Russia has been advancing more slowly than international observers expected after the country invaded Ukraine in late February. The campaign has drawn widespread international condemnation because of the Russians’ brutality and for the alleged attacks of civilian targets like hospitals.
Even if Russia was to succeed against its smaller neighbor whose military has been emboldened by equipment from European allies and the U.S., the country’s track record as an occupier has called into question its ability to hold on to Ukraine in the case of an occupation situation arising.
This chart shows counterinsurgency best practice ratings of selected countries for fighting past … [+] insurgencies.
In the case of a Russian victory, experts expect the Ukrainian military to turn into a resistance force, which would leave the Russian occupiers with an insurgency on their hands. Other than in the war between two militaries, insurgents are bound by fewer rules, are more nimble and more likely to take up forms of guerrilla fighting, making them harder to pin down for traditional armed forces.
In these specific scenarios of counterinsurgency operations, Russian and Soviet forces have in the past shown a dismal track record, a widely cited paper by Rand Corporation shows. The failure of the occupation of Afghanistan in 1992 has even been called a “textbook study of how a major power can fail to win a war against guerrillas” by counterinsurgency expert Anthony James Joes. The Russian use of brute force—also called the iron fist approach—is cited by Rand as one of the factors why the country’s forces failed repeatedly. In the failed attempt to squash an insurgency in the then-breakaway republic of Chechnya in 1994, Russian forces encountered not only problems with strategy, equipment and morale, but also did not win any support within the population, let alone pay attention to ways in which they themselves could improve the grievances of people in order for them to turn away from supporting the insurgency in the first place.
The “iron fist” rarely succeeds
According to the Rand study, few past counterinsurgency operations that relied on force alone could actually succeed. Those that engaged in non-military means as well were usually much more effective. Furthermore, engaging in tactics like intimidation, collective punishment, corruption or looting are all cited as factors that would make a counterinsurgency potentially less successful. Support from abroad for rebels is of course another aspect that can make fighting an insurgency more complicated.
The U.S. military, which fought alongside the governments of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos against a communist uprising in the region in the 1960s and ’70s, have been even more severely burned in terms of counterinsurgencies. Even the most advanced military in the world could not adapt and conquer the Southeast Asian guerrillas and famously left defeated in 1975.
The British have a better track record in past insurgencies, some tied to former colonies of the British Empire but also including the conflict in Northern Ireland. Even though most British campaigns are also ruled iron fist approaches, at least in the cases of the Maoist uprising in Malaysia in 1948 and the IRA activity in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1999, combat means were combined with non-military tactics, eventually leading to better outcomes.

Charted by Statista

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