15 Feb 22. Russia looks likely to invade Ukraine in the coming weeks, if not days. The number of forces Russia has massed on the Ukrainian border would allow for incursions along three fronts simultaneously—from Russia in the east, Belarus in the north, and Crimea in the south. Europe is threatening sanctions and promising disgrace for Moscow, but it may soon face the most difficult question of retaliation: whether to provide vital support for a Ukrainian insurgency.
External support is a decisive factor in the success of an insurgency. The direct support of neighboring state military forces contributed to successful insurgencies in Bosnia, Afghanistan in the 1980s, Tajikistan, Congo, and elsewhere, according to a RAND study from 2001. Support can take many forms; safe haven, financial support, materiel deliveries, intelligence support, and training can all keep an insurgency operating even when under tremendous pressure from an occupying power.
This commentary examines the challenges and benefits for the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of supporting an insurgency in Ukraine, depending on how much Ukrainian territory Russia takes. Specifically, how might support for an insurgency work if Russia takes the Donbas; eastern Ukraine up to the Dnieper, including Kyiv; or the entire country? Six scenarios emerge: in three, the West provides support to Ukrainians who fight on against a Russian occupying power; in three, it does not, either because it is too politically risky or there is little to no organized insurgent force to support.
- The riskiest scenario for allied Western nations is one in which Russia takes all of Ukraine and NATO members provide materiel support to insurgents. That sets up a dynamic in which every insurgent attack on Russian forces is an irritant between Russia and the West, and Moscow has at its disposal several impactful tools for retaliation, including cyberattacks and economic leverage.
- The riskiest scenario in the “no support” category is if Moscow stops at the Dnieper River, taking half of Ukraine, including Kyiv. This leaves a rump Western Ukraine, with limited economic resources and few defenses, largely dependent on neighbors to the west for economic support and assistance, and with a refugee population that is likely to be sizable. In this scenario, the West also has the least amount of influence over what happens inside Ukraine. Rather than Moscow fighting for control in Ukraine, it is free to turn its attention elsewhere.
- Providing no support to an insurgency, no matter the territorial picture, also raises the medium-term risk of emboldening Moscow to continue its threats to Europe unabated.
This piece makes several assumptions to inform the scenarios:
- Russia has completed its territory takeover, dismantled the Ukrainian army within that territory, and is in a hold phase, focusing on subjugating the restive population. If the Ukrainian army is still organized and fighting, the conflict has not yet moved into an insurgency phase.
- S. and European allies are capable of delivering lethal force and clandestine communications capabilities into Ukraine at a robust enough level to matter. In any taking of territory by Russia, there will still be a certain porousness to Ukraine’s borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, in particular the mountainous regions in the southwest. NATO forces’ involvement in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq has armed them with decades of practice in train-and-equip missions.
- NATO members are the presumed actors. While an official NATO role in supporting a Ukrainian insurgency is highly unlikely, the nations most likely to be involved are those in NATO, and Moscow will interpret the activity as “NATO aggression.”
- Finally, Moscow would attempt to squash an insurgency with the same vigor and ruthlessness that it displayed in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria.
Uncertainty and Decision: Two Factors
This scenario analysis looks at three options for Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory and pairs those options with a yes or no question: Will NATO members support an insurgency in Ukraine? Six scenarios emerge, each with implications for U.S. and European policy: