Fighting for freedom against the odds

  • Themes: Ukraine, War

Throughout history, partisan forces fighting for liberty have garnered admiration and external support. What lessons can the West draw from the past to guide its support for Ukrainian freedom fighters today?

A Ukrainian flag is seen outside the window of a demolished room in an apartment building in Borodyanka, Ukraine, April 21, 2022. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo.
A Ukrainian flag is seen outside the window of a demolished room in an apartment building in Borodyanka, Ukraine, April 21, 2022. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo.

One of the enduring paradoxes of the human condition is why, when success and survival appear impossible, men and women fight on for a liberty they will not live to see. It was recognised as early as 4BC in Sun Tzu’s the Art of War and has reappeared throughout history, most recently in the Ukraine conflict. The odds are at their most extreme for irregular fighters and partisans when faced with the overwhelming strength of regular armies, intent on their destruction.

Yet, there are episodes when those who would support the apparently hopeless cause of liberty, outside the zone of conflict, wish to assist these desperate fighters. Sometimes, individuals set off to fight, inspired by a common cause, such as the young men and women from across Europe and America who chose to join the republicans in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

Despite the romantics and idealists, the most effective form of external assistance has been the full mobilisation of armed forces that come to fight alongside the partisans. But there have been other, more clandestine methods of support too. Special operational forces, backed by naval interdiction, the transmission of funds, equipment and munitions, have all been used to balance the odds in favour of the partisans of liberty.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was slowed because of determined and astonishingly courageous resistance. But it was also, in part, due to the provision of Western intelligence on the direction, weight, and timing of the Russian attack.

Ukrainian troops had been dispersed and fought from forested or suburban locations. They remained concealed, struck their adversaries and vanished quickly into the landscape, replicating the ‘Motti’ tactics used by Finland in the Winter War of 1939 against the Soviets. The West had supplied anti-tank guided weapon systems and captured footage of their tactical victories. Soon, video clips of exploding Russian tanks,  reinforced the Ukrainian narrative of a struggle for liberty.

Ukrainians found various ways to resist. Older women handed packets of sunflower seeds to Russian occupiers, with the assurance that, when they died, sunflowers — the national symbol of Ukraine — would grow where they fell. Householders threw Molotov cocktails from balconies and windows onto Russian armoured vehicles passing through the streets. Teenagers equipped Ukrainian soldiers with drones to provide tactical surveillance on Russian movements. This was a nationwide resistance movement.

In NATO member states, the decision was taken to supply Ukraine with armaments, munitions and intelligence rather than becoming direct belligerents, which would have been escalatory. In the first four months, the US sent 7,000 Javelin projectiles. In time, as Russia refused to halt its offensive, the Western contributions grew into large consignments of more offensive munitions: artillery ammunition, howitzers, and, most significantly, HIMARS, the long-range rocket batteries. Even countries that normally observed a neutral status, such as Sweden and Finland, sent war supplies.

The Kremlin believed the West was, to quote Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, ‘engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy,’ In fact, the West was not in ‘war with Russia.’ Its objective was to compel Russia to leave Ukraine through economic, financial, and logistical pressure. ‘Arming the proxy’ was merely prudent. If Zelensky’s administration received no aid, it was likely that Ukraine would be unable to sustain its resistance for more than a few months.

Those hoping to gain a glimpse of how arming a war of liberty externally would pan out looked to history. The results appeared to be mixed. One of the most striking examples of success in the modern era was the American Revolution. For four years, there was limited progress militarily for the Americans, although politically the war for freedom became an established and accepted element for the public. Crucially, when France joined the war, the British were forced to divert sparse manpower and ships to protect both the UK and the lucrative Caribbean. Denuded of forces, the British suffered a humiliating defeat at Yorktown in 1781 and never recovered. The combination of military assistance, training, and the presence of a French force had undoubtedly turned the tide of America’s fortunes.

External assistance did not always succeed, and could even end disastrously. General Charles Gordon had been despatched by the British government to evacuate Egyptians from the Sudan in 1884 in the face of a Jihadist revolt. But when he arrived in Khartoum, he could not bring himself to abandon the city’s inhabitants. Besieged by a vast Jihadist force, he was convinced his government would come to the assistance of the Sudanese people. When it became evident forces of liberation would not arrive in time, he chose to fight to the end. A relief column arrived two days too late to change the course of events. Gordon had been killed along with his hungry and beleaguered garrison. Gordon’s heroism won the admiration of the British public who voted out the government who had left him to his fate in an election the following year, but Sudan was nevertheless abandoned in an ignominious scuttle. It was only recovered by the British thirteen years later.

A man well known for his embedded assistance to the forces of liberty was Thomas Edward Lawrence, ‘of Arabia.’ Lawrence was despatched willingly to Arabia in 1917 to act as a liaison officer to local leaders as part of an Allied mission to assist the Bedouin to fight against the Ottoman authorities. Initially, Lawrence guided small bands of mounted Arab irregulars in raids against the Hejaz Railway, while the Royal Navy supplied the Arabs with munitions, rations, and aircraft. Other British and French officers conducted training and led their own raids. By the end of the campaign, bombers, fighter aircraft, and armoured cars accompanied the increasingly regularised Arab armies.

Lawrence felt that British and French military assistance should be considered only the enablers of a far more extensive campaign to liberate Arabs from Ottoman rule after the war. In this he was largely successful, although there were episodes of unrest in the region when local populations felt the Allies had stayed too long.

Lawrence was also aware of the dilemma of fighting for a liberty one might not live to enjoy. In his desert campaign, he wrote that he was reluctant to put at risk his Arab fighters because ‘only a man alive could taste liberty.’ Yet, in his magisterial study of the war in Arabia in 1917-18, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he encounters dilemmas that complicate such a neat economy of risks. He was cornered south of Amman with his companions, and they resolved they would sell their lives dearly. He witnessed the self-sacrificial charge of the headman of the village of Sheikh Sa’ad who had been incensed by Ottoman atrocities against civilians, and he himself gambled with his life when operations went awry in the Jordan Valley in November 1917. His account, like so many memoirs of war, exposes an enduring paradox: why, when success and survival are so unlikely, do men and women fight on for a liberty they will not live to ‘taste.’

The decision to fight when destruction is certain was recognised by Sun Tzu in the Art of War. He cautioned that one should avoid the complete envelopment of a cornered adversary to prevent his continued resistance ‘from a position of despair.’ Desperate men and women, fighting without fear, could inflict disproportionate damage and perhaps even turn the tide of a battle. Those ‘with their backs against the wall’ have nothing to lose and their situation produces its own energy and motivation. Sometimes there is no choice but to fight to the death, although these episodes tend to be short lived.

Ukraine has a rich history of resistance, but, ultimately, it failed when it did not enjoy external assistance. Partisans took on the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, using forests to conceal their communities. As the communists approached over the Steppes in 1920, early warning was given to small, mobile groups of fighters who progressively picked off the Red troops, then disappeared into the dense undergrowth. In the Second World War, Ukraine found itself again overrun, this time by Nazi occupation, but while some chose to resist, others sided with Germany in the vain hope of assistance towards independence against the Soviet rule they had endured.

Polish and Jewish populations faced even greater odds, where their very existence was at stake. While millions perished in concentration camps and slave labour conditions, some organised a last-ditch resistance from rural areas.

In Warsaw, in 1944, the Polish Home Army, expecting imminent liberation by the Soviets, launched their own bid for freedom. For weeks, they battled Nazi soldiers, but Stalin deliberately held back the forces that could have saved them. He calculated that the Nazis would wipe out the Polish leadership and he could impose his own occupation without resistance thereafter. More than 200,000 Polish personnel were killed during the failed uprising. The Allies were too far away to offer any meaningful support, and the small number of Anglo-Polish relief flights that were mounted were attacked by Soviet aircraft.

Elsewhere, the Allies were able to offer effective external support to local resistance movements, setting a precedent for the decades that followed. Primed by the British, specially-trained personnel first infiltrated occupied Europe and Japanese-controlled parts of Asia, through the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Established in July 1940, when invasion seemed imminent and there was a requirement for special commando units, the force was later redesigned to project power into Europe. Winston Churchill had demanded an organisation to ‘set Europe ablaze.’ He believed strongly that, if aided by Britain, Europeans would be willing to form their own resistance organisations. He imagined that, in time, British and American forces would land in Europe and link up with these well-equipped partisans to liberate the continent. A similar campaign would sweep the Japanese out of eastern Asia.

A range of operations were conducted, from small-scale sabotage in the Netherlands to the mobilisation of guerrilla armies in Yugoslavia. But it all proved much harder to implement than anyone had anticipated. In France alone, before 1944, some 104 agents were killed in action, caught and executed, or died of their injuries. The numbers lost, across Europe, were proportionately high, but, shrouded in secrecy at the time, and the fate of some is still unknown. An estimated 13,000 served in SOE, including approximately 3,000 women.

But the result of SOE operations, from Albania to China, was that the Allies enabled the liberation of Europe and Asia and ensured that sovereignty was restored after 1945. Only in the Soviet sphere were national and liberal resistance movements subsequently suppressed. This suggests that democracies are far more likely to aim for genuine liberation through their support of proxies, while authoritarian regimes may use them for the advancement of their own cynical interests: they are unlikely to be tolerated after they have served their purpose. The history of external support to local forces, both regular and irregular, therefore produces some important considerations.

What are the deductions? The chief requirement for exogenous supporting power is legitimacy. Offering external support to a polity, a movement, or a resistance organisation that lacks public support or lawfulness is doomed to failure. Even if military successes can be achieved, a lack of political consent will mean no lasting foundations of support. This was the case with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan between 2002 and 2021. Its repeated failures, endemic corruption, and the evident fact that it only existed because of the backing of the American-led coalition, eroded its legitimacy to the point where few Afghans supported it. Its enemies, the Taliban and other anti-government factions, enjoyed more support because of their discipline, Islamist credentials, and reputation for enforcing security at a local level.

The second insight is that only highly trained personnel, familiar with the terrain, the people, and the skills required for special operations can be deployed with any expectation of success. Each operation has to adhere to a well-crafted plan, accompanied by adroit messaging to the public, since indiscriminate violence, and reprisals, will alienate the people. These trained personnel are also the most appropriate to utilise remotely-operated munitions such as mines, electronic warfare, satellite communications, and uncrewed aerial vehicles. Close-quarter assassinations are high risk and can expose local populations to vindictive occupation forces. Trained personnel will know the importance of changing tactics and targets on a frequent basis to avoid setting patterns. Given the degree of surveillance available to modern states, the number of attacks in any given period has to be calculated against the chance of increased profile, and thus its higher risk of  detection. Additionally, if an area of operations is too limited, it would not take an occupation force long to cordon and comb out a small area.

Hoaxes and deception are vital for the survival of operators, and they can elicit a large volume of data on the practices of any occupation force. These patterns can be studied and exploited by partisans with great effect, specifically to avoid detection or to mount attacks. To avoid compromise, the recruitment of local partisans also requires certain skills. Recruits have to be selected, usually by trusted authorities, and tested and inoculated with missions progressively, only proceeding to the most challenging and high-risk tasks once they are proven. Cells of partisans have to be unknown to each other, to avoid hostile intelligence or captured individuals giving away details of other groups under torture. Operators and partisan leaders have to spend as much time on education and planning as they can spare, and far more than on actual missions, usually in a ratio of 3:1. A counter-intelligence team is also crucial, with tests, surveillance and frequent changes of identity, passwords and codes to avoid penetration and betrayal. Specialists are needed for explosives, medical treatment, and communications. All these lessons were learned the hard way, often through bitter experience, by SOE and the American equivalent, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Historical cases also indicate that external authorities need a clear objective and a strong sense of local needs. At the government level, there has to be international recognition of the resistance. In the Second World War, governments in exile were supported by the United Kingdom in order to maintain their legitimacy. Their VIPs were accorded high levels of security, provided with intelligence, and invited to work as equals in Allied planning. With the Polish government, this worked well, but relations with the French, under Charles de Gaulle, were more fractious because of his insistence on independent decisions. Nevertheless, this joint planning proved vital, from the coordination of refugees and their welfare to the acquisition of local intelligence and positioning of Allied resources. The British enabled the governments in exile to maintain communications with their occupied populations through radio broadcasts. The widespread use of the ‘V’ symbol, in sound and in physical form, acted as an encouragement to those living under the Nazis, and it allowed everyone to participate. Rapping out the ‘V’ in morse code, or daubing walls with the letter, let others know the allegiance to resistance. Radio also provided coded messages which could be picked up and used by resistance operators.

The resistance demands for armaments and munitions, and the means of covert transportation, require high levels of organisation and security. Western military and financial support to Ukraine in 2022 was significant. Before the conflict, Ukrainians had received military training teams, financial packages, and some military equipment. Between the start of the Russian invasion in February and August 2022, the United States had sent $8.2bn, over half of which was for military assistance, the rest humanitarian aid. The UK had committed the equivalent of $1billion of military and civil aid, and the EU €6billion, mainly as financial assistance.

The sheer volume of munitions required came as a surprise to Western states, as they had grown used to relatively low expenditures of ammunition against insurgents and a long period of peace. The sudden demands of large-scale industrialised warfare meant a rapid increase in production. The United States nevertheless rose to the occasion as the ‘arsenal of democracy.’ They sent arms and equipment, including medical supplies to support treatment and combat evacuation, explosive ordnance disposal and demining assets, and satellite imagery and analysis tools. The private sector joined in too. Elon Musk, the American entrepreneur, established a secure Starlink satellite communication system, for the Ukrainians to use.

As the conflict in Ukraine continued, there were inevitably consequences for the West. Russia cut off the supply of oil and gas. It blockaded Ukrainian ports, denying millions access to grain supplies, until Russia suffered a heavy loss in warships to missile strikes. Some in the West questioned the economic cost of the war, although the majority believed the cause justified the expense.

The case for supporting resistance in another state is ultimately a moral one. There is something deeply inspirational about humans struggling for liberty. The desire to be free of oppression and servitude is strong, even where the sacrifice it requires can be morally troubling. To willingly die in the service of the freedom of others is an ultimate act. It is moving and poignant. A sacrifice, such as the last-ditch defence of Mariupol by Ukrainian soldiers and reservists, gives direction, leadership and a measure to the depth of the cause. Those who cannot ‘taste liberty’ by their sacrifice have, in fact, laid the path that enables others to do so.

Not all agree. The military historian Sir John Keegan criticised the legacy of SOE, arguing that it had spawned modern terrorism. The justification for SOE operations at the time and since, he stated, are exactly those used by terrorist organisations. But this cannot be true. There is a significant moral difference in sustaining resistance against an illegal and immoral invasion or existential attack, such as Russia’s or Nazi Germany’s, and the ideological wars of choice pursued by terrorists. Most terror organisations do not seek liberation, and care little for public consent, except to serve their claims to legitimacy. Many terror groups will claim to be acting ‘on behalf of’ the people, or, as in the case of Jihadist groups, in the name of God. Their real objective is usually far more limited.

These claims are in contrast to true moral cases, such as that of Gordon of Khartoum, who was motivated by genuine altruism and expected moral support against slavery and oppression. Those who fight for national survival might equally expect empathy and see a moral obligation to weaken an oppressive power, where the means exist, and where their values are founded on principles of liberty of the people, the characteristics, for example, of Lawrence of Arabia and Winston Churchill.

An examination of liberation leaders, and nameless fighters who sacrifice themselves, or those who choose to support the cause of freedom as external agents, gives us a glimpse of the sacrifices that are required for liberty, by both participants and those who aid them.


Rob Johnson