(PONARS Eurasia Commentary) When can a weaker actor win against a far stronger player? For decades, Russian military experts and political elite have suggested that Russia should use asymmetric means and strategies in response to threats and challenges, especially from the West. Moscow now faces asymmetric strategic approaches directed against itself—a first since its own Afghanistan and Chechnya conflicts. Analyzed here are the disproportionate approaches used by Ukraine in the first phase of this year’s war. Although many factors such as Western support have been important for Ukraine’s defense, the tenacity, cohesion, and will of the Ukrainian citizens and soldiers have obstructed the invaders—particularly during the first shocking and precarious days of the heavily lop-sided contest.
Plans and Prevailing Approaches
When Russia’s initial blitzkrieg failed, it changed focus to slowly advance into the east and south of Ukraine. The war became a protracted conflict with elements of insurgency and guerilla warfare. From the beginning, Ukrainian civilians protested and fought Russian troops, often armed with just hunting rifles and Molotov cocktails. Civil resistance and insurgency will continue to play a critical role. Ukraine has experience with insurgency and guerilla warfare from World War II against both the Nazis and Soviets. More than 400,000 people participated in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (OUN-UPA) in the 1940s and 1950s.
Before the invasion, Russia had been shifting troops toward Ukraine, adding to an already robust and permanent military posture in the region. Believing he was well informed about Ukraine’s defenses, President Vladimir Putin decided to make a powerful military advance on Kyiv to press for demands or to rapidly destroy the comparably weak Ukrainian forces. To achieve the latter purpose, the Russians needed to drive the main Ukrainian units into heavy clashes (near Belarus or Donbas) instead of waging urban battles that would divvy Russian forces.
Ukrainian Defiance and Defense
From the onset, Ukrainian forces have been using strategies that differ from those of Russia. The defense of Kyiv is a notable case of using methods of asymmetric warfare against an invading force. Small groups of Ukrainian troops, armed with light anti-tank weapons and in close cooperation with civilians, halted the Russian advance. The initial Ukrainian counter-attacks removed leadership, stalled equipment, and disrupted supply lines. Moscow’s miscalculations about the strength and will of the resistance were costly, embarrassing mistakes for the Kremlin.
Defying the battle preferences of Russia, Ukrainians opted to fight on their own terms by allowing (to some extent) Russian troops to enter deep and then surround or hit them with small armored units. Locals with basic rifles shot at military convoys and managed to stop Russian tanks, as happened in the town of Sumy. The self-organizing of volunteers, the opening of several humanitarian hubs by municipal authorities, and the collecting of items needed for defense purposes by civilians began in the earliest days.
Certainly, asymmetric methods were not the sole reason that the early Russian attempt to take Kyiv was crushed. A combination of factors such as fighting experience gained from years in Donbas, Ukrainian armed forces reforms, freedom of action for commanders and captains, geography and weather, command and control communications, and the various shortcomings of the attackers all contributed to Ukraine’s early “success.” Cooperation with NATO in recent years created a group of professional Ukrainian officers who helped build a decentralized, knowledgable, and agile army.
The hit-and-run tactics used by Ukrainians had a tangible effect on Russian morale and its military machine. Some of the asymmetric methods cost little but were extremely effective. For example, to prevent Russian thermal imaging drones from detecting human heat signatures, Ukrainians covered themselves and their equipment with inexpensive foam mats (“karemats“). Creatively using communication technology was critical in other cases. Smartphones, apps, and satellite/Internet were used by civilians to convey key information to the Ukrainian military. Ukrainian IT specialists developed “chatbots” for social media apps (such as “STOP Russian War”) as surveillance and information-sharing tools. Ukrainians trapped behind Russian lines using such chatbots played the role of digital partisans.
Several days into the war, the Ukrainian government allowed citizens to upload enemy locations through the Diia app, a government web portal for storing digital documents such as driver licenses and vaccine cards. In response, Russian troops destroyed Ukrainian communication and mobile telephone towers, but this harmed their own forces because they could no longer use their encrypted systems that relied on local networks. The Ukrainian security services state that it constantly receives and actively uses intelligence information from the population, particularly in occupied territories.
Asymmetric Approaches in the Naval War
The Russian Navy is far more impressive than Ukraine’s. But the destruction of the Russian landing ship Saratov in the port of occupied Berdyansk became particularly noteworthy because of how well Ukraine used it in the information war. The ship was destroyed using MANPADs and Tochka-Us that were not directly adapted for combat at sea. Even if that episode had some exaggerations, the information effects for Ukrainian, Russian, and international audiences were well calculated and potent.
The big news was when Ukrainian forces successfully crippled the flagship Moskva using Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles, even if the Russian Defense Ministry tried to downplay the incident by saying it only had a fire aboard. The loss of the Moskva caused Russian warships to move further offshore, opening up the seas for small Ukrainian craft.
According to Benjamin Armstrong at the Forum on Integrated Naval History and Seapower Studies, the adoption of greater coastal defense measures, combined with a limited guerre de razzia (“raiding attacks”) strategy, offers a clear naval strategy that will limit the advantages of the Russians while at the same time allowing the Ukrainian navy to impose costs on Russian forces. Guerre de razzia is based on a theory that emphasizes guerre de course (“commerce attacks”) and the use of what today would be termed asymmetric warfare at sea.
Theory and Reality
What explains both strong-actor defeats in asymmetric wars and weak-actor victories over time? Brown University Professor and U.S. Army veteran Ivan Arreguín-Toft writes that if power implies victory in war, then weak actors should almost never win against stronger opponents, especially when the gap in relative power is huge. However, weak actors sometimes do win. As Arreguín-Toft argues, opposite-approach interactions (direct-indirect or indirect-direct) imply victory for weak actors because the strong actor’s power advantage is defected or dodged. Such a conflict tends to be protracted, with time favoring the weak.
However, history shows that after several years of punitive operations, Moscow did manage to achieve an obedient population in Chechnya. But that was a different time and place. Chechnya had a small population (about 1 million), a small territory, and no outside support. Russia faced an asymmetric adversary in Afghanistan, a country of 11.4 million with armed groups holding solid external backing. In the end, Russia experienced a ten-year insurgency in Afghanistan and departed. With its population of about 40 million, Ukraine may be a worse proposition than Afghanistan.
By utilizing a mix of insurgency, civilian protest, Ukrainian army operations, and Western advice and tools, Ukrainians have defined some of the war’s main characteristics, including an asymmetric strategic approach.
Theories of strategic interaction help us to explain Ukraine’s strong resistance and Russia’s failure to achieve a quick victory. Although outside support in political matters, information, intelligence, and arms has been strengthening Ukraine’s resistance, the crux is the strategies used by Ukraine and the will of the Ukrainians. Atrocities committed by Russian forces in Bucha and other towns only further increase such resistance, as has been the case in all previous asymmetrical wars in history.
In the current second phase of the war revolving in Ukraine’s east and south, Russia is again relying on old tactics, namely artillery and missile strikes, but it should not be under-estimated. As new phases develop, it is important that Ukraine continue to creatively develop and employ asymmetric strategies to protect its homeland.
Nurlan Aliyev (PhD) is a Lecturer at the University of Economics and Human Sciences, Warsaw, Poland. His current book project is about Russian security policy and is supported by the Visegrad Fund Scholarship (2021–2023). Twitter: @anurlan