It's not just HIMARS rocket launchers and US intelligence intel that are helping Ukraine achieve its current success. Also important are the partisans, who attack the enemy with completely different means. Military expert Gustav Gressel explains why the underground was so well prepared for this war and why it is still growing.
ntv.de: The Ukrainians also owe the success of their offensives around Cherson and Kharkiv to the partisans. What role do such fighters play underground?
Gustav Gressel: In the spring of 2021 there was already a large Russian deployment at the border, and it was not possible to foresee how things would turn out. Even then, Westerners expected that Russia could very quickly win a conventional war and that the Ukrainian troops, as an organized army, would be defeated. Then there would be partisan warfare behind the Russians against the occupiers, so the expectation. It was assumed that this partisan warfare would take up most of the Ukrainian warfare.
So has Ukraine prepared accordingly?
In fact, the Ukrainians set up secret weapons depots even then, in preparation for precisely this scenario. The western side trained the Ukrainian special forces: how to build partisan forces How do I operate behind the occupier? How do I set up secret supply lines? All these skills have been intensively trained in advance. That means the Ukrainians are really good at that now.
Seems to be paying off.
We can observe this closely in the occupied territories. If the Russians go there, the Ukrainians are already prepared to deploy partisan forces and work with the underground.
One automatically imagines people crawling through the undergrowth in the forest at night.
Partisans operate out of a weakness - they have fewer people, are mostly on foot, so less mobile, while the occupier has helicopters. A partisan fight therefore has to contend with many disadvantages and has to find out over time how to balance the disadvantages and use the advantages - namely, that the population supports it, that it has local knowledge, among other things.
Then the partisans will get stronger over time?
This is another important factor: underground armies always get stronger over time. They need a certain amount of time to find out where the opponent is, how they operate, what routines they have, where their weaknesses are, what they are not paying attention to. The longer the war goes on, the stronger this movement becomes and the more it can achieve because it has now settled into its way of fighting.
How can a partisan group study its opponent?
The underground gets information in many ways. The first possibility: He observes himself. Resistance forces are civilians who work in the occupied territories, for example, who are out and about there, who have friends. Then of course you talk.
What can you find out?
For example, where opposing forces are quartered. Then you start watching them. You look for friends, acquaintances, relatives who support your own underground. For example, if you know where the administration building of the occupation administration is, then you can see if any acquaintance or relative lives nearby. This will then be the observation post. You observe the routine, the timing, the people going in and out of there.
Is the internet also a source?
Even a very good one. There you get as much background knowledge as possible about the forces of the enemy, their place of residence, their leisure activities, their barracks.
... look at the pubs they go to. Do I know a waitress there? What does the opponent talk about in the evening over a beer?
Wait a minute: In the middle of the war, soldiers go to the pub in the evening and drink to excess?
They've been at war for months, at some point the pressure has to be relieved. With the help of these different sources, a picture of the situation emerges bit by bit: What are the Russians actually doing there? Where are they moving? What are their guard shifts like? Where is the problem, what are your problems? If I know all that, then I can ask myself: Where are the weak points in all this fun? Where did you miss something? There I strike.
In which form?
On the Kharkiv front, for example, Ukrainian partisans and special forces tried to delay the construction of the Russian defense line. They ambushed the advancing Russians, the fresh forces, confused them, tried to stop them.
After the impressive successes in a short time: does Ukraine have a real chance of pushing the Russian attackers out of their country?
Ukraine is now in a good position to win. But there is still a lot that can go wrong. The supply can falter, you can make mistakes. The losses in the troops are also significant. Ukraine absolutely needs supplies of battle tanks, but there is also a lack of infantry fighting vehicles and armored transport vehicles. The Russians had some things to leave behind, but you can't base a war on captured weapons.
During the spring debates about Western arms deliveries, the government said the problem was the short training period. Ukrainians could not operate our self-propelled howitzers or the Gepard anti-aircraft tank with all their technical finesse.
The Ukrainians are providing proof to the contrary. In addition, the argument was nonsense from the start, there is a lot of confusion. Especially in Bundeswehr circles, many still think that the Ukrainian army is the Soviet Union and think that if western equipment is not used according to western principles, then it is immediately wasted.
You obviously want to disagree?
The Ukrainian army was - by standard - Soviet until the major defeats of 2014 and 2015 in Donbass. Then you knew that things couldn't go on like this and that the army had to be reformed. So generals were retired en masse and the leadership retrained.
How were the new standards?
For this purpose, Kyiv turned primarily to the Americans and the British. They have set up a training center in Lviv to train Ukrainians in tactics. Poland and the Baltic States have also sent teachers to the Ukrainian training centers and trained executives. What the Ukrainians can do today is much closer to how a Marder is used in the German army than to handling a Soviet tank. What is happening there is no longer the Warsaw Pact.
From your point of view, a short training period for western weapons is not an argument against delivering the 16 Martens to Ukraine, which are now fully repaired at Rheinmetall in the yard?
That's not an argument, and we need to see something else: Ukrainians have been at war with Russia for eight years. The mechanized units are contract and professional, these are professionals who know the enemy. To defeat the Russians, they adapted the techniques they learned from the British and Americans to work for that goal. And for precisely this goal of beating the Russians, I don't think that a soldier who knows how to use Leopard or Marder from maneuvers in the German army really has better qualifications than someone who has been at war with the Russians for eight years stands. They know what they're doing.
In your view, does Ukraine's current success suggest that the West is providing significant under-the-radar support?
Yes. It is less material in nature, but primarily about intelligence information and advice. The UK and US in particular are doing it, and they're doing it very well.
Overall, it all sounds like one could be cautiously confident.
Ukraine has the initiative on its side. This means that it is currently deciding where, when and with what intensity combat operations will take place. Initiative is a prerequisite for victory. If I don't have the initiative in a war, then I can only hope that the enemy is stupid. There is something else: the Russian personnel situation was already precarious before the Ukrainian offensive, now it has gotten even worse, and many service contracts in the army are expiring in the next few weeks.
Does that mean the situation is getting worse rather than better?
It will be dramatic by the end of the year. The recruitment of new forces should now be in full swing, but at this stage comes the news of the Ukrainian offensive, which has not gone unnoticed in Russia. There are already reports of people who have already signed the contract and are saying they don't want to go to war. So, in terms of recruitment, Ukraine timed their offensive very well.
What can Russia do?
You can force the old forces to keep fighting, in Russian law there is such a possibility. But of course these soldiers are tired. You can see what happens when you frantically recruit new troops with the 3rd Army Corps: it was undermanned and partly made up of volunteer battalions that had only been on duty for two months. If they are sent to the front immediately, the quality of the troops will be poor. It takes time to learn the soldier's trade.
Frauke Niemeyer spoke to Gustav Gressel