The Power of Layered Resilience
Preliminary Lessons from the 2022 Ukrainian-Russian War
Pieter Balcaen, Arthur de Liedekerke, Kamil Mikulski & Maarten Toelen
The unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine will certainly go down in history as a blatant violation of standing international law and the territorial integrity of another sovereign and peaceful nation. While discussions on these issues will certainly shape scholarship and policy making for the near future, it must be noted that the peoples of Ukraine have thus far defied all odds by containing the Kremlin’s offensive.
Despite the considerable human toll and suffering of this war, the unwavering courage of the Ukrainians - be they in uniform or not - is not only commendable but equally captivating, since it provides other nations with a practical, but terrible, example of how the concept of ‘layered resilience’ is essential for any contemporary integrated defense strategy. With dwindling support in Western nations to take up arms for one’s country, the conflict in Ukraine clearly illustrates just how crucial this notion can suddenly become for NATO Allies on the Eastern flank and beyond (Gallup, 2015).
The article is structured as follows. First, we discuss briefly how the conflict evolved into a war of attrition. Second, this paper proceeds to illustrate how Ukraine has demonstrated resilience, serving as a good demonstration of NATO’s concept of ‘layered resilience’ and which lessons can be drawn therefrom. As we demonstrate in the article, resilience was not only demonstrated in the physical domain, but also in the cyber and cognitive domain. All these efforts have contributed to the current state of affairs, i.e. Ukraine being able, for the time being, to repel the Russian offensives across all domains. To conclude and based on some of these observations, the authors formulate recommendations applicable for NATO Allies. After all, the current crisis shows Western societies have much work ahead. The further strengthening of society-wide resilience is undoubtedly needed to address the challenges associated with the return of great power competition.
2. The case of Ukraine: attrition warfare unfolding
Being the fifth largest military in the world,2 Russia probably expected a swift victory following the surprise attack that occurred on the 24th of February, shortly after decreeing a ‘special military operation’ and demilitarization of Ukraine during a television speech. The blitzkrieg like victory the Kremlin expected has not materialized. Instead, the preparations and efforts made by Ukrainian people, in the years following the 2014 invasion of Crimea, to increase their deterrence and if necessary, resist Russia, have paid off, as we will explain later on.
Whereas modern conflicts are more urban in nature and have seen changing practices - including hybrid tactics - increasingly target society as a whole, the Ukrainian conflict clearly demonstrated how civilians are ever more impacted by the consequences of war. They can play a pivotal role in the defense of the nation, alongside regular combatants. In other words, no longer does it suffice to defeat the conventional forces of a nation to subdue it. More often than not, contemporary wars - if at all - only end after a prolonged phase of insurgency on one side and suppression or (faltered) nation-building on the other.
Unfortunately, the fierce resistance demonstrated by the Ukrainian population and resulting in the large number of casualties at both sides has forced the Russian military to alter its strategy. The gradual degeneration of the conflict as observed over the last months can be best described by the definition of “total war” (Freedman, 2017).3 Defense analysts and various independent security experts have already noted this clear shift in Russian strategy following the first weeks of the invasion, characterized by the increasing use of indiscriminate violence (e.g. artillery fire) resulting in an increasing number of civilian casualties. The tenacity – or ‘resilience’ – of the Ukrainian armed forces and civilians in occupied areas, have left Moscow with little choice other than resorting to attrition warfare. While the Russian army is certainly experienced in ruthless tactics, as their handling of the decade-long “Chechen conflict” amply demonstrates, the fact that the Kremlin is now facing the distinct possibility of a ‘frozen conflict’’ and the definitive prospect of considerable international backlash,4is in itself a great indication of the effectiveness of Ukraine’s layered resilience.
As its military operations falter, the Russian armed forces are now resorting to intense bombardments of several major Ukrainian cities and attempting to encircle or isolate others. Gruesome and illegal as such non-discriminatory methods might be, there are several lessons about resilience that one could note from this situation. Before discussing these observations in Section 4, we give a brief overview of NATO’s concept of layered resilience within NATO’s Warfighting Capstone Concept (NWCC).
3. Layered resilience and the role of civilians in enhancing a nation’s security
Being one of the five pillars of the NWCC, layered resilience focuses on enhancing a nation’s ability to persist during long and protracted campaigns (NATO, 2021). In doing so, multiple layers of resilience can be distinguished in the NWCC: military resilience, military-civilian resilience and civilian resilience. Without entering into much details, which is beyond the scope of the article, the concept of layered resilience emphasizes the importance of the civilian population in the context of ensuring a nation’s ability to absorb shocks, to increase resistance and to fight through (HCSS, 2020). Moreover, the concepts of NWCC and the nested pillar of layered resilience recognize the importance of strengthening a nation’s resilience in the cognitive and cyber domain, beyond the well-known traditional physical domain. The concept of layered resilience in the context of the Ukrainian conflict is further discussed in Section 4.2.
4. Preliminary lessons-learned from the conflict
Studying the Ukrainian-Russian conflict in light of the concept of (layered) resilience bears several interesting findings. This article discusses the following: the paramount role of maintaining superior morale and the utility of organizing a nation’s resilience across different layers. More precisely, we focus on the role the civilian society can (should) play in enhancing a nation’s resilience.
4.1 Resilience in contemporary conflict: the importance of enduring morale
Broadly speaking, the war in Ukraine can be perceived as testament to the fact that the capacity to absorb ‘layers’ of hardship without losing hope, is an integral part of the defense against total war – the key concept behind the NATO term of ‘layered resilience’. Like most wars, the Russian invasion has inevitably resulted in the loss of swathes of territory in the first two weeks, including major cities such as Kherson and Melitopol. The Ukrainians even scuttled the Hetman Sahaidachny - the navy's flagship frigate - an act of defiance and resistance in order to prevent this asset from getting in Russian hands (Evans, 2022).
Moreover, the war in Ukraine highlights another crucial aspect of layered resilience: support of like-minded peoples and values or/and beliefs they stand for. Despite the presence of some far-right elements within Ukraine's self-defense forces and the foreign volunteers signing up, the international support Kyiv has received from the European Union and other NATO Allies is truly remarkable. On top of the provision of military equipment, thousands of foreign volunteers have signed up for service against the Russian invaders.
Additionally, resilience played a critical role in buying time for the international community to respond to the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine. The fierce resistance demonstrated by the Ukrainian population and the images of civilians picking up weapons certainly made a strong impression on the Western society. The resilience observed by the Ukrainian population against the Russian brutality accelerated the decisions taken in the domain of arms deliveries and economic sanctions, decisions that had a strong impact on the further course of the conflict. Indeed, few opposition or debate was observed in light of the decisions made to support Ukraine. One could even say the European Union has rarely appeared this strong and united. Although the effects of sanctions are not visible immediately, they are assessed to have a substantial effect on the Russian economy on the longer term, rendering it gradually more and more difficult to continue their war efforts in Ukraine. Nothing of the sorts would have been possible if the Ukrainian army had surrendered in the early days of the invasion.
4.2 Reinforced resilience across different layers: the role of the civil society and the military
The Ukrainian-Russian conflict also serves as a good case-study, demonstrating an example of how “layered resilience” can be implemented into practice and how these mutually reinforcing layers result in an overall increased resilience. First and foremost, the strength of military resilience has already been mentioned. It is however interesting to see how partner nations contributed to increasing this resilience, both in terms of the quality of Ukrainian soldiers as the equipment available to face the Russian superiority in terms of numbers. The Ukrainian army was not entirely unprepared for the clashes with Russia and has gone through a lessons learned process since 2014. Whereas the Ukrainian army was suffering from poor conditions for military service men and inadequate training in 2013, they’ve become more performant due to years of combat experience in the Eastern Donbas. Moreover, several NATO countries have provided the Ukrainian army with military trainers and non-lethal military supplies (Davis, 2016). While the west decided not to intervene militarily in 20225, they have however played an important role in increasing Ukrainian resistance through numerous arms deliveries, making the difference on the battlefield. Mainly anti-tank weapons (such as the Javelin, the AT-4 and the NLAW) and anti-aircraft systems (such as the Stinger missile and Starstreak missile system) inflicted significant losses on the Russian army. The EU even unanimously agreed on a €1bn fund to finance the delivering of arms and equipment to Ukraine (European Commission, 2022). In terms of intelligence, the US also provided Ukraine with classified intelligence, which is believed to have helped the Ukrainian military to target and kill several Russian generals (Barnes et al., 2022). This in result had a strong impact on the Russian morale and leadership.
Most notably for the conflict, Ukraine turned its civilian support and infrastructure into a strength rather than a vulnerability (i.e. civil-military resilience). Whereas Russia hoped to reach Kiev swiftly, the city was turned into a stronghold of resistance, bringing the fight to the streets and forcing the Russian army into Urban Warfare. As shown by King (2021), conquering a city takes time and forces the attacker to engage in a series of ‘micro-sieges’, as combatants fight for individual buildings, streets and districts. The Ukrainian population strongly contributes to this resistance by cooperating fiercely with the armed forces. Most notably, civilians have engaged in making Molotov cocktails, booby-traps and other military equipment. Important to note, Russia’s strategy of encircling major cities has shown the necessity for cities to be prepared to sustain in challenging situations over longer periods of time (NATO, 2022), as demonstrated by the lack of food, power and medicines in Kherson.
Finally, the conflict has so far demonstrated Ukraine’s capability to deny competitors to unlock civil vulnerabilities (i.e. civilian resilience). The psychological and material preparations that followed the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 made the Ukrainian society brace for war, resulting in its peoples being able to bear the brunt of conventional conflict without collapsing under the military weight of its conventional superior adversary. As the war in Ukraine makes abundantly clear, it is the collective societal state of a Nation that determines its capacity to put up effective resistance in the face of aggression. The Ukrainian population has also demonstrated its resilience in the cyber domain. Over the last years, Ukraine adapted its systems following the numerous cyber-attacks it had to endure. More precisely, they created numerous back-up systems and increased the number of internet providers throughout the country. Moreover, Ukraine was supported by Elon Musk, who offered its services by means of its ‘starlink-terminals’. This provides a good example of non-military Western support, enabling Ukraine to gain more strength in the informational domain. Although the above mentioned examples could be rather defined as ‘defensive’, Ukraine was even able to launch counter attacks in the digital domain. Already on the 26th of February, the Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov called out to create an ‘IT army’. This army is now assessed to consist of thousands of digital talents, organizing cyber-attacks on the Russian government, media and financial institutions (Schechner, 2022).
While Russia, meanwhile, has a dreaded reputation for launching disinformation campaigns, Ukraine has for the time being also taken a strong stance in the cognitive realm. Throughout the conflict, Zelensky emphasised the difficulties the Russian army is facing, such as the declining motivation of the soldiers, the logistic difficulties in resupplying the Russian army and the large number of casualties (amongst which multiple generals) the Russian army is suffering. The narrative put forward is clear: Ukraine will sell its skin dearly and Russia should better prepare itself for major losses. Ukraine’s efforts to in providing a counter narrative even extend beyond its own media environment. Whereas Russia is well-know for its ‘controlled’ media-environment, Ukraine succeeds in reaching the Russian population by launching millions of advertisements, countering Russian psychological operations by overwhelming their websites and flooding their intelligence officers with spam (Harwell and Lerman, 2022).
5. Conclusions and recommendations
With the conflict in Ukraine, the EU is (for the first in a long time) being confronted with a major conventional conflict at its Eastern borders. Indeed, the terrible scenes observed, and the confrontation with the humanitarian consequences stemming from the conflict leave a strong impression. Nevertheless, analyzing the current conflict and the way Ukraine resisted to the Russian invasion enables us to draw lessons in the light of the evolving strategic landscape of great power competition. More specifically, this article focuses on the NATO concept of ‘layered resilience’, which focuses on the role of the civilian society and the civilian-military collaboration in increasing a nation’s resilience. We draw the following conclusions and related recommendations.
First, the Ukrainian-Russian conflict demonstrates the need to invest in logistical stocks; in terms of food, medicine, ammunition or weapons. The parallel with strategic stocks of mouth masks and medical supplies during the Covid crisis is certainly valid. Finland provides a good example in this respect, as the country has strategic stockpiles containing 6 months of all major fuels, grains, and 3-10 months worth of medical drugs (Milne, 2022). Moreover, nations need to think about plans and transport lines to ensure supply of resources needed to resist and fight over a long period. The tones of ammunition and weapons sent to Ukraine provide a good example of the means needed to wage conventional conflict over longer periods. Therefore, the crisis also provided a good stress test for NATO nations, which suddenly had to gather and ship ammunition and weapons to Ukraine at a rapid pace. From an alliance perspective, contingency plans need to be drafted, allowing the re-supply from diverse neighbouring countries or other partner nations within the frame of diverse scenario’s or disasters an alliance member may face. Indeed, this conflict has demonstrated how the rapid and strong support of one country in need by the others can lead to decisive outcomes, i.e. not succumbing to a surprise attack but being able to slow down the enemy by means of fierce resistance.
Second, the conflict demonstrates the necessity of quickly being able to absorb shocks and to provide early resistance during the initial phase of a conflict. A country’s combat potential can be raised in multiple ways, both in quality and in quantity. First, the Military Assistance the Ukrainian army received after 2014 certainly enhanced the quality of the official Ukrainian armed forces, allowing them to inflict damages to the Russian army, consisting of a large number of young and inexperienced soldiers. Second, a country can raise its combatants by investing more in operational reservists. Training reservists has the advantage to spare costs, to contribute to the ‘Whole of Governance Approach’ (since these persons are also working in other civilian sectors, but learn to think in terms of how to enhance national security. We again refer to Finland as a proper example. As a country of only 5.5 million people, it is capable of augmenting its 280.000 men army with 900.000 reservists. Moreover, National Defence courses are organized annually, teaching politicians and business leaders which role they can fulfill during a wide range of crisisses (Milne, 2022). Importantly, training reservists does not only serve the objective of increasing a country’s capacity to deliver kinetic effects. As seen during the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, the ‘IT-army’ can also add strong value and inflict considerable damages6. In addition, the enhanced civilian-military cooperation with the industrial sector could allow the accelerated production of goods needed during a crisis, such as body armor.
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