Joshua Treviño, Austin
Ukraine’s resistance is already the stuff of legends.
Less than a day and half, and yet enough time to have written a whole book of epics: The armor clash at Chernihiv. The defense of the Antonov airfield. The last stand at Snake Island. The eerie combat in the Chernobyl dead zone. The woman who told the Russian soldier she met to put seeds in his pockets, so that when he laid down to die, sunflowers would spring from the Ukrainian earth.
If the expectation was that Ukraine would fold on day one, then the expectation is disappointed. Twelve hours ago, as this is written, I was impressed at what looked like a Russian mastery of the American way of war: Blitzkrieg plus precision plus a coordinated rapidity that baffles and overwhelms the foe at first contact. But appearances are just that. The Ukrainians survived the onslaught in remarkably good order, showing themselves no longer the rickety state that was humiliated in 2014-2015. The armed forces did not disintegrate. They cohered, and they resisted. Eight years ago, Ukrainian units simply melted away, dissolving in panic or demoralization. Now, we have a single report of a single Ukrainian fighter jet fleeting to Romania. It is the only one, and its pilot is no doubt shamed, because everyone else is staying, and fighting.
The defenders did not do well everywhere: though the Russian advances upon Mariupol and Kharkiv stalled, the spearhead out of Crimea made tremendous progress. But they did well in one telling respect, in that unlike the events of 2014-2015, there was no uprising or civil unrest among pro-Russian elements anywhere in the country. Ukraine’s ethnic and linguistic Russians are, in the face of a Russian invasion, loyal to Ukraine. This is a sea change. A near-decade of low-level war preceding this invasion has clarified sentiments, and transformed the Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022 into something its Russian authors never meant for it to be. It is now a true Ukrainian war of independence.
Being that, you therefore know what an occupation will look like. It will be wracked, and bloody, Ukrainian partisans versus Chechen enforcers, and suffused with American arms.
Ukrainian woman confronts Russian soldiers in Henychesk, Kherson region. Asks them why they came to our land and urges to put sunflower seeds in their pockets [so that flowers would grow when they die on the Ukrainian land] pic.twitter.com/ztTx2qK7kB
— UkraineWorld (@ukraine_world) February 24, 2022
There is a victory in survival. But it is only one day. Ukraine will probably have to endure a thousand more. Still, every one of those days carries with it more hope, and crucially, more chance of aid from the outside world. There is some evidence that the aid is en route, in more ways than one. The public aviation data tells its own tales. In the darkness of the war’s second night, a flotilla of Ukrainian Ilyushin transports has flown to Poland. They are retrieving something. They will return with it. What you don’t see is equally notable. In the months before the war, the United States Air Force made a point of having reconnaissance drones loiter in Ukrainian airspace, transponders on so as to be seen. They can’t be seen now. That might be because they aren’t there. More likely it is because the transponders are now off.
Ukrainian success in resistance is primarily to the credit of Ukrainian soldiers and officers. But they may also have eyes in the sky.
We can look forward to the accumulation of victorious days, God willing, as and if the defense holds. The Ukrainian operational challenge is much greater than the Russian given the mismatch in resources, but its strategic challenge is much simpler. Russia must subdue a defiant nation of tens of millions without ruining itself. Ukraine, on the other hand, must merely exist, as an organized state, on its own territory. The existence attracts more aid. And in time, and as sympathy for Ukraine grows, it will attract something else: volunteers. If Ukraine survives past thirty days, they will come. They’ll mostly be from Poland, the Baltics, and Scandinavia, with a smattering of Britons and Americans. If Ukraine survives past six months, they’ll be organized into discrete units, a fighting volunteer corps. Questions will be raised as to whether the volunteers are simply proxies for national governments, and that is all right. They will be the echoes of what those governments ought to have done before the war, to stop it before it began.
In the century and a half of Poland’s suppression, Poles around the world would throw themselves into armed causes for liberty, with a romantic zeal that is nearly the only sane approach to national existence between Russia and Germany. Their slogan was W imię Boga za Naszą i Waszą Wolność — in the name of God, for our freedom and yours. Give it time: we’ll hear it again.
One addendum to all this: the chances that Sweden and Finland, each with exceptionally capable militaries, seek to join NATO are now the highest they’ve ever been. Expect a coming crisis to center upon Russia demanding Finland’s exclusion, in the same fashion as it demanded Ukraine’s. The alliance was willing to de facto acquiesce with the latter given the Ukrainian polity’s glaring deficiencies. It won’t be willing to do so with Finland. Watch and see.
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.