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7 December, 2018  ▪  Maksym Vikhrov

The will to resist

What factors affect the ability of nations not to capitulate during long-term armed conflicts?

Two years ago, according to Gallup International, 62% of Ukrainians (both men and women) were ready to take up arms to defend their homeland, while the average figure for Western Europe was about 25%. However, the Russian aggression is not only military in character. Russia puts economic pressure on us, demonstratively abuses Ukrainian hostages and tries to demoralise and destabilise our society. Meanwhile, an entire choir of voices calling for "compromise", trying to take advantage of war fatigue, never dies down. This has been going on for almost 5 years and no end is in sight. How much longer will we hold out for? There are too many unknowns in the equation to make any more or less well-grounded predictions. However, it is clear that one of the main components of our "stamina" is the national will to resist. In practical terms, this refers to the ability of the country's leadership to pursue a corresponding policy, even if political, economic and military losses increase or when chances of success seem smaller and smaller. Which factors determine a nation's will to resist? Although this issue sounds like a purely philosophical one, the results of a study on it were presented in September 2018 at the Arroyo Center, a division of the RAND corporation, which carries out strategic studies commissioned by the US government and military leadership. This research project was initiated to assess a possible conflict scenario on the Korean peninsula, as well as one involving Russia and NATO members.

The first group of factors influencing the will to resist is directly linked to the military sphere: the balance of forces, duration of the conflict and number of losses. However, our situation is rather specific, because in the Donbas there is a hybrid war with limited use of military means and the widest possible application of all others. Whatever the case may be, Ukraine's positions appear to be the strongest in the military sphere. Despite the obvious advantage of Russia, Ukraine was able to do what was almost impossible: fight back in 2014, put the army in order and even launch its modernisation. The military losses that peaked in 2014-2015 did not paralyse Ukrainian society, but rather provided the reverse effect described by RAND researchers: they forced society to realise how high the stakes were, activated national feelings and stimulated public support. However, despite everything, time is playing against us. According to the RAND classification, the Russian-Ukrainian war will soon enter the long-term conflict (five years or more) category, which will bring "fatigue" and other negative non-military factors to the foreground.

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The second group of factors is linked to the government. According to RAND researchers, totalitarian regimes, which have an effective bureaucracy and control over public opinion, and developed democracies, in which power isbased on high legitimacy and decisions reflect the will of citizens, have the greatest resistance in a conflict. Unfortunately, Ukraine is not yet a developed democracy, so authoritarian Russia has the advantage here. There is a massive gulf of distrust between government and society: according to the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, the level of mistrust in President Petro Poroshenko is 60%, in the government 65% and in parliament 76%, etc. According to election ratings, there are no political leaders at all that, if necessary, would be able to mobilise society for resistance based on their own authority. Unlike Russia, where the stability of the "power vertical" is guaranteed by the security forces, Ukraine is always at risk of a serious political crisis, which in particular may turn out to be the comeback of internal pro-Russian forces. The lack of agreement among the country's leadership and the political elite is another factor that negatively affects the will to resist. The permanent threat of the collapse of the ruling coalition, the activity of openly pro-Russian forces and confrontation in the "patriotic" camp may all have their own causes, but they objectively weaken us. The only conflict Ukraine has been able to avoid so far (at least openly) is one between civilian and military leaders, the negative consequences of which are emphasisedby RAND experts. The high level of public confidence in the Armed Forces that has been maintained since the beginning of the war should also be mentioned.

The situation regarding other socio-political factors varies greatly. RAND researchers ask three questions: How high are the stakes of the confrontation in the eyes of society? How high is public support for the confrontation? Does national identity affect the confrontation? Very different interpretations of the first question are possible. Judging by the high readiness of Ukrainians to defend their homeland, one can make optimistic assumptions. This is evidenced by the phenomenon of the mass volunteer movement that was launched on the initiative of society in the first months of the war. But sociological studies shows that this resource of public support is limited. According to the Democratic Initiatives fund, only 20% of Ukrainians agree to a surrender ("peace at any price"), but at the same time only 17% approve the military option (the costliest one), while arelative majority (50%) is ready for certain compromises ("but not all"). As for national identity, Russia actively appealed to it during the initial stage of its aggression, trying to attract "Russian compatriots" in Ukraine onto its side. Although it did not particularly effect the results, part of our society considers the war to be one of national liberation, which gives resistance a valuable, existential significance. Obviously, it is precisely this group of people that are the social driving force behind resistance and a foothold for the political circles that put an emphasis on continuing the struggle.

Theoretically, the leadership of the country can strengthen the unity of society and the elite by using communicative techniques. In a broad sense, it is about indoctrinating (i.e. educating) society in the appropriate spirit, as well as effective communication with communities inside and outside the country. A specific element of the Ukrainian situation is the fact that the government only took serious action when the war had already started. There was a considerable delay before broadcasts of Russian TV were stopped, its internet resources were blocked, media and cultural products from Russia were restricted and the patriotic element was strengthened in the education system. The practical effectiveness of all this is another issue. Firstly, society has no confidence in the government itself and, secondly, Ukrainians do not trust the media too much. For example, among the audience of the five most popular domestic TV channels (1+1, Inter, Ukraina, ISTV and STB), only 14-35% of viewers believe news items about Ukraine's relations with Russia and the situation in the Donbas. Citizens' awareness of the state's strategy for the Donbas and Crimea is also low. For example, at the beginning of 2018, 50.2% of Ukrainians had "heard about but did not know the details" of the law on the reintegration of the Donbas, whereas 40.6% of them "just heard about it for the first time" (KIIS, 2018). No one talks about Ukraine havingan informational influence on Russian society, while Russian propaganda has a significant influence on our country. According to KIIS, from 2015 to 2017, the Russian propaganda efficiency index declined from 26 to 23 points (out of a possible 100), although at the end of 2017 it was 33 and 34 points in the South and East respectively.

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It is somewhat paradoxical, but the authorities have been much more successful in communicating internationally than with their own society. Having secured the support of the West, Ukraine was to some extent able to compensate for its weakness in many areas when compared to Russia. Not having its own economic resources for long-term resistance, it received them from allies. Moreover, we managed not only to withstand Russia's economic pressure, but also to mobilise the world community to apply sanctions against Russia itself. According to the RAND criteria, this is a great success. Although we did not get direct help from allied troops, the containment of Russian military aggression is in no small partthe result of political support from the West. In this way, it is the support of the West that cancels out the economic and military superiority of Russia. Obviously, the greatest risks for Ukraine are now concentrated in the socio-political sphere. Here, allied aid from the West is just one of the factors – an important, but not a decisive one. If Kyiv does not follow the policy of resistance in light of certain circumstances, neither Washington nor Brussels will be able to prevent this. That is why Russia is now putting more emphasis on destabilising Ukrainian society and bringing chaos into its political life than on fighting in the Donbas. Based on the model presented in the RAND study, this is the area where Ukraine is the most vulnerable and which could be used to undermine our national will to resist. In view of our circumstances, the main way to keep ourselves safe is effective solidarity between civil society and the patriotic political elites that are determined to oppose Russia as much as it needed.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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