ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – They sneak through dark alleys to place explosives. They identify Russian targets for Ukrainian artillery and long-range missiles supplied by the United States. They blow up railway lines and kill Ukrainian officials whom they consider to be collaborators with the Russians.
Slipping back and forth across the front lines, the guerrillas are known in Ukraine as partisans, and in recent weeks they have played an increasingly prominent role in the war, shaking up Russian troops by delivering humiliating blows to the areas they control. occupy and thought be safe.
Ukraine is increasingly engaging Russian forces in Russian-controlled areas, either by using elite military units, such as the one credited on Tuesday with a massive explosion at a Russian munitions depot in the occupied Crimean peninsula, or by a underground network of partisan guerrillas.
Last week, Ukrainian officials said the partisans had a hand in a successful attack on a Russian air base, including in Crimea, which Moscow annexed eight years ago. It destroyed eight fighter jets.
“The aim is to show the occupiers that they are not at home, that they should not settle, that they should not sleep comfortably,” said one guerrilla fighter, speaking on the condition that he would only be identified by his code name for security reasons. , Svarog, after a pagan Slavic god of fire.
In recent days, the Ukrainian military has made Svarog and a number of other agents available for in-person or online interviews, hoping to highlight the increasing threat posed by the partisans to Russian forces and to signal to Western donors that Ukraine is also successfully collecting local resources in the war, now almost 6 months old. A senior Ukrainian military official familiar with the program also described the workings of the resistance in detail.
Their reports of attacks could not be fully verified, but matched reports in the Ukrainian media and the descriptions of Ukrainians who had recently fled Russian-occupied territories.
Svarog and I met over lemonade and cheese pastries at a Georgian restaurant in Zaporizhzhya, a city under Ukrainian control, about 100 kilometers north of the occupied city of Melitopol, where he operates.
He spoke with deep knowledge of partisan activity and gave a rare glimpse into one of the most hidden aspects of the war.
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The Ukrainian army began training partisans in the months before the invasion, when Russia gathered troops at the borders. The efforts have paid off in recent weeks as Ukrainian forces launch a counter-offensive in the south.
Insurgent activity is now ramping up as the resistance fighters strike covertly in environments they know well, using car bombs, booby traps, and targeted gun kills – then blending in with the locals.
Before the war, Svarog occasionally took part in weekend training sessions with the Right Sector and National Corps, a branch of the Azov movement, both of which are affiliated with paramilitary units in Ukraine. They were just two of dozens of organizations that provided military training to civilians throughout Ukraine during the eight-year war with Russian-backed separatists.
Svarog said he was one of the interns in these public programs. Behind the scenes, Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces formed a more structured and secretive program with instructions on sabotage and explosives and the disposal of weapons in anticipation of the Russian attack.
After the invasion, Svarog said, he was directed to a cache in a storage shed outside Melitopol, where he found high-explosive plates, detonators, Kalashnikov rifles, a grenade launcher and two pistols with silencers.
Melitopol, the city in southern Ukraine where Svarog is active, has since become a center of the resistance. He talked about the careful envelopment of targets, followed by attacks.
On Saturday, partisans had struck with explosives for seven days in a row, according to exiled city mayor Ivan Fedorov, who bragged to Ukrainian media about the achievement as part of officials’ more public embrace of partisan operations.
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The attacks have been going on for several months. In an attack this spring, Svarog said, he and several members of the cell in Melitopol snuck through the city at night to trap a car in the parking lot of a Russian-controlled police station.
Using wire cutters, tape and fishing line, the fighters moved through courtyards and alleys to avoid Russian checkpoints.
They first cut an electrical wire, obscured a street lamp, then rushed into the darkness where they placed a bomb, wrapped in tape, sticky side out, in a wheel well. The fishing line was glued to the inside of the wheel as well as to a detonator, rigging the bomb to explode when the wheel turned.
“Anyone driving that car would be a traitor,” Svarog said. “Nobody keeps law and order there.” The bomb killed one police officer and injured another.
In a strike last week, he said, to be cell booby traps the car of Oleg Shostak, a Ukrainian who had joined the Russian United Russia political party in Melitopol. The insurgents attacked him because they suspected him of making propaganda to appeal to the local population.
Svarog, who said he was not participating in this particular mission, said his team placed a bomb under the driver’s seat of the car, rigged to explode when the engine started.
Mr Shostak was injured in the explosion but survived, said Mr Fedorov, the exiled mayor of Melitopol. The attack was reported separately by Ukrainian authorities and described by displaced persons who left Melitopol through a checkpoint into Ukrainian territory on Sunday.
Whether targeted people survive or die in the attacks, partisans say, is less important than the signal they send with each attack: You are never safe.
Separately, two partisans active in occupied southeastern Ukraine who were interviewed via video call described a branch of the underground called Yellow Ribbon, which carries out nonviolent actions such as posting leaflets and spraying graffiti.
The bases on Ukrainian territory where agents are trained are constantly being moved to avoid detection, according to a senior Ukrainian military official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military information.
Each agent each has a different role, the official said: scouting a target, gathering information about a target’s movements and launching an attack. Individual cells are kept separate and do not know each other, otherwise a detained partisan would reveal their identities during interrogation.
Two entities within the military are responsible for overseeing operations behind enemy lines, the official said: military intelligence, known as HUR, and Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces. An interagency task force oversees the operations of both the intelligence and Special Operations Forces branches of the underground, known as the resistance movement, or Rukh Oporu in Ukrainian.
The official described a poisoning in the Zaporizhzhya region that killed about 15 Russian soldiers, and the sabotage of a grain elevator in the Kherson region that prevented Russian troops from stealing 60,000 tons of grain. Neither operation could be independently verified.
Partisans were also behind an explosion on Saturday that disabled a railway bridge connecting the city of Melitopol with Crimea, halting supplies of military equipment to the Zaporizhzhya region.
“They are terrifying people, these Ukrainian partisans,” the official said. “But they are only frightening to the occupiers.”
And for those who also consider the partisans traitors.
The Ukrainian underground in occupied territory considers police officers, municipal and regional government employees and teachers who agree to work according to the Russian education curriculum as collaborators, according to Svarog and another partisan nicknamed Viking, who was interviewed in an online video call. They said they did not view doctors, firefighters and utility workers as traitors.
Teachers are now a focus, with schools slated to open in September.
“The Russians want to teach according to their program, not the truth,” Viking said. “A child is vulnerable to propaganda and if it is raised in this program it will become an idiot like the Russians,” he said. “A teacher who agrees to teach according to the Russian program is an employee.”
Partisans will not attack teachers, he said, but have tried to humiliate them publicly in the leaflets they often post on power poles with dark warnings to employees, as part of the guerrillas’ psychological operations.
One recently went upstairs, he said, with the names and photos of principals planning to open schools in September.
It simply said, “For the cooperation with the Russians there will be a reward.”
Yurii Shyvala contributed to reporting from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, and Michael Schwirtz from Odessa.