Ukraine National Guard
Members of a "Maidan" self-defense battalion take part in weapons training at a Ukrainian Interior Ministry base near Kiev March 17, 2014. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

KIEV, Ukraine -- As violent protests by pro-Russian agitators in the East continued Monday and threatened to dismember Ukraine, the country readied for a possible war with Russia. But not an all-out war: a guerrilla war. And their commanders say they're confident they would win it. After all, their forefathers 70 years ago did something no one had done before: They held off the Red Army.

Ukraine is now fighting off what appears to be a coordinated effort to divide the country, with violent protests by masked demonstrators in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Lugansk and Donetsk, where a self-styled “people’s council” proclaimed the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and called on Russia to send troops, as well as setting a date for a referendum on secession from Ukraine.

With the threat of a Russian invasion looming over the country, even high-ranking Ukrainian military officers are skeptical about their capacity to repel an attack. But they warn that Ukraine is unbeatable in “partisan fighting.” Indeed, many Ukrainians are predicting that a conflict would take the form of protracted guerrilla warfare.

One of them is Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, the former commander of the Belbek air force base near Sevastopol, in Crimea. Mamchur became a hero to many Ukrainians when he refused to abandon his post as pro-Russian forces surrounding the base ordered him to surrender.

In a recent interview, Mamchur let out a brief, bitter laugh when asked whether the Ukrainian army would be able to stand up to Russia, but he said he saw the Ukrainian military “ready to fight.” Now stationed at a military base in Nikolaev in Southern Ukraine, he refused to predict what the outcome would be in case of war, saying only that Russia would be unable to defeat Ukrainian partisans.

His view is shared by new National Guard recruits who were sworn in at a ceremony last weekend at a base in Novi Petrivtsi. Alexander Vassiliev, 21, from Kiev, said he had joined the National Guard because it was his patriotic duty, but when asked whether the Ukrainian armed forces could defeat the Russians, he said a Russian attack would be met with partisan tactics. That would lead, he said, to guerrilla warfare in urban and rural theaters.

Ivan Trabyshch, 30, from the western city of Stryi, said Ukraine could defeat Russia in a partisan war, with guerrilla and diversion tactics. He said he had enlisted with the National Guard -- a reserve force shut down in 2000 but recreated last month in the face of Russian pressure -- to learn how to use weapons and the basics of traditional warfare.

Among the recruits were men likely too old for war but not for asymmetrical warfare, as the current definition of guerrilla favored by military textbooks goes. One of them was Zanyk Medychk, 55 and also from Stryi. He said French leader and general Charles de Gaulle admired Ukrainian partisans -- members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army fought off the Stalinist regime well into the early 1950s in the western region of then-Soviet Ukraine -- but was disgruntled with Ukraine’s interim government over its feeble response to Russian provocations. “Why didn’t they open fire over those masked men?” he asked angrily. “If they identify themselves as Russians, then they are invading our country and we have every right to respond, and if they don’t answer, well, in that case we would be repelling an attack by unidentified strangers, and again, we would be right.”

In Kiev, the ranks of any guerrilla army would be augmented by the civilian volunteers who have fought street battles against government troops and police in support of the Maidan movement. Yuriy, a member of the 17th Self-Defense Brigade of the Maidan who refused to give his last name, said his unit trains at a polygon and is getting ready for urban guerrilla warfare should the Russians march into the Ukrainian capital.

Two Ukrainian guards of honor patrolling the Verkhovna Rada, or Parliament building, laughed off the notion of the Ukrainian Army beating the Russians but turned serious when asked about popular resistance. “Ukraine is a nation of partisans,” one said. They refused to give their names.

As for the Monday demonstrations in the east that threatened to cause an escalation closer to armed conflict, Ukrainian acting foreign minister Andrii Deshchytsia blamed them on what he termed “political tourists,” infiltrators who have come from Russia. He also promised a “much more forceful response” than the interim government’s muted reaction to events leading to Crimea’s annexation last month by the Russian government. Witnesses at the demonstrations in the eastern cities have reported hearing masked demonstrators speaking with distinct Russian accents.

Despite Deshchytsia’s comments at a press conference in Kiev, the government appears to be struggling to articulate a strong response to this second wave of incidents that threaten to tear the country apart, following the same pattern that ended with the secession and annexation of Crimea. Security forces in the cities where the new protests occurred failed to act when a few dozen protesters stormed into government buildings.

Acting interior minister Arsen Avakov, who traveled to eastern Ukraine, said that overrun public buildings in Kharkiv and Donetsk were back under government control. But according to the Interior Ministry, pro-Russian activists in Lugansk had entered the headquarters of the Security Bureau of Ukraine in the city and seized the room where the weapons were stored.

Whatever form a conflict between Russia and Ukraine may take, a leading economist thinks it would be an economic disaster. U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs, who met Ukrainian acting prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Kiev and discussed with him reforms and international aid, said Russia appears to have taken a “very dangerous” course of action, which would have a substantially negative impact on its international standing as well as its economy.

Sachs said that with the exception of the three Baltic republics -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- all the other former Soviet republics were still struggling to “find their place in the world economy,” and Ukraine was not an exception. “However, with their economies very closely intertwined, the case of Ukraine and Russia’s relationship is unique even within this context,” said Professor Sachs -- an expert in Eastern European economies and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University -- warning that Ukrainians as well as Russians would feel a lot of pain even if foreign economic assistance came through.

“When I last visited Russia, I was under the impression that it was ready to finally and fully engage with the world,” Sachs said at a press conference in Kiev, when asked whether Russia was trying to surround itself with a ring of weak former Soviet republics, in a modern version of its cordon sanitaire, with which the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, tried to isolate itself from potential enemies in the West. “As Russia’s response to this crisis it has provoked unfolds,” Sachs said, “we will see whether Russia is seeking to engage or disengage with the world.”