Clandestine resistance cells are spotting targets, sabotaging rail lines and killing those deemed collaborators as they seek to unnerve Russian forces.

A member of the Ukrainian underground resistance, code-named Svarog, was made available for an interview by the Ukrainian military.
A member of the Ukrainian underground resistance, code-named Svarog, was made available for an interview by the Ukrainian military.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times
A member of the Ukrainian underground resistance, code-named Svarog, was made available for an interview by the Ukrainian military.
Andrew E. Kramer

By Andrew E. Kramer
Aug. 17, 2022Updated 8:06 a.m. ET

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — They sneak down darkened alleys to set explosives. They identify Russian targets for Ukrainian artillery and long-range rockets provided by the United States. They blow up rail lines and assassinate Ukrainian officials they consider collaborators with the Russians.

Slipping back and forth across the front lines, the guerrilla fighters are known in Ukraine as partisans, and in recent weeks they have taken an ever more prominent role in the war, rattling Russian forces by helping deliver humiliating blows in areas they occupy and thought to be safe.

Increasingly, Ukraine is taking the fight against Russian forces into Russian-controlled areas, whether by using elite military units, like the one credited on Tuesday with a huge explosion at a Russian ammunition depot in the occupied Crimean Peninsula, or by deploying an underground network of the partisan guerrillas.

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Last week, Ukrainian officials said, the partisans had a hand in a successful strike on a Russian air base, also in Crimea, which Moscow annexed eight years ago. It destroyed eight fighter jets.

“The goal is to show the occupiers that they are not at home, that they should not settle in, that they should not sleep comfortably,” said one guerrilla fighter, who spoke on condition that, for security reasons, he only be identified by his code name, Svarog, after a pagan Slavic god of fire.

In recent days the Ukrainian military made Svarog and several other of the operatives available for interviews in person or online, hoping to highlight the partisans’ widening threat to Russian forces and signal to Western donors that Ukraine is also successfully rallying local resources in the war, now nearly 6 months old. A senior Ukrainian military official familiar with the program also described the workings of the resistance in detail.
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A Ukrainian combat engineer training civilians in weaponry and potential roles as guerrilla fighters last December, as Russia massed troops on the border.
A Ukrainian combat engineer training civilians in weaponry and potential roles as guerrilla fighters last December, as Russia massed troops on the border. Credit…Oksana Parafeniuk for The New York Times
A Ukrainian combat engineer training civilians in weaponry and potential roles as guerrilla fighters last December, as Russia massed troops on the border.

Their accounts of attacks could not be verified completely but aligned with reports in the Ukrainian media and with the descriptions of Ukrainians who had recently fled Russian-occupied areas.

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Svarog and I met over lemonade and cheese pastries at a Georgian restaurant in Zaporizhzhia, a city under Ukrainian control about 65 miles north of the occupied town of Melitopol, where he operates.

He spoke with intimate knowledge of partisan activities, providing a rare glimpse into one of the most hidden aspects of the war.
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The Ukrainian military began training partisans in the months before the invasion, as Russia massed troops near the borders. The effort has paid off in recent weeks as Ukrainian forces are pressing a counteroffensive in the south.

Insurgent activity is now intensifying, as the resistance fighters strike stealthily in environs that they know intimately, using car bombs, booby traps and targeted killings with pistols — and then blending into the local population.

Before the war, Svarog occasionally joined weekend training with Right Sector and National Corps, a branch of the Azov movement, both of which are aligned with paramilitary units in Ukraine. They were just two of dozens of organizations running military training for civilians throughout Ukraine during the eight-year war with Russian-backed separatists.
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Flames rising from a Russian air base in Crimea last week. Ukrainian officials said that local partisans had a hand in the strike, which destroyed eight fighter jets.
Flames rising from a Russian air base in Crimea last week. Ukrainian officials said that local partisans had a hand in the strike, which destroyed eight fighter jets.Credit…Reuters
Flames rising from a Russian air base in Crimea last week. Ukrainian officials said that local partisans had a hand in the strike, which destroyed eight fighter jets.

Svarog said he was among the trainees in these public programs. Behind the scenes, Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces were forming a more structured, and secret, program that included instruction on sabotage and explosives and stashing caches of weapons in anticipation of Russia’s attack.

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