The People’s Army: What is Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Role in War?

December 3, 2023
The Territorial Defense Forces play an important role in Ukraine's defence capabilities, but what is its function, and how can its full potential be unleashed?
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Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian people have displayed incredible bravery and resilience, preventing the Russian invaders from executing their "blitzkrieg" plan.

The Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) of Ukraine, essentially a people’s army that voluntarily mobilised itself to protect their homes, have embodied this spirit.

The TDF is a separate branch of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. However, their full potential has yet to be reached and revealed, necessitating a paradigm shift in thinking.

So, what role did the TDF play in the initial stages of the full-scale invasion? What problems are they facing? What changes are required? And why is it important to provide security for Ukraine for years to come?

UkraineWorld put these questions to General Serhiy Kryvonos, the former Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the TDF units played a major role in the defense of Ukraine.

They helped Ukraine withstand the enemy's first major assault and prevent the capitulation of Ukraine. The TDF not only defended their homeland but also filled defence gaps left by the absence of the regular armed forces.

For example, the Territorial Defense Forces in Kharkiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv showed extraordinary effectiveness in countering the enemy during the first days of the full-scale war.

The units of these cities had undergone training in advance, and when the full-scale invasion started, they were able to easily mobilise and resist the Russians, having a clear algorithm of operations thanks to sound training.

The TDF worked with the mayors, their deputies, and the public in those cities to develop action plans in the event of a full-scale invasion.

It is important to note that not only a military component was considered, but also the organisation of normal life conditions in cities. That is why, despite heavy fighting, they held strong during the most difficult period without freezing and starving.

A characteristic feature of the Ukrainian people played a major role in the organisation of the TDF actions: in critical situations, Ukrainians can make their own decisions, unite, and act in the right way.

It is the genetic memory of Ukrainian warriors who have had to fight for their freedom since time immemorial. And even with the realisation that there was little chance to survive, they took up arms to protect their lands.

However, after the initial wave of tension passed in April-May 2022, a large number of TDF units were transferred to the regular armed forces, often without proper training. It was a mistake because it was an inefficient use of manpower.

Another mistake can be found in the period preceding the full-scale invasion: the protracted process of TDF formation and the lack of a centralised mass training process. It did not allow a large number of units to hone in on their skills and mechanisms for responding to military threats.

Thus, the full-scale invasion revealed issues with both the TDF's functioning as a system and the understanding of the role it should play in the state's security and defence system.

So, what should the TDF concept be based on, and what is its essence?

Perception of the TDF solely as a military component is erroneous. The idea of territorial defence should consist of the strengthening of the defence capabilities of the state through extensive training of a wider population.

The TDF's uniqueness stems from its widespread popularity. Therefore it should serve as a formidable training facility as well as a source of replenishment for front-line units. Furthermore, TDF units could be more actively involved in the air defence of cities and strategic targets.

How the training is delivered plays a major role in this approach. The process should be led by well-trained, able-to-teach individuals. The cooperation of various branches of Ukraine's Armed Forces could be key here.

The Special Operations Forces have military assistants who could be involved in the training of the TDF soldiers. A system like this would train a large number of people while also achieving the potential of territorial defence.

The extensive training system that would involve all segments of the population is a crucial part of the TDF. It can be explained by the fact that the Russian threat is an existential threat to Ukraine that isn't going to go away.

That’s why the Ukrainian state and people must always be prepared to confront the enemy.

In terms of resource sufficiency, Ukraine could lose to the Russian army both militarily and economically if this war was only down to this.

However, the Russian army will never be able to defeat well-trained, prepared, motivated Ukrainians. So, the territorial defence, by definition, is a militarily trained population.

We - Ukrainians - must understand that we have to fight for our existence. It’s not a matter of willingness or unwillingness to do so. That’s why it’s necessary to educate our soldiers, while not avoiding the realities of war.

General Serhiy Kryvonos, the former Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine