As the war drags on, cities taken over by Russian forces in East and Southeast Ukraine have seen an increase in resistance from civilian groups seeking to sabotage the enemy. “Death to the occupiers”, reads a poster circulating on social media put up by partisan groups on the streets of Ukraine’s Kherson. As the war drags on, cities taken over by Russian forces in East and Southeast Ukraine have seen an increase in resistance from civilian groups seeking to sabotage the enemy. The bombing of a café frequented by Russian forces in Kherson earlier the past month, a massive explosion outside the pro-Kremlin head’s office in Melitopol in May, and a recent targeted attack on the employees of the Russian Ministry of Emergencies in Mariupol have been attributed to partisan forces.
The simmering civilian resistance is reminiscent of Ukraine’s history of partisan warfare, first, against Nazi Germans and then, against the Soviets occupying the territory during the Second World War and its aftermath. Nazi Germany’s occupation, in fact, was met with mostly Communist-led partisan resistance across Eastern European countries such as the then Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Italy.
Partisan warfare, over the years, has evolved to mean “any member of an irregular force consisting of a local population resisting a foreign occupation,” as stated in Partisans, Guerillas and Irregulars: Historical Archaeology of Asymmetric Warfare. The civilian resistance often employs guerrilla or unconventional tactics to defeat the enemy such as ambushes, disrupting supply lines or even countering propaganda.
Months before Russia announced its “special military operation”, Ukrainian civilians began training in defence tactics to put up a resistance in the face of a potential invasion. In December 2021, The New York Times reported about government-run training sessions which would help form the Territorial Defence Forces – a group of volunteer fighters which first emerged in 2014 as the dispute in Donbas escalated. A 2021 study carried out by the Ukrainian think tank, Razumkov Center, noted that at least 24 per cent of the respondents were ready to defend the country with weapons in hand and 29 per cent would provide volunteer support.
In April, nearly two months after the February 24 invasion, the mayor of Melitopol, a southeastern city among the first ones to fall to Russia, claimed that such partisans had killed at least 100 Russian soldiers.
Widespread partisan activity in Melitopol has also been indicated by the US-based think tank, Institute for the Study of War. It also notes partisan resistance in Kherson, Tokmok, Enerhodar, and Mariupol.
The Ukrainian Army’s Special Operations Forces have also set up a website, Centre of National Resistance, “to support and coordinate all those who want to fight for the liberation of our land from the Russian occupiers”. The website provides several guides: how to use a VPN to establish communication circumventing site blocks and surveillance, what to do if you spot a Russian drone, how to make smoke grenades at home or handle small firearms, and how to steal a Russian tank.
It also provides updates on the acts of resistance across occupied territories. On June 20, the Centre stated that growing civil resistance was preventing Russians from getting public support for “voluntary accession” of regions.
This isn’t the first time the civilians of Ukraine have taken up arms against occupying forces. Much before the occupation by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union had staked claim over the territory, while western Ukraine was under the Polish government. Veterans of the independence struggle kept up the nationalistic fervour, resisting these regimes, which were largely said to be violent in their takeover. In 1929, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) took birth and went on to fight against the Nazi Germans and later, the Soviets.