoire, the Ukrainian president has been able to masterfully deliver emotional appeals to the international community through photos, written posts, and especially videos.

While the Ukrainian government has shown its prowess in the public relations front of the war, they have received significant support from the citizens of Ukraine as well. Since the conflict began, everyday citizens and influencers have been able to create and distribute viral posts highlighting the war and the invasion by Russian troops. Using social media platforms such as TikTok, influencers have "made it a mission to share information and spread awareness" of the conflict.

Researchers of influence campaigns and social media suggest that, thus far, Ukraine is "winning the propaganda war." In speaking with the Military Times, Peter Singer, a researcher and author of 'Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media,' argued that through an effective use of propaganda, Ukraine has been able to "not only able to keep its population in the fight when the key Russian goal was to cause the quick collapse, but it also energized the West into levels of support that few imagined before all this."

Their ability to effectively use social media has allowed the Ukrainian people to win "hearts and minds" of the international community, with protests occurring worldwide against the Russian invasion. Should the Ukrainian government be overrun by Russian forces, it would not be difficult to see how they could use these same tools for developing popular support as an insurgent force.

Protesters Supporting Ukraine in Washington, DC

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

A Ukrainian Insurgency?

Ukrainian forces continue to resist the Russian invasion. While the forces have been successful thus far, multiple policymakers and diplomats have expressed concerns about their ability to continue to withstand the offensive, especially as Russian troops continue to advance throughout the country. Officials have repeatedly voiced concerns about the availability of supplies and the size differential between the two militaries.

The question "who will win?" looms large. At the moment, it is not possible to accurately predict the answer to this question with open-source intelligence. But, we can try to predict what may happen if the Russian invasion is successful.

If the Russian forces are able to claim victory, Ukraine would have all of the elements of a potential insurgency: (i) a compelling grievance to unite the people in a political-military struggle, (ii) an effective messaging system for developing local and international popular support, and (iii) a military/paramilitary force prepared to engage in combat and territorial control. Ultimately, if the Ukrainian state falls, the world is likely to witness the rise of a Ukrainian insurgency.

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