Some Initial Guerilla Warfare Lessons From Ukraine

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world is witnessing true Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW). According to standard references such as the Infogalactic Wiki, 4GW has these elements and characteristics:

  • Complex and long term
  • Employs terrorism as a tactic
  • A non-national or transnational base – highly decentralized
  • A direct attack on the enemy’s culture, including genocidal acts against civilians.
  • All available pressures are used – political, economic, social, and military
  • Occurs in low-intensity conflict, involving actors from all networks
  • Non-combatants are tactical dilemmas
  • Lack of hierarchy
  • Small in size, spread out network of communication and financial support
  • Use of insurgency tactics such as subversion, terrorism, and guerrilla tactics
  • Decentralized forces

A Fourth Generation War is much more than just a traditional naval, land, and air war. It is total war, and high technology war. The information war component of 4GW is primarily propaganda. We’ve seen it used quite heavily on both sides.  Early in the invasion, there was a dearth of news footage. No worries! They just dusted off some military training exercise clips and even a two-year-old clip of a gas station explosion, and Hey, presto!: “War footage”. When reading or watching Ukraine war reporting, just assume that every reporter has an agenda, and that part or all of what you are being told is a lie.

There is also a cyber component to 4GW. It has been reported that a fierce cyberwar has been raging, with western hackers stepping in, to supplement Ukraine’s cyber warriors. Make no mistake: The ongoing cyberwar is not just taking place in Russia and Ukraine. There are targets worldwide.

The financial side of 4GW meant divorcing Russia from credit markets and clearing circles–most importantly the SWIFT payments network. These harsh sanctions soon forced closure of Russian equities markets. Russia is now on the verge of default. If they do default, then they won’t be trusted in international trade and credit for many years. Meanwhile, the Russian Ruble currency was also hit hard on the Forex. In just a few days it dropped from 74.2 Rubles to the Dollar to 130 Rubles to the Dollar. More recently, that has moderated, but the Ruble has not fared well!

Though Russia is the world’s largest country (6,612,074 square miles), its economy is relatively small — about the same size GDP as Australia. Russia has the fifth-largest economy in Europe, and the world’s 11th largest, as measured by nominal GDP. The recent rounds of sanctions have hurt Russia badly, and they will surely continue to harm their economy.

An Unconventional War

In Joint Publication 3-05, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) defines unconventional warfare as:

“…those activities to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.”

The war in Ukraine matches that definition nicely, albeit with lots of new 4GW twists.  Even if the Russian Army and their surrogates are able to completely occupy Ukraine and install a puppet government, a Ukrainian guerilla warfare campaign could carry on for months or years. A Government-In-Exile could be quite effective at inspiring and supporting resistance warfare. The Ukrainian people have already shown great resolve. The Russian Army has already shown great ineptitude and a lack of resolve. Based on what I’ve seen thusfar, I believe that it is doubtful that the Russians will be able to completely conquer all of Ukraine before they feel obliged to withdraw.

Terrain Dictates Action

For any invading army, the terrain and available avenues of approach tend to dictate courses of action. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began during a slightly thawing spell in winter weather conditions, but it has reverted to hard freeze conditions.  But that will likely change in April, with the usual seasonal thaw. This means that many of the Russian wheeled vehicles and even some of the heavier tracked vehicles will get bogged down in mud, if they attempt to go offroad. Restricting themselves to paved roads will channelize their formations, making their armored vehicles ideal targets for light and medium anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) — such as the very widespread RPG-7 series, the U.S. FGM-148 Javelin, the Swedish-designed AT-4, and the German Panzerfaust 3.

When they get up-close and personal with tanks, BTRs, and BMPs, I predict that Ukrainian resistance fighters will soon learn to prefer Thermite grenades or other incendiaries with 15+ second fuses over the more-publicized traditional flaming Molotov cocktails. Lighting the wick on a traditional Molotov cocktail to prepare it for throwing is essentially saying: “Here I am, shoot me.”

Bridge crossings will continue to be problematic for the Russians, particularly for re-supply convoys. If the Ukrainians are wise, then they will destroy as many bridges, trestles, and overpasses as they can, to keep the Russians from resupplying their forces.

The best way for the Ukrainians to make up for their numerical inferiority (in sheer numbers of tanks, APCs, artillery pieces, multiple rocket launchers, and trucks) is to immobilize the invaders’ vehicles. If they can pin down the Russians and keep them low on ammunition and fuel, then the Ukrainians can use foot-mobile ATGM teams to whittle down the number of Russian armored vehicles, piecemeal.

darkness is No Longer Concealment

The proliferation of light amplification and thermal night vision equipment makes modern guerilla warfare more difficult. Some 30 years ago, in the Bosnian War, fairly large infantry units were able to stealthily move under cover of darkness. That is no longer the case, and tactics have to change, accordingly. This modern age of standard-issue night vision equipment militates against guerillas fielding large infantry units or their use of most vehicles.  21st Century guerilla warfare will be characterized by small teams wearing thermal-spoofing ponchos.

Drones are Constantly Overhead

The proliferation of drones — both military and civilian — in the past few years should have taught everyone a lesson: You must assume that in the event of war that a drone will be overhead, 24 hours a day. Plan your activities accordingly.

Guerilla Warfare is Not a Fashion Contest

The odd assortment of uniforms worn by the Ukrainians — particularly their reserve and irregular units — is almost comical. But it works. Aside from some Friend or Foe Identification issues — corrected by their widespread use of yellow armbands — there is little harm in having a motley mix of camouflage.

20/20 Hindsight

It has been said that every war is a “come as you are” war.  There are no “do-overs”. Once the balloon goes up, you have to make do with what you have. Obviously, with hindsight, there are things that the Ukrainians should have done differently, to prepare. Here are some examples:

1.)  They should have trained more reserve units and distributed weapons and ammunition sooner, with no paper trails.  A civilian marksmanship program would have been helpful.

2.) They should have destroyed all firearms registration records. (Hint: It may not be too late to do so.)

3.) They should have bought more ATGMs, Stinger missiles, and drones. These should have been dispersed throughout the country, with active and reserve units in proximity to likely avenues of approach.

4.) They should have engineered all of their bridges, train trestles, and overpasses with demolition in mind. This is exactly what South Korea has done. The South Koreans have even purpose-built massive concrete “rock drops”, to block highways and freeways, in the event of an invasion. Many of these concrete drops look like incomplete overpasses.

5.) They should have encouraged their citizenry to keep a one-year food supply. If the Ukrainians lose this war, it will likely be because their guerillas are either starving or have run out of ammunition.

End Game: Carborundum

In my estimation, the end game of the 2022 Ukraine invasion will probably be the gradual attrition of Russian forces to the point that they lose mobility and both the means and the will to fight. They will simply wear the Russians down, by keeping their forces detached from their supply lines. At that stage, the Russians will have no other option but to withdraw, and negotiate some sort of settlement.

When the Russians do withdraw, they will be leaving behind a massive quantity of vehicles, weapons, and ammunition. I hope that the Ukrainian people use this “inherited” equipment wisely and keep it well-maintained and dispersed for future use. Consider the “BTR in the barn” that I mentioned in my novel Patriots. These should not be just war relics or war booty. They should be kept as insurance against the next invasion. – JWR