Why Ukraine Is Not a Universal Resistance Model
Ukrainian national resistance, incontestably lethal and strikingly durable, provides an enticing blueprint for small nations threatened by aggressive powers. The rush to learn lessons, mimic actions, and draw conclusions from Ukraine is an established industry. It should be. Ukraine’s response to Russian conquest serves up an innovative and gutsy trove of tactics and methods to adopt for national defense strategies. Two years into a war that many predicted it would lose quickly, Ukraine deserves this respect and study.
But despite this, it would still be a mistake to treat the “Ukraine model of resistance” as a readily applicable model. Before states adopt Ukrainian methods into their own defense plans — and expect similar outcomes — they should look carefully at the key factors that enabled Ukraine to succeed. There are four areas peculiar to the “Ukraine model” that contributed to their success. If policymakers or practitioners look past these factors, this could lead to false assumptions about a state’s readiness to defend and resist. The four areas are mobilization anomaly, national resistance laws, militia management, and railways.
Ukraine’s mobilization from peace to war is an anomaly. On the day Russia invaded, two inflexible forces combined to funnel the Ukrainian people into a society-wide mobilization.
The first was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion announcement, a feverish fatwa that Ukrainians were a non-people, that Ukraine was a false state, and that any notion that Ukraine is separate from Russia was farcical, ahistorical, and criminal. Was there ever so obvious and incendiary a call to arms for a people? Putin, long a master of obfuscation and surly denials, instead opted for the direct, maximalist declaration. The subsequent Russian military invasion on five axes of advance triggered a fight or flight response for every Ukrainian citizen. However inspiring his words sounded to Russian ears, Putin’s declaration made him Ukraine’s chief mobilization officer.
The second force was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s diktat that men over 18 and under 60 would be prohibited from departing Ukraine and would report for national duty. Zelensky’s writ gave form, direction, and legal casing to a shocked and enraged population.
Taken together, Ukrainian psychological mobilization was in full stride by sunset on Feb. 24. The corporealmobilization was then to follow. To be sure, there remained the difficult details of physics and families to sort out. These wrenching decisions were made en route to territorial defense stations and weapons distribution depots. Ukrainian mobilization was never an if and when question, it was a how and where matter.
While Putin initiated this war with a rebel yell, slow, simmering slides into conflict are more troublesome. Russia used such sleight-of-hand methods successfully in 2008 in Georgia and in 2014 in Crimea. These stuttered starts — staged unrest, subversive riots, diversionary acts, or unattributed acts of terror — are designed to confuse decision-making bodies which in turn defuses mobilization fever. Signals of tension that are not signals of imminent war may well send a fighting-age population to safer shores instead of joining a local defense force. This is not to imply cowardice. Rather, the evidence suggests that the social contract of giving one’s life for their country is not commonplace, especially without a singular and obvious existential threat.
Predicting a population’s will to fight is an inaccurate science. Inside threatened countries, such polls are routinely taken. Even in the previously occupied Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia (a combined population of about 6 million), less than half of respondents say that they would take up arms in the event of an invasion. Astoundingly, these numbers are up as a result of government- and society-wide efforts to psychologically “pre-commit” citizens to national defense. Even so, armed with a Schengen visa, marketable skills, and fluency in Western languages, many European citizens have mobility options that Ukrainians lacked in 2022 and still lack now.
Will such an unambiguous moment occur for states that desire their threatened citizenry to take up arms? It would be unwise to make this assumption. A prudent planner might make the reverse assumption: that a threatened population, with options to fight or flee, may well depart, and leave the fight to the uniformed security forces.
National Resistance Laws and Militia Management
On July 29, 2021, Zelensky signed some of the most aggressive and risky societal defense laws known. Law 5557, “On the Fundamentals of National Resistance,” was paired with Law 5558, an expansion of the territorial forces. These laws clarified how a mobilized society would form and fight. This legislation parsed out roles and responsibilities for domestic security forces, military forces, and citizen-sponsored irregulars. The laws laid broad foundations for chains of command, the authorities to organize and act, and zone and sector management. On the riskier side, the laws gave license and legal operating space for private militias and freelance resistors. Politically, this was and is dangerous: approving fringe movements, private militias, and nongovernment forces to arm and deliver high-end violence. The government of Ukraine took a risk that few states are willing to take. It paid off.
Ukraine was able to craft and pass such a national resistance law because they had a seven-year history of waging warfare against Russia by and with the use of pro-state armed groups coupled with official, uniformed security forces. Does any other country have such experience? Few, if any, come to mind. Those countries that do permit such activities, such as Lebanon, hew closer to failed state status. Indeed, Lebanon, like Sudan,Libya, or Iraq, is grappling with control by militias, whereas Ukraine exerts controls of militias. Ukraine is an anomaly in that it has managed an outlaw culture of resistance that is productive resistance — or at least it has so far.
Ukraine’s national resistance laws were born of the 2014 crisis when Russia launched a surprise invasion of Crimea and, months later, occupied portions of the Donbas. To stop Russian annexation on the eastern front, Ukrainian citizen militias filled the security gaps, principally by responding to Russian-backed separatists annexing and occupying towns and cities. Within weeks, the Ukraine government passed a hasty National Guard law that sanctioned this organic rise of pro-state militias. An unholy but effective alliance ensued. Ukrainian militia groups sought the autonomy of being independent and self-styled resistors, warts and all. The Ukrainian government gave it to them, with boundaries. In exchange, the Ukrainian government gained the force-multiplying power of irregulars capable of high-intensity combat. Seven years later in July 2021, Ukraine proposed law 5557, a new law crafted by legislators, ratified by the parliament, signed by the president, and acted upon by the security and civil sectors. This is a rare breed of kill chain.
One week after Ukraine passed the national resistance law, I participated in a forum in Ukraine that aimed to transmit this new law into something more workable, with explanatory policies, organizational roles, and interoperability paths. The purpose was to explore the methods required to employ growing special operationsand resistance-type capabilities. To my surprise, this law was so novel that its implementation flummoxed even the most experienced Ukrainian leaders from the defense, interior, law enforcement, academia, and policy sectors. With sleeves rolled up, the Ukrainian interministry groups waded into how this “resistance system” might look and work. They never completed that homework, as Russia promptly invaded. The law, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2022, was figured out on the barricades. While imperfect, it worked. Ukrainian society would soon explore and exploit every aspect of this law, defying Russian predictions that Ukraine would fracture and fail to mobilize. While the inspirational leadership of Zelensky and his administration deserves much credit, it was this wonky legal structure that provided the blueprint for the whole-of-society mobilization.
States that envision whole-of-society responses to invasion would do well to examine the risk-reward calculation made by the Ukrainian government and expressed by such laws. Some similar models do exist: Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Singapore, and Israel are among them. In line with the “reveal and conceal” stratagem, not all the mobilization measures and triggers are made public. Even with these compartmented caveats, few countries are willing to tolerate, much less incentivize, the use of quasi-official militias and private entities to deliver violence. Few rule-of-law nations have the lived experience of a full-scale invasion, and so it follows that they are less disposed to entertain the untidy use of irregulars. Latvia’s recently proposed lawallowing foreigners to enlist and fight is one step in this direction but falls short of mustering the massive, distributed combat power that Ukraine’s law enabled.
Strategic depth means little in war until it is materially exploited. Ukraine’s use of the 15,000-mile-longUkrzaliznytsia railway system capitalized on its geographic and infrastructural strengths. Ukraine has a vast and comprehensive train system, a happy vestige of the Soviet system that built this railroad to control, to regulate, and to extract natural and mineral resources. In the face of invasion, Ukraine used its rail system to operate defense, perform civil functions, evacuate populations, and provide resupply. The Kremlin decision not to target this rail system at the outset of the war, so as to preserve the network for its own use, is surely at the top of a long list of regrettable military decisions.
The Russians have since targeted the Ukrzaliznytsia rail system and its supporting infrastructure such as electricity, stations, and rail bridges. Russia did so only after the train system enabled a Ukrainian defensive stand that foiled the Russian plan of a rapid seizure and negotiated capitulation. Ukrzaliznytsia has since attenuated its operations to meet wartime demands. This is a striking case study in infrastructure resiliency. Trains, a 19th-century invention, are outperforming 21st-century weaponry that can easily penetrate interior lines.
Ukraine’s interior depth combined with Russian miscalculations gave Ukraine the space to absorb impacts, adapt, and rebound. Leadership and human capital matter too, as demonstrated by the 230,000 Ukrzaliznytsia employees who, under attack themselves, continue to ensure its arterial functioning. For strategic importance, Ukrzaliznytsia is on par with the nation’s air defense, artillery, and intelligence. Few threatened states possess this considerable interiority combined with a weblike railway system. By comparison, Taiwan, with just 1,150 miles of rail, could fit inside Ukraine 17 times. Moreover, in a future war, would anyone expect Russia (or China) to repeat this strategic blunder? Defense planners should not count on it. This was an error born of hubris, not capability.
While Russia bungled many aspects of this invasion, Ukraine deserves credit for creating a layered, resilient, and whole-of-society defense. Outside of the direct military combat power enabled by Western support, Ukraine’s national resistance system contains unique ingredients that enabled its scale, breadth, and relative orderliness. For the “Ukraine model of resistance” to be appropriately adopted, these four variables deserve close attention. Indeed, they were overlooked once already by the Russians.
Brian Petit, a retired U.S. Army colonel, teaches and consults on strategy, planning, special operations, and resistance. He is a part-time adjunct for the Joint Special Operations University.