EUROPE: Can Ukrainian Freedom Fighters Stand Up to the Russian Military? History Suggests They Can- Opinion

Most successful underdog groups have three things in common, and Ukraine has all of them—including women in the fight.

By Sebastian Junger | Vanity Fair

ON PAPER, RUSSIA’S QUEST TO OCCUPY UKRAINE LOOKS LIKE A FOREGONE CONCLUSION. With about four and a half times as many soldiers, five times as many tanks and armored vehicles, and 10 times as many military aircraft, common sense tells us that Ukraine does not stand a chance.


From street-corner fistfights to insurgencies and wars, size is a terrible predictor for the outcome of human conflict. We are unique among mammals in our ability to defeat a larger, more powerful opponent; were this not so, the world would be composed of fascist mega-states and human freedom would not be possible. We readily risk our lives to defend others, as combat narratives for Medal of Honor recipients make abundantly clear. The smaller the group, the more stubbornly loyal members are to one another, and the harder — and costlier — they are to defeat.             

In 1604, the Ottoman Empire decided that the small, mountainous principality of Montenegro had to be crushed. The Montenegrins were a famously warlike people who had always rejected any form of dominion and supposedly feared nothing except dying peacefully in bed. They inhabited a land that was too poor to support large concentrations of people, but the scattered population invariably came together to fight invaders. The Ottomans boasted some 12,000 men, including cavalry and artillery, and faced a mere 900 Montenegrins. The Montenegrins were unfazed, though, and sent three-man raiding parties out all night before attacking at dawn. They killed one third of the Ottoman army and sent the rest packing.

Even in personal combat, size and power have crucial downsides. Huge muscles move slower, react sluggishly, and use more oxygen than small ones. As a result, smaller fighters can sustain a higher level of intensity than larger ones, and they win about half the time in mixed martial arts — an utter impossibility for the rest of the animal kingdom. And the basic dynamics of asymmetric conflict readily scale up.

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. Airpower is devastating as well, but creates logistical vulnerabilities that come into play if the conflict drags on too long. There does not seem to be enough jet fuel in the world to keep enough aircraft aloft to kill all the people willing to die fighting them.

SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE UKRAINE? Most successful underdog groups have three things in common, and Ukraine has all of them.

First, such groups need to have a clear moral purpose with deep roots in the history of the population. The ability of a group to be autonomous and self-defining — FREEDOM — is one of the few things that people will readily die for, and framing a struggle in those terms makes them much more likely to succeed. Freedom is a powerful word that often gets dragged into bogus political fights. The recent Freedom Convoy who appropriated that word in Canada were clearly not prepared to die in large numbers for it — a sign that the protests may not really have been about freedom at all. The deep moral purpose at the heart of the Maidan Square protests in 2014 and in the current Ukrainian resistance makes sacrificing one’s life seem like a heroic thing to do — a sentiment probably not shared by most Russian troops.

Second, successful underdog groups also require fearless leadership. During the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland, an insurgent commander named James Connolly showed such flagrant 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 in a week, it could not control the population and eventually granted Ireland its independence. America fought its own war against the British, and had we lost, the signers of the Declaration of Independence would have undoubtedly suffered the same fate as Connolly. Leaders who are not willing to accept the same risks and hardships as their followers in times of war will not remain leaders for long, and most of their rebellions will fail. In Ukraine, President Zelenskyy and many members of parliament are clearly willing to risk death defending their country. 

THE FINAL COMPONENT OF SUCCESSFUL UNDERDOG GROUPS ARE WOMEN. Women impart a kind of moral legitimacy to protests that could otherwise be dismissed as simple mayhem and — like small men in fistfights — are underestimated in ways that can be exploited against overconfident enemies. During the 1912 mill strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts, women stood directly in front of National Guard troops and mocked their manhood, despite the fact that bayonets were pointed directly at their bellies. “One policeman can handle 10 men,” a frustrated Lawrence official complained, “while it takes 10 policemen to handle one woman.” 

Social sanctions against killing groups of women are far stronger than those against killing groups of men, and that can stymie even thugs like Putin. In Ukraine, young women are grabbing AK-47s and heading to the front lines, and older women are boldly haranguing Russian troops on the street.

PUTIN IS FACING A MORAL ENEMY WITH BRAVE LEADERSHIP AND HEAVY FEMALE INVOLVEMENT. History shows that if he does not win quickly, he may never win at all. 

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/11/2022 at 1:55 pm

    • brandli62  On 03/12/2022 at 10:37 am

      The Ukrainian people deserve our respect for being so brave in opposing and fighting to defend their independence and freedoms. What are the Russians thinking they can achieve?

  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/12/2022 at 9:33 am

    Lucian K. Truscott IV wrote:

    President Zelensky was livid at the Russian strike on the maternity hospital in Mariupol:

    “A children’s hospital. A maternity hospital. How did they threaten the Russian Federation?” he said during a televised address. “What kind of country is this, the Russian Federation, which is afraid of hospitals, afraid of maternity hospitals, and destroys them?”

    There is an old military saying that shelling and bombing civilians “has never broken the enemy’s will to fight.” If there are exceptions to this rule, I don’t know of them.

    The Ukrainian military was not a threat to the nation of Russia, and neither are the hospitals and schools and civilian neighborhoods they have rocketed and shelled with artillery and bombed.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/12/2022 at 9:42 am

    2015 Speech:

    • brandli62  On 03/12/2022 at 11:12 am

      John Mearsheimer narrative is along the lines of Putin in that he puts blame for t NATO and the EU for Ukrainian crisis. It’s the same one I hear in far left and far right circles. Interestingly, enough John Mearsheimer has been a supporter of Bernie Sanders….

      However, who started the war? Who annexed Crimea in 2014? Fact is that the Ukrainian people crave for a life as we are living in the EU and the West in general. Who are we to deny them an association with the EU and or NATO? The Ukrainian people are now fighting with their blood and lives for this dream. They need our support and help. This is our duty and if we do not stop the bully know, which country is next?

      Views like those of John Mearsheimer do not help to solve the war in the Ukraine. What is he suggesting us to do? In fact, if you follow his logic, it was the Czechs in 1938 and the Poles in 1939, who caused WW2 as they did not want to accept Hitler’s demands. It’s time to accept that in the 21st century sovereign nations have a right to self-determination and to choose their alliances. That’s true for Guyana, hence why are we denying it to the Ukraine. Are Ukrainians second class people just because their country borders Russia?

      The EU and NATO has never been an existential thread to Russia. It has however been an idiological threat as liberal democracy has proven to be the superior model in delivering freedom and prosperity to the people of Europe. Putin cannot claim that he succeed in doing so in Russia with his autocratic model of rule. That’s the core of the problem.

  • brandli62  On 03/12/2022 at 11:14 am

    Professor Ivan Krastev
    Political scientist, Permanent Fellow at IWM

    “Europe and Russia in the Post-American world”
    Will the post-Cold war liberal order be buried in Ukraine? What Does Russia want from a future European security order? Is it Russia or is it Putin that wants it? What are Europe’s options?

    This is an excellent talk by one of Europe’s eminent specialists, Dr. Krastev from Bulgaria, on Eastern European history. It was held a few days ago in Zurich. The talk is in English.

    Here is the link:

  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/12/2022 at 2:33 pm

  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/12/2022 at 3:57 pm

    Was it inevitable? A Short History of Russia’s War on Ukraine

    by Keith Gessen | The Guardian UK

    3. For Russia, NATO Is A FOUR-LETTER WORD

    After 1991, the post-communist countries of eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, found themselves in an uncertain security environment. Nearby Yugoslavia was falling apart, and they had their own potential border disputes. Most of all, though, they had a vivid memory of Russian imperialism. They did NOT believe Russia would remain weak for ever, and they wanted to align with NATO while they still could. “If you don’t let us into NATO, we’re getting nuclear weapons,” Polish officials told a team of thinktank researchers in 1993. “WE DON’T TRUST THE RUSSIANS.”


    Still, at the centre of this tragedy lies one man: VLADIMIR PUTIN.
    He has embarked on a murderous and criminal war that also appears almost certain to be judged a colossal strategic blunder – UNITING EUROPE, GALVANISING NATO, DESTROYING HIS ECONOMY AND ISOLATING HIS COUNTRY. What happened?

    There have always been multiple competing views of Putin, falling along different axes as to his competence, his intelligence, his morality. That is, some people who thought he was evil also thought he was smart, and some people who thought he was merely defending Russian interests also thought he was incompetent.

    Five years ago, in this paper, during the boom in Putinology that followed Donald Trump’s election, I made the case that Putin was basically a “normal” politician in the Russian context. That didn’t mean he was in any way admirable – the way he prosecuted the war in Chechnya, which launched his presidential candidacy, was evidence enough of his bad intentions. Nor did I think he should be hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails.

    Nonetheless I thought that, given Russia’s history, its traumatic experience of the post-Soviet transition, the internal dynamics of the Yeltsin regime, and the wider geopolitical context, the person who took over from Yeltsin was almost certain to have been a nationalist authoritarian, whether or not he was named Vladimir Putin. The question seemed to be: Would this other nationalist authoritarian, not named Putin, have behaved very differently? Here there was some limited historical evidence, in the persons of Boris Yeltsin (author of the first war in Chechnya) and Dmitry Medvedev (author of the war in Georgia), that he would not.

    The moment, at least in my mind, where Putin rendered these questions impertinent, was the attempted poisoning with a nerve agent of the oppositionist Alexei Navalny, an attempted murder that would almost certainly have had to have Putin’s approval.

    Other political murders in Russia had seemed to me less clear-cut. There was good reason to believe that the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the politician Boris Nemtsov, for example, had been killed on the order of the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. While Kadyrov was Putin’s loyal ally, they were not one and the same. Possibly this was a distinction without a difference, and yet it seemed that talk of a dictatorship in Russia obscured the fact that the country still had some room, albeit narrowing by the year, for political life and freedom of thought. WE ARE NOW SEEING WHAT AN ACTUAL RUSSIAN DICTATORSHIP LOOKS LIKE:

    All remnants of an opposition media shuttered, journalists threatened with 15 years of prison, unbridled and unanswerable police aggression. With the invasion of Ukraine, there is no one left who thinks Putin is merely acting like a standard post-Soviet Russian politician.

    Is there any explaining Putin’s thought process? Here, there were objective and subjective factors. OBJECTIVELY, he was not wrong to think that Ukraine was integrating further and further into the west. The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement that he had so fiercely opposed in 2013 had been signed in 2014 and gone into effect in 2017. NATO, too, was on its way. There were now NATO weapons and NATO personnel in Ukraine. Putin’s attempt to exert control over Ukrainian politics by creating the breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk had FAILED. In fact, it had not only failed, it had BACKFIRED.

    Ukrainians who had been lukewarm toward NATO now supported joining and many who had entertained pro-Russian sentiments had seen what Russian puppets had done in the breakaway republics. Ukraine, an imperfect democracy, scored a 61 on the Freedom House scale in 2021; the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – competing under the umbrella term “Eastern Donbas” – scored a 4. No one wanted that for themselves. Putin had won Crimea and some territory in the east, but he had lost Ukraine. IN THE WAKE OF JOE BIDEN’S ELECTION, which signalled a renewed American commitment to Europe and NATO and, inter alia, Ukraine, things were going less and less in Putin’s favour.

    But Putin was not entirely out of options. In 2015 he had extracted, through force of arms, the Minsk-2 agreement – an onerous peace deal, never actually implemented by either side, that had obliged Ukraine to reintegrate the Donetsk and Luhansk republics into a federated Ukraine, where they would essentially have veto power over the country’s foreign policy; perhaps, in 2022, he could get Minsk-3 as well. And if he had previously left the implementation of the Minsk agreement to a democratically elected Ukrainian government, he could decide not to make that mistake again. He could install a leader in Kyiv whom he could trust. A month before the invasion, the British government declared that it possessed intelligence indicating that Putin planned to do exactly that.

    And yet here we get into the subjective factors: Why, in retrospect, did Putin think he could pull this manoeuvre on a country the size of Ukraine? Partly, to be sure, he was buoyed up by his string of military victories – in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Crimea, in Syria. He had found great success, often at relatively little cost, by being a kind of international spoiler to the west’s designs in various parts of the world.

    PUTIN MUST ALSO HAVE BEEN EMBOLDENED BY WHAT HAD HAPPENED IN UKRAINE IN 2014. Crimea had surrendered to Russia without a shot. A few weeks later, a small group of middle-aged mercenaries had been able to march 100 miles into Ukraine and capture a small city called Slovyansk, igniting the active phase of the war in eastern Ukraine. If a ragtag outfit could do something like that, imagine what an actual army could do?

    THERE WAS ALSO THE IMPORTANT FACTOR THAT PUTIN DID NOT BELIEVE UKRAINE WAS A REAL COUNTRY. This was not specific to Putin – many Russians, unfortunately, don’t see why Ukraine should be independent. But with Putin this has become a real obsession, impermeable to contradictory evidence.


    But for Putin this could only mean that it was controlled by someone else. After all, this was already the case in the parts of Ukraine that Putin had conquered – he had installed puppets to run the self-proclaimed people’s republics in eastern Ukraine.


  • wally n  On 03/13/2022 at 10:25 am

    .People never had a chance of running their country, either East/West or both
    and then there is this…..
    [video src="" /]

    • Morning star  On 03/13/2022 at 7:08 pm

      The country is full of corruption like all these eastern European countries. Honestly the comedian should turn himself in in.but instead he has let his nation and children be slaughtered like lambs but that’s ok because his family are safe , warm and getting to eat !! He has let these poor people suffer .he could have gone into exile and gone to the UK to claim benefits and get free housing for himself too

      • brandli62  On 03/14/2022 at 4:57 am

        Do the points you mentioned justify an invasion of the Ukraine by Russia? Using the same line of argumentation, Venezuela would be entitled to invade the Essequibo region, which it claims. Think first and then comment.

  • wally n  On 03/13/2022 at 7:19 pm

    U S NEWS??
    One year after Russia annexed Crimea, the vast majority of the locals said they preferred Moscow to Kiev and wanted Russia to govern them.

    Despite the constant onslaught of media propaganda, it appears that over 80% of the residents of Crimea sided with Moscow and said they ultimately wanted Ukraine to become part of Russia.

    In 2015, according to Forbes, multiple polls showed that the locals in Crimea – be they Ukrainians, ethnic Russians or Tatars are mostly all in agreement: life with Russia is far superior than life with Ukraine.?????

    • brandli62  On 03/14/2022 at 4:54 am

      Sorry, that’s fake news. Russia has huge marine bases on the Crimea and there are lots of Russian military personal retired to the Crimea historically. Those are the people in favour of Russian rule. The Tatars are vehemently against Russian rule. They prefer Ukrainian rule that gave them regional autonomy, which was abolished after the Russians annexed illegally the Crimea.

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