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Ukrainian Resistance

Burning debris in the middle of a street; Image by Fajrul Falah from Pixabay

An incomplete understanding of the nature of the conflict in Ukraine still plagues Australian strategic discourse. In what has been termed, the ‘first TikTok war,’ Ukraine’s strategy of resistance indicates an intent to democratise warfare. In this context, the purpose of this Post is to explore the strategy of resistance, Ukraine’s employment of this strategy, and the issues that emerge as lessons for national security professionals.

Using the ASPI Strategist as an indicator of the breadth of the Australian debate, in the first six months of this year, 103 articles have engaged with the topic of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, of which 19 were written prior to the 24 February 2022 escalation. Of these contributions to our understanding of this conflict, a quarter engaged with the implications for Australia’s region. Deterrence was addressed by around 12 percent of contributions, yet only one mentioned the important context of the ‘stability-instability paradox’. This Cold War-era concept argues that the costly risk of vertical escalation into major combat operations or even nuclear war will encourage competitors to engage in sub-threshold actions, such as support to insurgency. In other words, this example aside, Australian discourse has generally failed to frame discussion of deterrence in Ukraine in the appropriate context of an ongoing proxy war in the Donbas region and, more recently, the potential for proxy expansion into Moldova.  

A key failure of the Australian conversation is that lessons-learnt discussions have been dominated by the over-simplified arguments for and against the ongoing utility of the tank. By focussing on tactical tank engagements, Australian treatment of the events unfolding in Ukraine has overlooked the structural vulnerabilities inherent in Russia’s logistics system that might render such tanks useless and amplifies the effect of physical attrition against supply chains. Russian military logistics are very fragile and come close to culmination when approaching an advance of approximately 90 miles (150 kilometres, or the road distance from the Belarus border to Kyiv). As lessons are derived from the Russia-Ukraine conflict (22 percent of the ASPI Strategist dataset), it is important that Australia pivots its analytical focus away from tanks and towards the strategy adopted by Ukraine from the outset; a strategy based on resistance.

The word ‘resistance,’ used frequently by NATO and European commentators, was only present in three ASPI Strategist articles (by Dibb, Saikal, and Townshend and Lonergan), none of which elaborated upon what a resistance strategy actually entails. Indeed, the only mention in Australian discussion appears to have been made by Mick Ryan regarding Ukrainian operations behind Russian lines. This limited breadth of analysis stands in sharp contrast to NATO’s multi-year support effort in implementing a civilian resistance strategy in the Baltic States and Ukraine.

As a security strategy, resistance can be defined as:

‘a nation’s organised, whole-of-society effort, encompassing the full range of activities from nonviolent to violent, led by a legally established government (potentially exiled/displaced or shadow) to re-establish independence and autonomy within its sovereign territory that has been wholly or partially occupied by a foreign power.’

Seen in this light, resistance is more than heroic defence from uniformed armed services; it is more than guerrilla warfare against Russian supply lines; it is more than cyber trolling of Russian strategic objectives; and it is more than old ladies sharing sunflower seeds that might flourish from Russian corpses. It’s all these things coordinated through deliberate organisation of effort to impose physical, psychological, temporal, financial, and reputational costs upon an aggressor.

The utility of resistance as a strategy of warfare has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout the Ukraine-Russian conflict. It is evident in the self-mobilising nature of the Molotov cocktail-throwing volunteers. It is evident in the non-violent ‘frictions’ such as removing street signs. It is evident in the intelligence support rendered in pursuit of truth by volunteers to Anonymous, or Bellingcat, or Ukraine’s own Cyber Army, that help the resistance to locate and then target Russian armed forces. It is the combination of these whole-of-society factors that has generated significant attrition against Russia’s tanks in particular, and its armed forces and offensive capabilities in general.

Resistance is a weapon of the weak and relies upon cost imposition, or what Carter Malkasian argues was intended by the term ‘attrition’. The first four months of the conflict in Ukraine has most certainly imposed attrition against Russian power, using armed drones, loitering munitions, artillery, anti-tank missile systems, and a little support from ‘bezdorizhzhya’ or ‘General Mud’.

To be effective, resistance must be anchored in a nation’s psyche long before battle lines are drawn between opponents.  The Russian advance culminated approximately seven days into the most recent conflict. Importantly, however, it was preceded by approximately 70 days of Russian brinksmanship and subversion and a further eight years of proxy competition that played out in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. This eight-year period inflicted over 7,100 combat deaths on the Ukrainian military and 14,000 Ukrainians overall, inculcating a will to resist amongst the Ukrainian population.

Notwithstanding Ukraine’s predisposition towards a resistance strategy, it nevertheless took time to build the underground networks that would enable Ukrainian guerrilla warfare. On 16 July 2021, President Zelensky signed the law, ‘On the Fundamentals of National Resistance’, that enabled the creation of a National Resistance System, some seven months before the Russian escalation). This legal basis gave legitimacy to national mobilisation efforts and imitates a similar Estonian national resistance model. The Kremlin’s Playbook thus served to sharpen Ukraine’s security focus. It was never a question in February 2022 as to ‘whether Russia would invade’ – it already had – in 2014. 

The strategy adopted by Ukraine in response to Russian aggression was neither unique nor home-grown.  The Resistance Operating Concept (ROC), developed by US Special Operations Command – Europe and NATO partners, advances a doctrinal basis for Ukraine’s strategy. It is particularly relevant because there is evidence that US Special Operations Command had been developing and educating the Ukrainian military in this doctrine, alongside its NATO allies, over a number of years.

When it was first published in 2020, the ROC sent a clear signal of NATO’s support to the Swedish and Baltic states to help them to implement such a strategy. Combined with the Joint Special Operations University’s 2020 document ‘support to resistance,’ allied doctrine materially enhanced Ukraine’s capacity and capability to resist Russian aggression. Ukrainian Special Forces have in turn ‘advised and assisted’ their own population with instructions as to how they can contribute to resistance.

Ukraine is not the only European country to have developed national concepts of resistance in the face of Russian brinksmanship. In Estonia, Sweden, Finland, and elsewhere, a known capability for resistance is the strategy of the ‘indigestible hedgehog’.  In short, this concept provides that the costs of occupation will prove to be so high that an aggressor would have little to gain through aggression.  The utility of the strategy is that it might theoretically deter through denial. That an adversary knows that their invasion and occupation intentions will prove untenable is also a persistent deterrent to aggression.[1]

In Ukraine, deterrence was unsuccessful in preventing Russia’s escalation of hostilities on 24 February. This was despite significant Ukrainian efforts to rapidly declassify information in order to make it available in the public domain. The purpose of such declassification was to signal to Russia that the United States and NATO understood that Russia was preparing for hostilities in a manner that conforms to the nascent idea of deterrence by detection. Actions by Ukraine and the international community to impose physical, financial, temporal and reputational costs is seemingly achieving deterrence by punishment, retaining the threat to impose further costs should Russia choose to further escalate the conflict.

Unlike the US and some of its European counterparts, Australia has no specific military doctrine that deals with resistance as an operating concept.  In the absence of such doctrine in support of national strategy, the risk exists that Australia has made commitments to provide resources in support of Ukraine within a doctrinal vacuum, or perhaps for political reasons. Furthermore, this risk has existed for years; Prime Minister Abbott publicly indicated that Australia would send military trainers and advisers to Ukraine and transport weapons to Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq in September 2014, yet no doctrinal development in this area has been undertaken in the intervening period

Events seem to have confirmed that a resistance strategy was also a prudent Ukrainian decision. In 2013, a measure of national power, the Composite Index of National Capability (CINC), generated a balance of power ratio markedly in Russia’s favour: 4.96:1.[2] Soon afterward, in 2014, Russia demonstrated its ability to execute fait accompli strategies that ‘escalate to deescalate’ to militarily secure limited objectives. I make note of this context, as Australia and likeminded Asian neighbours will undoubtedly face more powerful competitors into the future.

Reviewed in light of NATO’s experience in support of Ukrainian defence capability from 2014 into 2022, an interesting model emerges for how Australia might support its northern neighbours to resist aggression as a form of asymmetric strategy – a ‘Plan B’ that might complement other forms of national power. In this context, Australian strategic discourse would clearly benefit from a broader appreciation of the basis and potential relevance of support to resistance as a component of national strategy.


[1] The ‘Spanish Ulcer’ of 1807-1814, the Russian resistance of 1812, and the Finnish resistance of 1939-40, are exemplars in this regard.

[2] The Composite Index of National Capability is an accepted measure of national power curated by the Correlates of War Dataset ( This measure of national power includes military expenditure, military personnel, energy consumption, iron and steel production, urban population, and total population.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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