Tensions are near a breaking point on both sides of the 280-mile-long trench in Eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian and Russian forces kill each other regularly. The trench line, what Ukrainian troops call the “zero line,” has transformed into a World War I styled stalemate. A half-day train ride from the front drops you in Kyiv, where in February 2014 months of protest forced pro-Russian former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country. Soon thereafter, Russia annexed Crimea, and then backed separatists to seize the Donbas, a large part of eastern Ukraine. In June 2014, Ukrainian conventional troops fought alongside volunteer militias to turn back the Russian-supported separatists. Russia’s regular military halted the Ukrainian counterattack. The stalemate’s persisted since then.
The Russian military and its proxies still hold about 7.2% of Ukrainian territory, in a slow-burn war that’s killed over 14,000 and displaced over 1.5 million Ukrainians in the first violent change in Europe’s borders since World War II. Now Russia – with an economy ten times the size of Ukraine’s – has deployed 60 battalion tactical groups – over 85,000 troops – along Ukraine’s border.
Tensions are reaching a tipping point. As growing numbers of Russian military units and weaponry encircle Ukraine, including more joint Russian military drills in Belarus and the alarming departure of Russian landing ships from the Baltic Sea, all add to deeper dimensions of concern. Worse, Russian-backed hackers recently attacked numerous Ukrainian government websites, leaving ominous messages of “be afraid and expect the worst.” Other operational security measures indicators such as Russia pulling out the families of diplomatic staff from Ukraine and there being zero social media discussions among Russian troops (and their families), all point towards a growing likelihood of Russian hostilities in Ukraine.
“Unfortunately, Ukraine needs to be objective at this stage. There are not sufficient military resources for repelling a full-scale attack by Russia if it begins without the support of Western forces,” assessed Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service. One Western expert estimated that Russian conventional arsenals would “devastate” the Ukrainian military quickly, perhaps within hours.
Despite all the hand-wringing and bullet-sweating, in the end, Russia cannot conquer Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin may be a black-belt opportunist, having some tactical victories and territorial gains against Ukraine, but he will struggle in future efforts to control Ukraine. Ukraine’s hybrid defense will hold, whatever comes next.
Ukrainian Hybrid Defense
War has changed in recent decades. Traditional armed conflict targeted capitals and political leadership, and fighting was largely restricted to soldier-on-soldier violence. When violence impacted civilians, it was often accidental collateral damage.
Some military theorists, like the Italian general and airpower advocate Giulio Douhet, argued for deliberate war on civilian populations. Ratchet up the pain on the people, so the theory went, and the people would force their political leaders to capitulate. Some World War II bombing campaigns fell into this category. Precision technologies and modern sensibilities – not to mention international laws and norms – have soured on this horribly indiscriminate way of war.
Putin’s Russia has become known for its practice of “hybrid war” (a bumper-sticker term that most experts dislike). Its essence is waging war against all aspects of an adversarial society, all the time, in all ways to gain strategic advantage. It typically targets enemy willpower, sometimes through various kinetic and non-kinetic approaches by “mobilizing every weaponizable asset,” according to Russia expert Mark Galeotti. Against Ukraine, Russia widened warfare – beyond traditional means – by weaponizing corruption, energy, history, church, and even language itself.
Hybrid war meet hybrid defense. Ukraine has had years to develop and prepare its practice. Mobilizing societal resilience and citizen resistance against hybrid threats is a major first step. Ukraine codified such a hybrid defense approach on 30 December 2021 by passing and implementing a new law: On the Fundamentals of National Resistance. According to the document, it will “involve the entire population of Ukraine in the protection of their homeland, their land and their families,” which is being pursued through various programs that create civilian resistance fighters. Most importantly, it arranges three pillars of protecting Ukrainian sovereignty: Territorial Defense Forces, irregular resistance warfare units, and military training for civilians.
When it comes to hybrid defense, to paraphrase a classic American political slogan—it’s the people, stupid.
Ever since Napoleon unleashed the power of the people two centuries ago – the ability to call-up troops in large numbers to serve the national interest – many wars have rested on the ability to mobilize people and resources. Not only weapons, but how many soldiers can you create, train, and arm – and how quickly?
Ukrainian motivation is top-notch in this respect – and does not require the injection of US troops were Russia to invade Ukraine. A recent poll showed 24 percent of Ukrainians responding they would resist “with a weapon in hand” if Russia were to invade. Moreover, 88% of Ukrainians and 80% of Russians polled want Ukraine to remain sovereign and independent. With a population numbering over 40 million, even accounting for bluster and big-talk, that’s millions of motivated Ukrainians fighting back against a relatively small number of under-motivated Russian invaders. If Russian political and military leaders learned one thing from the past two decades of American war in the Middle East, it is that an armed insurgency can be painful. And it is not just quantity – quality matters too.
As part of a research trip, this past August to study Ukraine’s homeland defense against a Russian attack, our research team at the Homeland Defense Institute saw firsthand how resilient Ukrainians really are.
There was Ilya, the twenty-something Army reserve lieutenant, who described his personal pride in the popular national slogan that translates as “Glory to Ukraine!” to which the recipient responds roughly, “Glory to heroes!” There was the former-US-special-forces-operator-turned-journalist who told us how Ukraine’s “Macguyvered military” can survive and fight effectively without high-tech against better-equipped Russians. There was Nataliia, of the non-profit “Come Back Alive,” a private organization dedicated to getting materiel, like thermal scopes, night vision goggles, and first aid supplies, to volunteer civilian fighters and troops fighting at the front. There was the Ukrainian general who told us point-blank, “we’ll fight the Russians to the death, until the last Ukrainian.” And then there was the young guy we met who, in 2014 was likely the first to film Russian “little green men,” risking his life to post those videos, and then turned his effort into an “international volunteer community” now known as InformNapalm, dedicated to labeling and putting online all malign Russian activity for the world to see.
But hybrid defense goes even farther. Toward the tail-end of the trip, without thinking, we attempted to purchase a Russian beer. Our Ukrainian guide, Ashot, immediately stopped the purchase. “That beer is Russian, please don’t buy it.” After swapping for a local brew, Ashot added, “Don’t give your money to the Russians. I stopped buying all Russian goods immediately after they took Crimea in 2014.”
To some, this is a minuscule choice, but most Ukrainians are angry at Putin. That depth of commitment, married to a much larger public will to fight back, alongside the US and some European countries providing military aid and advisory missions, is why Ukrainian hybrid defenses will prevail – regardless of whether Russia invades in the coming year.
US Army Lieutenant Colonel M.L. Cavanaugh, Ph.D., (@MLCavanaugh) directs the Homeland Defense Institute (HDI) at the U.S. Air Force Academy, is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point and is a Professor of Practice at Arizona State University.
US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek, PhD, (@JaharaMatisek) is a Senior Fellow for the Homeland Defense Institute (HDI) that recently led an HDI research team to Ukraine, Associate Professor in the Military and Strategic Studies Department at the US Air Force Academy, and Fellowship Director for the Irregular Warfare Initiative.
The views expressed in this article are those of each author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force Academy, Air Force, Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.