Ukraine Isn’t Waging an Insurgency – Yet

US leaders must help Western audiences understand the differences between complex Middle Eastern wars and Ukraine’s fight for survival — and prepare to support its likely next phases.

A new era of geopolitics has begun in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Europe disproves the common assumption that decades of war in the Middle East resulted from a perpetual instability that was unique to the region and would stay contained within it.

His expectation of impunity reflects the erosion of international norms in places like Syria, where Russian war crimes and complicity in the use of chemical weapons went largely unanswered.

However, the scale of Putin’s war in Ukraine dwarfs Russian operations in Syria, from the political aims and military scope to the global consequences. Understanding it requires a return to conventional models of warfare and the abandonment of frameworks regarding Middle Eastern wars that do not apply.

Russia’s War Effort in Syria

In Syria, Russia launched a limited war effort in 2015 to keep a client regime in power against a popular rebellion. Russia provided air and missile strikes to a patchwork of Syrian, Iranian, and other militias to overmatch dug-in insurgent defenders.

Russian advisors organized and coordinated those ground operations, sometimes adding artillery support and private military contractors. These operations recaptured opposition-held sectors of Syria’s second-largest city, Aleppo, and turned the tide of the war.

After Aleppo’s fall, Russia brokered the surrender of large swaths of the Syrian countryside.

Russian military police in Syria
Russian military police at Hmeimim air base in Syria in December 2017. Image:

Russia’s interest in Syria had little to do with the Syrian war itself. Russia used the war as an opportunity to emplace a durable air and naval capability on the Mediterranean to support larger regional ambitions, including threatening NATO’s southern flank and enabling Russian force projection into Africa.

Russia has achieved limited success stabilizing recaptured areas despite deployments of Russian military police, but can tolerate this instability because it does not threaten Russia’s air or naval bases.

Russia’s War Effort in Ukraine

The Russian war effort in Ukraine bears little similarity to Syria.

In Ukraine, 190,000 conventional Russian troops are waging an offensive war to defeat a prepared, conventional military. Putin’s aims are imperial. He seeks to conquer Ukraine and, ideally, absorb its territory into the Russian Federation.

The consequences are global. If NATO fails to prevent Ukraine’s fall, the prospect for a much larger war in Europe is significant. Putin has made clear his disregard for the sovereignty of other former Soviet states and indicated that he will not stop at Ukraine. Other autocrats with expansionist ambitions are watching, including China’s Xi Jinping.

Russian violence against civilians is a constant. Russian targeting of hospitals and other civilian targets in Ukraine mirrors Russia’s relentlessly brutal strikes against Syrians since 2015.

Ukrainian soldiers help an elderly woman to cross a destroyed bridge
Ukrainian soldiers help an elderly woman to cross a destroyed bridge as she evacuates the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 8, 2022. Photo: Sergei Supinsky/ AFP

The violence in Ukraine is only surprising because Russia lacks the cover of disinformation that has shielded it in Syria, where the presence of jihadists enabled Russia to frame its war crimes as somehow justified, even though Russia never prioritized fighting those groups.

In Ukraine, US intelligence disclosures exposing Russian disinformation have put the cold calculation of Russia’s brutality on display. The aims of Russia’s violence are to compel Ukrainians and Syrians to submit or, if that fails, to depopulate the battlespace through civilian flight.

Insurgency vs. Conventional War

However, the ebb and flow of Ukraine’s war is nothing like Syria’s. The outcomes of two conventional militaries battling for control are different from the grueling fight of an insurgency.

The popular sentiment that factors so heavily into the evolution of an insurgency fight does not factor the same way into a conventional war. These wars look different on a map, therefore.

Ukraine has proven the importance of morale in any war but has not yet shifted into a full insurgency.

Russia’s gains in Ukraine are not the contested control of a fragile government attempting to suppress populations one neighborhood or village at a time. They are akin to Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. They meet the military doctrinal definition of “control,” which is to “maintain physical influence over a specified area to prevent its use by an enemy or to create conditions necessary for successful friendly operations.”

Thus far in Ukraine, Russian forces have only needed to “clear” captured terrain in a few key areas, meaning to “remove all enemy forces and eliminate organized resistance within an assigned area.”

That could change. Popular protests in Russian-occupied areas demonstrate that Ukrainians remain uncowed. Ukrainian civilians could take up arms. To mitigate that risk, Russian forces have in most cases avoided becoming bogged down in urban combat, instead attempting to compel the surrender of urban populations.

Russia has reportedly begun to establish a policing presence in captured areas, indicating its concern about such resistance could be growing.

Ukrainian Resistance

More dangerously for Russia, Ukraine’s forces could launch guerilla campaigns in Russian-occupied areas.

Such pressure could attrit Russian forces and force Russia to shift its posture to a more resource-intensive effort to clear captured areas and to “secure” Russian positions, which means “preventing a unit, facility, or geographical location from being damaged or destroyed as a result of enemy action.” Securing positions against insurgency requires a different posture than securing it against conventional resistance.

A shift in the character of the fighting to this end would require a different visualization of Russian control as it comes under threat from within.

This threshold has not yet been crossed. Two weeks into Russia’s campaign, Ukraine continues to conduct a capable and conventional defense of the capital and other key positions as well as challenging Russian supply lines.

Ukrainian forces have blunted Russian advances, imposed significant casualties and equipment losses, and rallied Ukrainians – and the West – to oppose Putin. Russia’s military has underperformed, demonstrating systemic failures with basic tasks like resupply.

Ukrainian service member seen at the site of fighting with a Russian raiding group
Ukrainian service member seen at the site of fighting with a Russian raiding group in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the morning of February 26. Photo: AFP

Putin’s apparent hope that Ukraine’s leaders would flee has proven naïve. Ukraine’s government remains intact and recognized by nearly the entire world as legitimate. Russian forces have not managed to encircle the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, much less seize it.

Evolution of Ukraine’s War

Nonetheless, the war is far from over. Putin’s decision to mobilize foreign fighters to augment his faltering military could help him overcome Ukrainian defenses through sheer numbers.

However, these foreign units may not be decisive. While the morale of mercenaries is likely to be higher than Russian conscripts, their combat effectiveness against Ukrainian forces is an open question. Some, especially Syrian units, could have urban combat experience from battles in places like Aleppo. However, fighting Syrian insurgents is not equivalent to facing down the Ukrainian military.

The evolution of Ukraine’s war will bear only partial resemblance to the tragedy of Syria even as Syrians join the fight. Defense officials estimate the war in Ukraine could last 10 or more years, placing it on par with Syria.

However, Putin’s aims in Ukraine and the extent to which he has gambled Russia’s future on this war make it an existential war. He is likely to consider escalatory options that were never on the table in Syria.

Furthermore, the performance of Ukraine’s military will continue to shape the fight. If Ukraine’s forces morph into an unconventional military campaign, it is likely to be far more lethal than the insurgent warfare of Syrian opposition forces.

The United States should be careful with the term “insurgency” as Ukraine’s war protracts and potentially morphs.

The survival of the Ukrainian government, even outside Kyiv, would make the adoption of guerilla tactics by Ukrainian forces something other than an insurgency, which in military doctrine means an organized guerilla campaign against a governing entity. The distinction matters.

Putin’s Likely Spin

Ukraine’s greatest accomplishment in the war to date has been to deny Putin any political victory.

The United States must be careful with the language it uses as the war evolves. Labeling a future phase of Ukraine’s resistance an insurgency could provide Putin an opportunity to spin unconventional Ukrainian resistance as somehow akin to Middle Eastern terrorism.

The West should deny Putin this illusion of a political win and prevent him from spinning unconventional Ukrainian resistance as somehow akin to Middle Eastern terrorism – a tactic he’s likely to attempt.

Instead, the United States should prepare now for the possibility that Ukraine will need political and military support to fight an unconventional campaign against Russian occupation forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an ASEAN summit via a video link at his residence outside Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP

Such a strategy will likely be necessary even if Russia continues to fail to unseat Ukraine’s government. Defeating Russia’s invasion and restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity will require preventing Russian forces from consolidating control over captured terrain.

Ideally, Ukraine would recapture Russian-controlled areas through a conventional counter-offensive. However, the United States should begin planning for the possibility that unconventional tactics will be necessary to overcome conventional Russian military power.

Ukraine is fighting for Europe’s future. US leaders must help Western audiences understand the differences between complex Middle Eastern wars and Ukraine’s fight for survival — and prepare to support its likely next phases.

Headshot Jennifer CafarellaJennifer Cafarella (@JennyCafarella) is the Chief of Staff and National Security Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and a Visiting Fellow at the George Mason University’s National Security Institute.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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