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U.S. and allies quietly prepare for a Ukrainian government-in-exile and a long insurgency

Oleksandr, a retired Ukrainian military officer in Bila Tserkva who declined to give his last name and lives in a building damaged by bombing, displays weapons he says he plans to use against Russian troops. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
10 min

The Ukrainian military has mounted an unexpectedly fierce defense against invading Russian forces, which have been dogged by logistical problems and flagging morale. But the war is barely two weeks old, and in Washington and European capitals, officials anticipate that the Russian military will reverse its early losses, setting the stage for a long, bloody insurgency.

The ways that Western countries would support a Ukrainian resistance are beginning to take shape. Officials have been reluctant to discuss detailed plans, since they’re premised on a Russian military victory that, however likely, hasn’t happened yet. But as a first step, Ukraine’s allies are planning how to help establish and support a government-in-exile, which could direct guerrilla operations against Russian occupiers, according to several U.S. and European officials.

The weapons the United States has provided to Ukraine’s military, and that continue to flow into the country, would be crucial to the success of an insurgent movement, officials said. The Biden administration has asked Congress, infused with a rare bipartisan spirit in defense of Ukraine, to take up a $10 billion humanitarian aid and military package that includes funding to replenish the stocks of weapons that have already been sent.

Should the United States and its allies choose to back an insurgency, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would be the pivotal force, officials said, maintaining morale and rallying Ukrainians living under Russian occupation to resist their powerful and well-equipped foe.

The possible Russian takeover of Kyiv has prompted a flurry of planning at the State Department, Pentagon and other U.S. agencies in the event that the Zelensky government has to flee the capital or the country itself.

“We’re doing contingency planning now for every possibility,” including a scenario in which Zelensky establishes a government-in-exile in Poland, said a U.S. administration official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive security matter.

Zelensky, who has called himself Russia’s “target No. 1,” remains in Kyiv and has assured his citizens he’s not leaving. He has had discussions with U.S. officials about whether he should move west to a safer position in the city of Lviv, closer to the Polish border. Zelensky’s security detail has plans ready to swiftly relocate him and members of his cabinet, a senior Ukrainian official said. “So far, he has refused to go.”

On March 6, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russian forces are preparing to bomb Odessa, while the effects of bombing were evident nearby Kyiv. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, declined to describe any contingency plans Ukraine was making in the event that Russian forces capture the capital.

“One can only say that Ukraine is preparing for the defense of Kyiv as purposefully as Russia is preparing for its attack on Kyiv,” Podolyak said.

“This war has become a people’s war for Ukrainians,” he continued. “We must win the war. There are no other options.”

Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Ukraine’s parliament from the opposition European Solidarity party, expressed confidence that the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, would continue to be able to meet despite the wartime situation and noted that many lawmakers remain in Kyiv.

“In our party, we didn’t discuss any plan of evacuation, because we don’t want to give up,” Ariev said. “We are not in this government, but we have arms, and we will fight against invaders here, together with the people. This is the only plan we have — no evacuation, nothing.”

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Nevertheless, European diplomats, like their American counterparts, are starting to prepare for how to support the Ukrainian government if Kyiv falls or the country is entirely occupied by Russia. A United Nations resolution this past week condemning the invasion, which drew 141 votes, is one element of “laying the groundwork” to recognize Zelensky’s administration as Ukraine’s legitimate government and to keep it afloat even if it no longer controls territory, said a senior European diplomat.

“We haven’t made a plan yet, per se, but it would be something we would be ready to move on right away,” the diplomat said. “In our experience, it helps to know generally you have international support.”

As early as last December, some U.S. officials saw signs that the Ukrainian military was preparing for an eventual resistance, even as Zelensky downplayed the threat of invasion.

During an official visit, a Ukrainian special operations commander told Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and other lawmakers that they were shifting training and planning to focus on maintaining an armed opposition, relying on insurgent-like tactics.

Ukrainian officials told the lawmakers that they were frustrated that the United States had not sent Harpoon missiles to target Russian ships and Stinger missiles to attack Russian aircraft, Moulton and Waltz said in separate interviews. The United States diverted some military aid to Ukraine that it had planned to send to Afghanistan, but that package mostly included small arms, ammunition and medical kits meant for a fight against the Taliban, not Russia, said Waltz, who served in Afghanistan as a Special Forces officer.

As the Russian military struggles with logistical challenges — including fuel and food shortages — Waltz anticipates that the Ukrainians will repeatedly strike Russian supply lines. To do that, they need a steady supply of weapons and the ability to set improvised explosive devices, he said.

“Those supply lines are going to be very, very vulnerable, and that’s where you really literally starve the Russian army.”

Moulton, who served in Iraq as a Marine Corps infantry officer, said that he is in favor of sending Harpoons and Stingers — the administration has decided to send the latter weapons, according to a U.S. official and a document obtained by The Washington Post — but that using them also will require training.

“You can’t ship them to Ukraine at the last minute and expect some national guardsman to pick up a Stinger and shoot down an aircraft,” he said. Continuing a resistance campaign will require continued clandestine shipments of small arms, ammunition, explosives and even cold-weather gear.

“Think about the kinds of things that would be used by saboteurs as opposed to an army repelling a frontal invasion,” Moulton said.

Officials remain cautious about overt support for a Ukrainian insurgency lest it draw NATO member countries into direct conflict with Russia. In Moscow’s eyes, support for a Zelensky government operating in Poland could constitute an attack by the alliance, some officials warned.

But Ukraine’s leaders and its citizens aren’t likely to be deterred by NATO’s concerns.

“I doubt very much that the Ukrainians will not continue an underground resistance campaign even after the Russians establish control,” said a senior Western intelligence official.

Moscow has “grossly underestimated Ukraine’s ability to resist,” the official said. “I’m reminded, especially by my eastern colleagues, about Ukrainians themselves. Ukrainians were some of the fiercest fighters … for the Soviets during World War II.” He predicted that a resistance would continue for months and possibly years.

The United States has backed and fought against successful insurgencies. Veterans of such conflicts say that the Ukrainians so far have demonstrated the key ingredient.

“The number one thing you have to have is people on the ground who want to fight,” said Jack Devine, a retired senior CIA officer who ran the agency’s successful covert campaign to arm Afghan fighters who drove out the Soviet military in the 1980s.

If Russian and Ukrainian negotiators who have been meeting near the border in Belarus reach some settlement, that will likely diminish the momentum for an insurgency and support for it, Devine predicted.

Marta Kepe, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. who studies resistance movements, said that they often change during the course of a war.

“As occupation progresses and extends for a longer time, what can start out as a more centralized resistance often changes into smaller resistance groups or units. It is not a negative thing,” she said. “In fact, smaller groups allow more resilience.”

NATO policymakers admire the spirit of the Ukrainian forces, but they also say that their ability to hold out against Russia is not unlimited, especially as stocks of ammunition dwindle and the Russian military extends its encirclement of major cities.

“Russia has more troops than Ukraine,” said a second senior European diplomat. “Ukrainian troops are very brave, but they are already fighting more than a week.”

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Experts in resistance and urban warfare said Russian occupation forces will try to squeeze supply pipelines and cut off cities.

Rita Konaev, director of analysis for Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, said Ukraine should be preparing its citizens for combat in cities accompanied by mass air and artillery bombardment, which Russia will use to try to reduce the amount of door-to-door fighting that taking cities requires.

Konaev said that Ukrainians should also lay in supplies in advance, because Russian forces will likely disable the electrical grid and cut off access to water in the cities, and that they should establish safe areas underground to survive the aerial bombardment.

Once Russian forces try to move into the cities, Ukrainians will have an advantage because they know the terrain, she said. They can build barriers, destroy bridges to limit entrances into the city, and place snipers on rooftops.

“In urban warfare, defense has the advantage,” Konaev said.

European leaders have been trying to game out what Russian President Vladimir Putin would accept as a potential end state for a defeated Ukraine. Policymakers say they don’t have a clear sense, although the first European diplomat said that Putin might attempt to reduce Ukraine “to a much smaller state.”

Under that scenario, western Ukraine would remain independent. The other territories would be incorporated into Russia, occupied, or declared independent states, as the Kremlin has already done with the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

But Russia’s ability to impose that vision is “most improbable,” the diplomat said, given the profound anger in Ukraine against the Russian invasion.

“This is a country of 40 million [people],” the diplomat said. The Kremlin “can try to have a strategy. But I think in our strategic calculations we are always forgetting one small obstacle, and that’s the will of the people. Putin has forgotten how to be elected in a democratic way.”

NATO leaders also say that even if Russia captures Kyiv, that would not end the resistance, nor the existence of the Ukrainian state.

“Russians cannot occupy all the country and subdue it,” said Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks, whose country maintained a diplomatic service in exile for 51 years after it was occupied in 1940 by the Soviet Union. Washington never recognized the annexation of the three Baltic states.

“There will be a partisan war, there will be resistance. So even if Kyiv falls, that does not mean the end of the war,” Pabriks said.

Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine. Ellen Nakashima and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.