An earlier version of this essay, “Can Ukraine Harness the Power of the Small to Survive Russia’s Attack?” appeared in History News Network, June 5, 2022, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183298
Sometimes, the small can prevail—with strategic deployments of their strengths
Ticks would not fare well in direct combat with people. So the little insects hide under hair or in little corners of the larger mammal. They attack their prey quietly and often unnoticed. Disease-bearing ticks carry even smaller menaces, including Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and over a dozen other pathogens.
Covid-19 is another agent of destruction out of view. Much as we might like to swat these insects or microbes, they can skirt our defenses or attack without detection. Their hazards loom over humanity not despite their size, but because of their small stature.
In modern times when the big seem all powerful—billionaires, megastars, and even companies accepted as too big to fail—those tiny agents of destruction offer reminders of the power of the small.
A bleak fate has seemed to await Ukraine in the face of invasion by superpower Russia, unless they can use the powers of the small. This is what George Washington and Ho Chi Mihn have in common. They both used their advantages, including flexible adaptability and elusive maneuvering, to avoid direct confrontation with enemies of much greater strength.
The fledgling United States and the Vietnamese Communists used the tactics of small wars with no clear fronts. Hiding allowed waiting for opportune moments to attack before slipping back out of view. These tactics resemble those of terrorists who would have no chance if confronting a larger force directly. Such foes engage in “methods of combat not sanctioned by the Rules of War,” as the US Marine Corps wrote in its Small Wars Manual (1940), a description that would serve as rationale for the Corps’ own often-ruthless practices. Total war is the terrorism of well-armed powers able to destroy on large scales, while terrorism is the total war of the least powerful if they can avoid direct engagements, attack the big guns at their most vulnerable points, and wait for each next opportunity to use their strengths.
The small have surprising powers, but these are no sure bet.
Native Americans generally fought with small-wars approaches, achieving some defensive victories, but overall, they succumbed to defeat against the much larger forces of the US. The Seminoles are the exception that proves the rule with their elusive attacks and retreats steadily further south on the Floirida peninsula. They never won in three wars and countless small raids from the 1810s to the 1850s against their neighboring superpower, but they are the only undefeated Native American nation.
The Palestinians present an example of a people in steady retreat even before the formation of the state of Israel. After subordination to the Ottomans and then the British, they lost territory to immigrant Jews through fighting, land sales, and diplomacy, culminating in Israeli independence in 1948. Palestinian defeats in battle, leading to refugee camps, military occupation, and exile, encouraged many, especially in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas, to adopt terrorist tactics. This tempting tool of the weak led to morally outrageous assaults on Israeli civilians and widespread criticism. Palestinian civil society condemns these appeals to righteous anger, and the turns to terrorism have actually undercut Palestinian hopes. While both sides suffer, Palestinians share another challenge with Ukrainians. Just as many supporters of Israel’s expansion with settlements in the West Bank deny Palestine’s distinct identity among Arab countries, so Russian President Vladimir Putin does not recognize Ukraine’s distinct identity, as he brashly claimed last July.
Similarly, the Ukrainians have little hope in direct confrontation with their more powerful neighbor, but the methods of small wars offer a chance for their endurance in the face of overwhelming odds. Ukrainians were able to enlist just these strengths effectively in the first weeks of the war. While Russian munitions and tens of thousands of troops stretched toward the capital, Kyiv, Ukrainians from within their hometowns and cities attacked the lumbering and extended supply lines, surprising the invaders. Russian big weaponry wreaked its version of terror, but they could not stand up to the small-war tactics of the versatile defenders. Phase I of the war in the north-central parts of the country, advantage Ukraine.
The Russians are now engaging in a strategy similar to one waged by the British Empire against the rebellious Americans. When they could not quell the forces of sedition in northern colonies, they effectively gave up attempting conquest of those territories in favor of trying to secure the rest of the British North American colonies, although British attempts to isolate the rebellious north ended with their defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. In the same way, Russia is, at least for now, abandoning efforts to conquer the capital in order to try taking over the Donbas region in the east. The Russians are using their strength of arms to implement advantage Russia, with no qualms about unleashing not only wholesale destruction but also recruitment of Russian-leaning separatists in that region to engage in their own small-wars attacks. The shelling of Mariupol has left over 90% of that city’s buildings destroyed, with casualties high and climbing. After that city fell, the Russians now have in their sights on Severodonetsk, the last Ukrainian-held city in the Donbas.
These indiscriminate attacks point to another frequent—if grim—advantage for the small. Sympathy for Ukrainians, already high from being the victims of an unprovoked invasion, has soared around the world in the face of such brutal destruction. Ukrainians seek military aid to counter the munitions advantage of their invaders. Those anti-aircraft rockets and rifles will be only the tip of the spear of the nation’s strengths. The Russians hoped that their show of force would result in quick victory, but their very abilities to pound their opponents cruelly will sow dragon’s teeth that could turn on them with the strengthening of their victims’ morale and the growth of outside support. And the military strength of Ukraine will continue with their small-war tactics from looking for weak points in Russian supply lines and “sniping … from every angle,” as retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute put it. Ukrainian strength in the “legs” of flexibility will have a fighting chance against the arms of Russian might.
The big question is whether Ukrainian moral and tactical advantages can endure and prevail. Will their moral authority shine as with the American Patriots fighting for what historian Gordon Wood has called the democratic “destruction of aristocracy” with an unleashing of “people and their energies” or will they be viewed less favorably as terrorists? And will the small-wars tactics prove as effective as the Vietnamese Communists’ people’s war against munitions-rich Americans or as ineffective as Native Americans against that same type of American firepower in its pre-twentieth-century versions?
These are the contending forces in this unpredictable war, while civilians suffer, with more than a tenth of the Ukrainian population already fleeing the nation and millions more displaced in their own homeland. Russia has amplified its military strengths with the power of the unpredictable. Putin leaves politicians and experts worldwide guessing and afraid that any more direct involvement of other nations will spur escalation beyond Ukraine, possibly including the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Ironically, the traditional doctrine of deterrence, with the chilling threat of mutually assured destruction, has actually encouraged Russian aggression. If this distortion of deterrence continues, the war will be stretched long with abundant supplies of arms flying to Ukraine and with Russia preventing other nations from entering the war directly because of its nuclear threats. Meanwhile, Russian attempts at conquest through utter destruction will in turn bolster sympathy for Ukrainians.
The defenders will be short-term victims while in the long term they will possess what psychologist William James calls the strength of “invisible molecular moral forces… stealing in through the crannies of … bigness & greatness … like so many soft rootlets or like the capillary oozing of water” against the strength of major powers. However, he warns that the strengths of the small generally only emerge “if you give them time.” Short-term supplies of arms will allow long-term strengths to become effective.
Or Putin may become trapped by his expectation for swift victory and even by his own language. Russia’s big supply of weapons is leading to more brutal attacks, while Putin will not even call this a war but a “special military operation.” This public relations disaster could combine with the economic and diplomatic defiance of Putin’s policies to encourage the Russian leader to adopt a brazen claim never used by the US in Vietnam: declare victory and withdraw. Pressure on Putin to make this choice may be the clearest path to ending the bloodshed, and a path with more potential to let peace last than Henry Kissinger’s proposal for Ukraine to give up territory to Russia.
While Ukraine’s fate hangs in the balance, its greatest strengths, like those of lowly insects and microscopic pathogens, rests with its readiness to use the strengths of the small.