Can Ukrainian freedom fighters stand up to the Russian army? History suggests they may

On paper, Russia’s quest to occupy Ukraine looks like a doom. With about four and a half times more soldiers, five times more tanks and armored vehicles and ten times more military aircraft, common sense tells us that Ukraine doesn’t stand a chance.

In fact, history tells us otherwise.

From street corner fights to insurgencies and wars, height is a terrible predictor of the outcome of human conflict. We are unique among mammals in our ability to overcome a larger and more powerful adversary; if not, the world would be made up of fascist mega-states and human freedom would not be possible. We willingly risk our lives to defend others, as the battle stories of Medal of Honor recipients make abundantly clear. The smaller the party, the more stubbornly loyal the members are to each other, and the harder and more expensive they are to defeat.

In 1604, the Ottoman Empire decided that the small mountainous principality of Montenegro should be crushed. The Montenegrins were a notoriously warlike people who had always rejected any form of domination and feared nothing but dying peacefully in bed. They inhabited a land too poor to support large concentrations of people, but the scattered population invariably gathered together to fight invaders. The Ottomans numbered some 12,000 men, including cavalry and artillery, and faced barely 900 Montenegrins. The Montenegrins were unfazed, however, and sent three-man raiding parties through the night before attacking at dawn. They killed a third of the Ottoman army and sent the rest to pack up.

Even in personal combat, size and power have crucial drawbacks. Large muscles move more slowly, react slowly and use more oxygen than small ones. As a result, smaller fighters can maintain a higher level of intensity than larger ones, and they gain about half the time in mixed martial arts – a complete impossibility for the rest of the animal kingdom. And the basic dynamics of asymmetric conflict easily escalate. Mechanized armies like the Russian force that invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s and plunged into Ukraine last month move slowly, are impossible to hide and use huge amounts of fuel and ammunition. They can pulverize anything they encounter but cannot sustain such an effort for long. Air power is also devastating, but creates logistical vulnerabilities that come into play if the conflict lasts too long. There doesn’t seem to be enough jet fuel in the world to keep enough planes in the air to kill everyone willing to die fighting them.

So what about Ukraine? Most successful underdog groups have three things in common, and Ukraine has them all. First, these groups must have a clear moral purpose deeply rooted in the history of the population. A group’s ability to be self-sufficient and self-defining – free – is one of the few things people will easily die for, and framing a struggle in those terms makes them much more likely to succeed. (Freedom is a powerful word that is often drawn into false political fights. Recent protesters who have appropriated this word in this country were clearly not prepared to die in large numbers for it – a sign that the protests may not have been about freedom at all.) The deep moral purpose at heart of the Maidan protests in 2014 and in the current Ukrainian resistance make sacrificing one’s life seem like a heroic thing to do – a sentiment likely not shared by most Russian troops.

Successful groups of the oppressed also require fearless leadership. During the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland, an insurgent commander named James Connolly showed such blatant disregard for his own safety that his aides had to implore him to take cover. Connolly was wounded twice and eventually tried and executed by the British for treason. Although the British army put down the Easter Rising within a week, they could not control the population and eventually granted independence to Ireland. America fought its own war against the British, and if we had lost, the signers of the Declaration of Independence would undoubtedly have suffered the same fate as Connolly. Leaders who are unwilling to accept the same risks and hardships as their supporters in times of war will not long remain leaders, and most of their rebellions will fail. In Ukraine, President Zelenskyy and many parliamentarians are clearly prepared to risk death to defend their country.

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