Ukrainians Increasingly Taking War Behind Russian Lines, And Moscow Is Worried – Analysis


Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his expanded war against Ukraine, it has been commonplace to predict the outcome depending on shifts in the frontlines. Many predict a Russian victory when Russian forces advance and a Ukrainian triumph when Ukrainian units press forward.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine, however, will win or lose the war based solely on what happens at the front. Instead, both have sought to come out on top by bringing the war home to the other through attacks on population centers far beyond the lines. Frequent Russian bombing raids on Ukrainian cities and increased Ukrainian drone attacks on Russia’s border regions and large city centers, including St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kazan, have attracted more attention in recent months (see EDM, December 21, 2023, April 11, 18, 24).

Far less attention, however, has been paid to another development that may prove fateful: Kyiv’s impressive organization of a partisan movement in the Russian-occupied portions of Ukraine and its support of ethnic and regional movements within the Russian Federation (see EDM, May 16, July 25, 2023, January 25, February 1). Moscow had largely failed to respond to these efforts until very recently, and these actions are increasingly raising the specter of disintegration in Russia.

The successes of Ukraine’s partisan movement over the past year have led some in Moscow to recall that it took the Soviet government more than a decade after World War II to suppress Ukrainian partisans. They have also raised fears that, if Russian forces were able to occupy large swaths of Ukraine, Moscow would face a similar and perhaps even greater challenge not only in Ukraine but among non-Russians and regional groups within an expanded Russian Empire. The organization of sleeper cells in Ukrainian areas that Russian troops appear to be on the verge of occupying has further enflamed these concerns (, April 17).

In such circumstances, Putin’s war in Ukraine would not lead to the restoration of some version of the Soviet Union. Instead, it would likely set the stage for a far more violent collapse of that new entity into a plethora of states—possibly becoming what many in the West feared 30 years ago, “a Yugoslavia with nukes.” (For a thoughtful and early warning of such possibilities, see senior Moscow commentator Aleksandr Tsipko’s article on the eve of Putin’s invasion,, May 1, 2022; compare with Window on Eurasia, March 27, 2022, February 28.)   

The Ukrainian partisan movement has largely flown under the radar of most because it is impossible to say exactly how large it is—estimates range up to 100,000. It is perhaps even more difficult to specify what actions the movement, rather than regular Ukrainian army units, are independently carrying out. It is clear that Kyiv placed great hopes on partisan operations even before Putin launched his expanded invasion (, March 11, 2022). The partisan groups that have emerged in the months since have regularly destroyed Russian infrastructure, killed Russian commanders and political figures, and provided key intelligence to Kyiv about the locations and plans of Russian forces (see EDM, May 16, July 25, 2023). (For a detailed but far from comprehensive listing of these activities, see the chronology in the Kyiv Post, especially December 21, 2023.)

Two other signs point to the Ukrainian partisan groups being large and effective. On the one hand, Russian military officials have acknowledged that they have deployed 35,000 soldiers to combat partisans. This figure is undoubtedly too low but shows Moscow is taking them seriously (Kyiv Post, January 8). On the other hand, Russia, after earlier dismissing any role for partisans in the current war, is now organizing its own pro-Moscow partisan groups in Ukraine, even claiming successes for them (Vzglyad, June 29, 2023). This sets the stage for a war in the shadows between the partisans of both countries (, April 15;, April 21).

Yet another reason explains why Moscow is now taking the Ukrainian partisans more seriously: The Kremlin sees their partisan activity as something that has crossed into Russia and become an even more immediate threat to the Putin regime. The attacks have focused on draft centers and, more recently, on industries critical to the war effort and have utilized the rising tide of weapons now in private hands in Russia since the start of the war (see EDM, May 17, 2022;TASS, January 22).

In part, the Kremlin is simply accepting its own propaganda as true. The recent attack on Crocus City Hall in Moscow highlighted that the Kremlin has tried to link all actions against itself to Ukraine—both to mobilize the population against such actions and to be in a position to impose harsher penalties on those who engage in them (Novaya Gazeta Europe, April 2). Perhaps far more consequential, these concerns reflect Russian wariness that Ukraine is now using military means, including partisans, to promote the disintegration of the Russian Federation itself.

Kyiv has infuriated Moscow by reaching out to non-Russian and regional groups inside Russia, backing their aspirations for independence, training such people, and even labeling Putin’s Russia an “evil empire” (see EDMOctober 13, 2022, January 18, 2023,  January 25; Window on Eurasia, December 25, 2023). Moscow’s alarm has certainly intensified further after Roman Svitan, a Kyiv military commentator, said on April 20 that Ukraine is targeting places in Russia with an eye to promoting the country’s disintegration—something that would likely require Ukrainian-trained partisans to succeed (, April 20). Moscow has responded with more repression at home and a greater focus on partisans in Ukraine than ever before.

Ukrainian partisans, despite all the success against Russian forces, will not win the war for Kyiv on their own (Al Jazeera, September 6, 2022). Their actions inside Ukraine, however, suggest that they are playing a far more important role there and inside Russia. (For a useful discussion of these possibilities and how they are shaping Moscow’s thinking, see Irregular Warfare Center, September 21, 2023.) At the very least, the successes of Ukraine’s partisans and Moscow’s decision to counter by setting up its own partisan detachments deserve far more attention and the Ukrainian effort far more support from those who want to see Putin’s aggression stopped.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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