A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 7, 2022

How Ukraine Has Shown Small Countries the Smart Way To Fight Larger Attackers

One of the primary lessons of the Ukraine war for smaller countries - and even relatively large ones like Sweden and Finland - is that against a ruthless foe such as Russia or China, it is essential to have ability to stymie the enemy through unexpectedly serious losses and possibly defeat them. 

This is now affecting how countries proactively organize their defense through alliances, what weapons they procure, how they organize their military and their civilian population to prepare for total war. JL  

Peter Martin and colleagues report in Bloomberg:

From Taiwan to the Baltic to Moldova in Eastern Europe, small states need to make themselves extremely painful to swallow. That strategy’s implications range from weapons purchases to the way they structure their militaries and the assistance they seek. “The clear lesson is: You’ve got to be able to defeat the adversary’s ability to take and hold the key territory of your state.” To do so, countries vulnerable to  Russia or China need to embrace “asymmetric defense,” ensuring that “highly skilled, decentralized forces create trouble for heavier forces." Countries want “defense by denial” that makes it impossible for an invasion to succeed instead of reversing (one) after it’s started.

Before Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, top US military and intelligence officials were nearly unanimous in judging that Russian forces would overrun Kyiv in weeks, if not days. More than three months in, Kyiv is still standing, and Ukrainian forces have killed more Russian soldiers than died during the USSR’s nine-year war in Afghanistan.

Now, countries across the world—many smaller and weaker than Ukraine—are watching the conflict and seeing ways to humble a superpower.

The lessons vary greatly, but one basic theme unites them: From Taiwan in the Pacific to Moldova in Eastern Europe, small states need to make themselves so prickly that they’re extremely painful to swallow. That strategy’s implications range from the weapons these countries purchase to the way they structure their militaries and the assistance they seek from the US and others.

“The clear lesson is: Don’t rely on indirect international pressure. You’ve got to be able to defeat the adversary’s ability to take and hold the key territory of your state,” says Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official who was the lead architect of the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy.

To do so, Colby says, countries vulnerable to attack by Russia or China need to embrace “asymmetric defense,” ensuring that they possess “highly skilled, decentralized forces that are able to create a lot of trouble to the kind of heavier forces that are critical to conduct offensive, aggressive military operations.”

The war in Ukraine is being watched particularly closely on the democratically governed island of Taiwan, over which China’s Communist Party claims the right to rule. Russia’s invasion has impressed a deep sense of urgency on the island’s citizens, says to Lo Chih-cheng, a lawmaker for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party who sits on Taiwan’s Foreign and National Defense Committee. “Psychologically, Taiwanese in the past believed war was impossible. But now we all see it’s possible, and the format, development, and technologies used in the war are all different from what we imagined before,” Lo says. “Our defense minister said they are watching the development of the war in Ukraine every day, so they are sure to have learned a lot from it.”

One of the most important lessons for the island is about the kinds of weapons it seeks to buy, Lo says. US officials have long been frustrated by Taiwan’s desire to purchase flashy platforms such as F-16 fighter jets or M1A1 Abrams tanks, instead of the kinds of asymmetric capabilities that could inflict greater damage on China. That’s changing now. Taiwan needs to recruit troops for electronic and information warfare, Lo says, “and we need a lot of drones, Javelins, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship missiles.”

More than 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away, the tiny and militarily vulnerable European nation of Moldova is drawing similar conclusions. “The war in Ukraine is changing the whole concept of assuring the security of our citizens,” says Viorel Cibotaru, the country’s former defense minister. “To respond to military aggression, Moldova would need modern weaponry like Javelins, anti-aircraft systems, and weapons for light infantry.” The country’s military strategy would be unlikely to include much focus on tanks or fighter jets because of Moldova’s high population density and the prohibitive cost of those systems, he says.

Farther north, the Baltic states are drawing comparable lessons but with bigger budgets and the considerable advantage of NATO membership. After seeing the civilian death toll in Kyiv’s suburb of Bucha, a northern European defense official says countries in the region want to shift toward “defense by denial”—procuring systems that would make it impossible for a Russian invasion to succeed instead of simply reversing an invasion after it’s started. In addition to small systems such as Stinger missiles, this would include long-range air defense systems, Patriot missile defense systems, and enhanced coastal defenses, the official says.

The war in Ukraine also has implications for what military planners call “force structure,” the way militaries are organized. During the past three months, Russian forces have proved vulnerable in the face of more agile Ukrainian counterparts, who have relied on small infantry units while using armored vehicles only in support. Ukraine has also varied the roads, railways, and other routes it uses to supply its troops, minimizing vulnerability to attack, according to a European official.

The war has highlighted the need for “smaller, agile units that can sabotage and then move to safety,” says Michèle Flournoy, the former US undersecretary of defense for policy. “When facing a more powerful adversary, you need to fight in a more asymmetric manner to undermine their strengths and exploit their weaknesses. For the Ukrainians, this has put a premium on having better situational awareness, greater agility on the battlefield, and the ability to apply lethal force with stealth and speed.”

Lo, the Taiwanese lawmaker, agrees. “In Ukraine, there is a smaller scale of warfare, but it’s more effective,” he says. “Our tactics should be more mobile, with smaller units instead of large-scale military operations.

The war also has lessons for the way the US works with other militaries. “I would love to see all of our security assistance anchored in tailored security plans for individual countries—anchored in defense concepts that emphasize the abilities of smaller powers to hold off aggression from larger powers,” Flournoy says. The way the US conducts military training particularly needs to shift, she says. “There should be a focus on training—on military-to-military exchanges and providing advisers. Some of that will be conducted by conventional forces, but a lot will need to come from the special operations community, which has played a very important role doing this in the Baltics.”


Still, talking about lessons learned is easier than implementing them. “Many countries are watching this conflict and saying we need to be more like scrappy Ukrainians,” says Flournoy. “But you also run into bureaucratic inertia. People and institutions are set in their ways. Some countries are talking the talk but not walking the walk.”

What’s more, small countries aren’t the only ones drawing lessons from the conflict. Russia is learning from its early mistakes,, ranging from its failure to secure supply lines—leaving tanks stuck on highways without fuel—to poor troop morale. Its troops are now making progress in eastern Ukraine.

China is also paying attention. “The Chinese are going to watch this very, very carefully,” Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 10. “It’s going to take some time for them to sort out.”

Moscow’s determination push on with its war, despite massive costs, suggests a final and more sobering lesson from the conflict: All the Javelins and asymmetric tactics in the world may still not be enough to deter strongman leaders in search of a legacy. The best most small countries can do is prepare.


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