Although Russia’s campaign in Ukraine has been brutal, Vladimir Putin has still not deployed much of his military’s combat power. This reality is likely unsettling for those supporting the fierce and thus far successful Ukrainian resistance.
Despite Ukraine’s tactical successes and the surprising extent to which the Russian military has been ineffective, some may be inclined to think that a Russian victory is just a matter of time. Regardless of whatever resistance Ukraine is able to maintain in the short term, can it hold up long enough in light of the massive size disparity between the two forces?
That question remains unanswered, but it is clear that the small, motivated, and well-armed Ukrainian force continues to make progress against Russia’s large conventional military. Can this hold up as Russia continues to escalate its attacks? If Russia simply decided to send an overwhelming number of soldiers into Ukraine, would the resistance ultimately be overpowered? There are several intangibles here, particularly the will of thousands of Ukrainians to defend their country. While Russia’s bombardment of civilian areas may be an attempt to extinguish this will to fight, it does not appear to be working.
Sheer numbers may not be enough to overcome the strong Ukrainian resistance. With hybrid warfare tactics like those employed by Ukrainian forces, a much smaller force can have a disproportionately large impact against a power like Russia. This is largely due to key tactical adjustments such as using anti-armor weapons at vital intersections or bridges that would make Russian forces more vulnerable. Asymmetrical defenses—avoiding direct mechanized confrontations—could allow Ukrainian fighters to fire anti-tank weapons at approaching armored vehicles from a hidden location.
The United States and its Western allies have sent thousands of Javelin anti-tank missiles and other assets to Ukraine in an effort to fortify these kinds of defenses. As the world has seen in Ukraine, determined, well-armed, and tactically astute forces can have a devastating impact on a larger invading force. How many Russian lives would have to be sacrificed in order to achieve victory? What would invading forces do if every Ukrainian citizen simply refused to succumb to Russian rule? Perhaps the iron-clad resolve of the Ukrainian people will ultimately force Russia to withdraw. Unfortunately, Putin may just continue to escalate until Russia achieves what he considers victory to be.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.