The aspiring anti-war saboteur can fight for Ukraine using the crudest of weapons: oil, wire, a sledgehammer, or a device made of iron called a Shavgulidze wedge.
These are all the tools needed to slow down, stop or derail Russian trains carrying weapons, equipment, supplies or fuel to the Ukrainian front lines, explains a self-described sabotage group operating under the nom de guerre Stop the Wagons.
Oil slathered on the rails challenges even the most powerful engine’s efforts to climb a slope. Wire, attached to both rails, sends a “busy signal” traffic alert that will bring trains to a stop. The brute force of a sledgehammer can destroy sections of track used for changing direction.
And the Shavgulidze wedge, named for the famed Second World War-era Soviet saboteur-inventor Tengiz Shavgulidze, can be installed in minutes to guide trains quickly up and off the rails.
“Nice, efficient and no explosives needed,” the sabotage group, which claims to be based in Russia and to speak for “hundreds of thousands” of Russian citizens, explained in a Telegram post this week.
“We are against the war,” one of its messages declared. “And we will stop it.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was expected to be a quick and effortless romp for Vladimir Putin’s army, whose soldiers were told they would be welcomed as liberators.
Instead, the fight has devolved into a slow-moving battle between armies massed on either side of a jagged front line that runs like a crescent moon from Kharkiv in the northeast, through the eastern Donbas Region and down to the southern territories occupied by the Russians with an eye toward taking the port city of Odesa.
But the front lines and trenches are only one element of the conflict that evokes the world wars of the last century.
The war in Ukraine has also resurrected the tactics and the mythology of the partisan, the pro-Western freedom fighter capable of sowing chaos and destruction in occupied or hostile territories then disappearing into the masses.
The difference between a partisan and a guerrilla or insurgent is one of perspective, said Eric Ouellet, a professor and expert on counter-insurgency and irregular warfare at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.
“Partisan warfare has a positive connotation. They are freedom fighters behind enemy lines,” he said. “There were a lot of partisans in the Soviet Union behind enemy lines, but all these people were fighting against the Nazis, so they’re on the good side of history.”
In Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other modern conflicts, the practitioners of irregular warfare were dubbed guerrillas, insurgents and terrorists — the latter being the term commonly used by Russian security forces to refer to Ukrainians and their supporters carrying out clandestine acts.
But from the western perspective, Russia is the now the aggressor and Ukraine the giant-killer left begging the west for more powerful weapons while battling against the invader with any means necessary.
That includes psychology.
Ukrainian supporters have gleefully noted a series of fires, explosions and attacks that have occurred on Russian territory over the past three weeks.
There was a fire that killed 22 people at an aerospace military research institute in Tver, north of Moscow, that was attributed to faulty wiring. Another blaze at a chemical plant in Kineshma, northeast of Moscow, was said to be the result of electrostatic discharge.
The town of Korolev, a Moscow suburb that is home to number of rocket, space and missile factories also saw a fire. There were two more in the Siberian city of Perm in less than a week, at the Perm Gunpowder Plant on Monday, May 2 and then, on Sunday, at a construction site belonging to an aviation college.
There have also been a series of blazes and attacks targeting enlistment offices for the Russian military.
There have been no claims of responsibility or attribution, but where there is smoke, there is generally fire. And these flames have fanned suspicions of clandestine Ukrainian counterattacks on Russian soil.
Ukraine’s leadership, however, has made no admissions, instead attributing the destruction to “karma.”
“If you, (Russians), decide to massively attack another country, massively kill everyone there, massively crush peaceful people with tanks and use warehouses in your regions to enable the killings, then sooner or later the debts will have to be repaid,” said Mikhail Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Often, payback is delivered by, or with the assistance of, locals in the occupied territories, says Maj.-Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the Ukrainian military’s intelligence directorate.
“Quite a lot of effective destruction of the enemy in the occupied territories has been done thanks to them, starting with operations to guide and adjust artillery and aircraft, ending with special operations to eliminate enemies,” Budanov told the Ukrainian outlet Novoye Vremya.
Such was the fate of Pavel Sharogradsky, a man from the occupied town of Novoaydar, north of Luhansk.
Sharogradsky was a collaborator who welcomed Russian troops onto Ukrainian territory and offered information about anti-Russian fighters, politicians and activists, as well as their family members, according to a Facebook post by the Ukrainian military intelligence agency.
He disappeared on April 25, after being called to a meeting with individuals wearing balaclavas and Russian military uniforms. Several days later, his body was discovered with bullet wounds to the body and head.
On May 6, the Ukrainian Security Services claimed to have “eliminated” 140 enemy sabotage groups and exposed 4,000 pro-Russian collaborators.
Vladimir Zhemchugov, a former Ukrainian partisan who conducted sabotage operations in the Donbas region before losing both hands and his eyesight in an explosion, told Eastern European broadcaster Current Time TV that the country is relying on veterans, hunters and ordinary civilians to do their part in the resistance, either stealthily or without weapons.
In an intercepted telephone conversation between a Russian soldier and his girlfriend, a recording of which was released on March 19 by Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, the soldier claims that an old Ukrainian woman fed the soldiers pies laced with poison that killed eight of them.
“When the war began, the Russian army did not expect such resistance and they had rations for only three days,” said Zhemchugov, the partisan. “Starting from the fourth day, the Russian army was starving. They had to go and make contract with locals and there were such cases.”
The Russians are just as active and as opportunistic as the Ukrainians — both at deploying agents into hostile territory and at hunting Ukrainian guerrilla fighters.
On March 20, nearly a month into the war, Ukraine banned the use of dashboard cameras in cars in order to keep information about troop movements secret and impede the work of Russian “spotters” who work on the ground to calibrate and geolocate airstrikes.
At the time, Ukrainian volunteer organizations warned Kyiv residents about online ads for free window repairs after Russian strikes on the capital, saying that the offer was a suspected ruse operated by Russian agents.
“If you see a post on social networks about a certain Igor or Ivan whom you do not know personally but who offers his help and requests a lot of information — about which windows were broken, whether there are checkpoints nearby, etc. — check the information. It can be an enemy (airstrike) corrector! Don’t help them destroy Ukrainian cities.”
Ouellet said Russia has been working for decades to cultivate pro-Russian networks in Ukraine, including those who could carry out espionage and sabotage in the event of war.
It might be easier to recruit operatives in eastern Ukraine, where more people have family, language and cultural ties with Russia. The more difficult, and more essential, task is to develop pro-Russian agents in western Ukraine, which is “profoundly anti-Russian,” Ouellet said.
“It would probably be very hard to recruit people in the western part of Ukraine where you would want to do sabotage, where there are depots, rail lines, western weapons and ammunition.”
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has announced the arrests of suspected saboteurs and terrorists ranging from a heavily armed group of Ukrainians allegedly plotting attacks on Russian humanitarian convoys to a group of Russian citizens arrested with guns, Molotov cocktails, grenades and fake Ukrainian passports said to be plotting the assassination of pro-Kremlin television propagandist Vladimir Solovyov.
On April 27, another two Russian citizens were arrested in Belgorod, near the border with Ukraine, and charged with sabotage, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. According to the FSB, they were plotting an attack on transportation infrastructure and had sent information about Russian military personnel to a website that publishes personal information and photographs of Russian soldiers and collaborators.
Another suspected saboteur — a Russian-born man who allegedly fought in the Ukrainian army, took “sabotage training courses” from U.S., British and Canadian soldiers, and received Ukrainian citizenship in 2019 — was arrested last month in a Moscow suburb with a cache that included Molotov cocktails, a machete and military patches with the symbols of the Ukrainian Azov Battalion and far-right Right Sector groups.
Though the Canadian Special Forces Command has been involved in training Ukrainian commandos since 2020, Ouellet said the focus has been on the use of specialized weapons rather than on how to conduct guerrilla warfare.
But that knowledge exists and is being actively applied behind Russian lines, according to the claims of a group from Belarus, which was formed to fight against the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, but announced in late March that it would be opening “a second partisan front” and contribute to the defence of Ukraine.
This week, it claimed to have carried out attacks on Russian rail infrastructure in six regions of Russia and showed pictures that it claimed showed railway signalling boxes on fire. The images and the claims could not be independently verified.
And such clandestine operations cannot and will not be claimed by Ukraine as it fights for its freedom, said Zhemchugov, who was named a Hero of Ukraine for his physical sacrifices and now lives in Kyiv.
“We have not declared war on Russia, so we do not have the right to conduct military operations on Russian territory,” he told Current Time TV. “We believe that this is done by patriotic citizens of Belarus and Russia. Even if it was done by our special services, we have no right to officially recognize it.”