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Ukraine and the Community-isation of War Effort

Lt Gen Harinder Singh, Retd, is Former DGMI and Commandant IMA. He has tenanted several important command and staff assignments in the Indian Army. The author can be contacted at harinder41[at]
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  • April 17, 2023

    More than a year ago, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As the world waited for Kyiv to fall, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rejected the offer to surrender and signalled his intent to fight.

    Russia initially sought to catch Ukraine by surprise. As it failed to do so, it chose to escalate the war by targeting the infrastructure and people of Ukraine. On its part, the Ukrainians avoided targeting Russian civilian infrastructure to limit retaliatory strikes on its population centres. Ever since, both sides have pursued contrasting war aims and objectives.1 While Russia aims to break the Ukrainian will to fight, Ukraine seeks to roll back the Russian advance. Led by a popular leader, an adaptive military hierarchy and a gritty rank and file, the Ukrainian military has held its ground well and perhaps fashioned a new blueprint to fight future wars.

    Each new war is a return of old ideas and military beliefs.2 Aspects like trench warfare, hand-to-hand fighting, artillery duels, mechanised manoeuvres and heavy `metal on metal` battles are not new. However, the smooth and seamless employment of old technologies, such as hand-held anti-tank weapons, surface-to-air missiles and long-range artillery, alongside new-age niche military technologies such as drones, autonomous and counter-autonomous systems, AI-driven intelligence platforms, low earth orbit imaging systems and satellite-based communications, have been the highlights of this war.

    Two particular aspects have stood out from a future war-fighting perspective.3 First is the corporatisation of military support to Ukraine by the West. The power of crowdsourcing of military budgeting, technology, training and logistic wherewithal has been a significant lesson, in this war.4 Second is the prominent role played by the Ukrainian society to underpin the overall war effort. This ‘community-isation’ of the war effort by Ukraine demonstrates how a militarily weaker state can leverage its strong political will and societal resilience to alter military outcomes on the battlefield.5

    Role of Society in War Effort

    The Ukraine conflict highlights the role of society and culture in shaping the contours of war. The community-isation of war effort in Ukraine can be explained at three levels: the willing participation of its civilians in territorial defence and partisan operations; the resilience of its populace to withstand incessant missile/air strikes and destruction of civilian infrastructure; and the role of both civilian and military social media influencers in advancing the war-time interests of the Ukrainian state.

    Firstly, the Ukrainian military has successfully integrated thousands of its civilians into an effective territorial defence force. Many more might have undertaken missions with grave risks to personal safety, to delay and disrupt the Russian advance.6 From the very inception of this war, the Ukrainian leadership had recognised that, given the significant gaps in its military capacity and capability, the Russian military was likely to overwhelm the country’s conventional defences over time. As a mindful choice, the Ukrainian military has been increasing its reserve force component, by calling its reservists to reinforce the combat units, in support of regional territorial defence components and also promote the raising of resistance outfits in Russian controlled areas.

    For this, the law establishing Ukraine’s national resistance strategy entered into force in January, 2022.7 The law gave the Ukrainian armed forces the authority to manage its territorial defence through the commander of the Territorial Defence Forces (TDF). The TDF is presently tasked with securing the local populace and infrastructure, maintaining law and order, supporting operations of the regular military units, and assisting in the raising of pockets of resistance in areas under occupation. The bulk of the force consists of volunteers, both men and women, irrespective of age considerations, and particularly those with prior military or policing experience and who are willing to support the country's war fighting effort without joining the military force as full-time soldiers.

    Another force engaged in resistance efforts is the National Guard of Ukraine (NGU). The NGU was created in the wake of Russia’s intervention in the Donbas region to protect the country’s integrity, besides facilitating the coordination and control of the militia units in field. Beyond this, the Ukrainians have also flung open its doors to foreign volunteers.8 Surprisingly, these overseas recruits seem to be committed advocates of the Ukrainian cause and provide a much-needed boost to its military manpower. However, as more and more foreign volunteers arrive, serious integration issues might arise and, in order to mitigate these man-management risks, the Ukrainian government might have to evolve stringent norms and the administrative capacity to quickly absorb and fruitfully employ these foreign recruits.

    Secondly, as a well-knit community, the Ukrainian people have demonstrated incredible resilience and patience to bear incessant air/missile attacks and hardships in daily life. Some observers believe that Russia initially intended to achieve absolute air superiority and undermine the Ukrainian ability to coordinate its ground defences and counterattacks. However, the Ukrainian military responded more effectively to Russia’s invasion than most experts had expected. As Mick Ryan, a well-known military commentator has argued, since the beginning of this war, the Ukrainian society has continued to surprise the world with their sense of resilience, purpose and pride in defending their nation.

    The Russians might have under-estimated the Ukrainian resistance. In wake of recurrent frontline difficulties, Russia has resorted to increased use of cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions to strike targets across Ukraine. To increase their writ over contested territories, Russian forces have also conducted intensive operations using private military contractors. Commentators have highlighted the potential for abuse and excesses by these private armies to alter behaviour on the ground. The Ukrainian populace has thus far met these challenges with absolute resoluteness.

    And thirdly, by leveraging its tech-savvy citizenry on social media to advance its security interests, the Ukrainian state has expanded its reach and influence in this war.9 Much has been said about Ukraine’s success in the field of information warfare. Ukraine has benefited from its status as an underdog and being invaded by a much stronger power. As a result, the political messaging from Kyiv out-messaged Moscow from the very beginning of this war.10 Ukraine’s political and military leadership has been particularly agile in shaping perceptions world-wide and requisitioning military support to fight the war by innovative use of social media technologies and networks.

    In this digital age, when news comes from several sources on the frontline and is rapidly transmitted around the world, governmental and military structures struggle to control narratives or a poorly constructed story. The Ukraine war highlights the immense power of social messaging by its tech-savvy citizens to post content directly to their social media feeds, thereby mitigating the Russian mastery over information warfare. This war also proves that fabricated claims of victory tend to catch up sooner or later, when real stories are reported by those present on the ground.

    The Future of Warfare

    The Ukraine war is an illustrative case of how militarily less capable yet resilient states can deal with existential threats.11 Even after a year in war, there has been little impact on Ukraine’s will to fight back. In fact, Ukraine’s determination to roll back the Russian advance seems to have become even more strident. While Ukraine has limited resources at its disposal to raise the costs of a continued Russian invasion, sustaining a territorial defence force and resistance movement alongside its conventional military operations would remain a challenge, requiring substantial support in terms of military guidance and wherewithal.

    At another level, the Ukraine war illustrates the necessity of a calibrated flow of social media posts that are not only real-time and authentic, but also articulated through reliable voices to shape and influence the prevailing public opinion, nationally and globally. The Ukrainian state with its flourishing army of uniformed and civilian social media influencers seems to have learned this lesson well and with remarkable success. Manpower, machines and material are critical components of warfare. Men (and women) more than other two and despite the hype on technology, the Ukraine war proves the salience of the human element in present day wars beyond doubt. A long drawn `all out` war not only requires willing and motivated manpower from diverse backgrounds, but also across ages and gender, and least of all the uniformed force alone to draw cost effective and conclusive battle outcomes.

    The Ukraine War demonstrates that future wars when pitched between unmatched military rivals might not just require a ‘whole of government’ approach, but perhaps a ‘whole of people’s’ approach to achieve favourable outcomes in conflict.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.