The Ukrainian resistance is torching Putin’s dreams of conquest

98-year-old Lidia Lomikovska sits in a shelter after she escaped Russian-occupied territory in the Donetsk region, Ukraine
98-year-old Lidia Lomikovska sits in a shelter after she escaped Russian-occupied territory in the Donetsk region, Ukraine

On D-Day, the anniversary of which we just commemorated, the Allies knew the location of the Nazi defences thanks to the French Resistance. Now, Ukrainian resistance groups are playing pivotal roles in similar, albeit smaller, operations, enabling the Ukrainian Armed Forces to halt and, in places, turn back the Russian war machine. Their D-Day, however, is yet to come.

As detailed in my new report ‘Crossing Thresholds: Ukrainian Resistance to Russian Occupation’ on the Ukrainian underground, the patriotic partisan movement comprises many tens of thousands of Ukrainians, covering all manner of activities, from distributing yellow ribbons to assassinating Russian secret policemen. They do this despite overwhelming enemy surveillance and the dreadful risks of being caught.

Across Russian-occupied towns and cities in Ukraine, torture chambers run by the FSB function in plain sight, as a demonstrative form of intimidation. There are legion reports of sexualised torture (e.g., electric shocks attached to genitalia), the removal of fingernails, rape, and mutilation. This performative terror is used to compel Ukrainians into submission. Life under Russian control is grim, with egregious crimes spanning large-scale child abduction, torture, extrajudicial killings, and the use of locals as human shields.

Aside from a few lucky collaborators, the only people leading normal lives there are Russian nationals who have relocated in their hundreds of thousands to what they call the “new regions,” often with direct encouragement and financial incentives from the Kremlin. These resettlements are part of a deliberate strategy of ethnic cleansing, as Russia seeks to dilute these areas’ Ukrainian identity.

This selective imposition of normality has developed into a system that resembles apartheid between Russian and Ukrainian citizens. It is heavily enforced by the near-mandatory acquisition of Russian passports. Daily life and access to essential services, from prescriptions to pensions, are contingent upon compliance with the occupiers’ demands. Those without a Russian passport have their properties seized and are unable to obtain even emergency services.

Despite the grinding demoralisation interspersed with horror, a large number of Ukrainians are resisting. According to Ukraine’s National Resistance Centre, using Russia’s own census and electoral data, at least 60 percent of Ukrainians on the occupied territories have refused Russian passports; 80 percent have refused to put Russian license plates on their cars. One interviewee from an area occupied since 2014 but unable to leave explained: “I won’t take a Russian passport […] if I do, then who will be here to greet our boys when they liberate us? Where will all the Ukrainians be? I will greet [our boys] as a Ukrainian.”

In wars like Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty, the distinctions between soldiers, civilians, and resistance fighters often become indistinct, as a broad segment of the population engages in the struggle for national survival, just like Britain in World War Two. Nonviolent acts of resistance, from refusing a Russian passport to tying a blue-and-yellow ribbon around a tree, play a crucial role in maintaining morale and community bonds. One active resistance fighter from Crimea’s ATESH movement told me: “Non-violent resistance is incredibly important [….] People feel a sense of support, that people who think like them are living next door.”

The Ukrainian resistance is playing a varied and instrumental, yet largely unsung, role in the war, from maintaining a sense of collective identity to transmitting intelligence about enemy equipment and personnel. Partisans engage in sabotage to disrupt enemy logistics and command structures, damaging the occupiers’ operational capabilities and exposing critical weaknesses, such as the inadequacy of Russian air defences. Resistance attacks in Crimea, in particular, have carried substantial geopolitical weight, countering Putin’s propaganda.

Ukrainian partisan activities also debunk Russian propaganda claims of a welcoming Russian-speaking populace in eastern Ukraine and pose challenging questions for the occupiers. Constant Moscow-directed increases in the numbers of Russian national guard, FSB, and security personnel being sent to the occupied territories shows the difficulty of policing a hostile local population.

The scale of Ukrainian resistance is such that Russia has been unable to assert full control over its ‘new regions’. It is facing a well-trained, and astute insurrectionist campaign that will play an ever more important role in undermining the sustainability of the Russian war effort. From Melitopol to Simferopol, the occupied regions are not lost causes but active participants in Ukraine’s ongoing war of liberation.

Dr Jade McGlynn is a Research Fellow at The Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of ‘Memory Makers: The Politics of the Past in Russia’ and ‘Russia’s War’ .