“Ukrainian resistance is a thorn in Putin’s side”

In Kiev, the capital, in Kharkiv, the country’s second city, and in the big cities attacked, the Ukrainians are standing up, for the moment, to the Russian army. On the fifth day of its offensive, Vladimir Putin’s army has conquered important territories, but it is far from having achieved its objectives as the Russian soldiers encounter resistance from the Ukrainian army as much as civilians.

During the weekend, images of Ukrainians intervening in front of Russian tanks, or taking up arms to fight against the invasion circulated on social networks, undermining the speech of the Russian president on a Russian army “liberating of the Ukrainian “brother people”.

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This “Ukrainian resistance potential had become evident in recent years”valued Anna Colin Lebedev, teacher-researcher in political science at the University of Paris-Nanterre, specialist in post-Soviet societies. According to her, we are witnessing “a massive mobilization of Ukrainians for the defense of their country as an independent state”.

What forms does the Ukrainian resistance take in this war and how is it organized?

At the forefront is the professional army. It is a resistance that did not exist at the start of the armed conflict, in 2014. The army was a weak point for Ukraine, which Russia was fully aware of. The number of the army was divided by four between 1991 and 2013. The underfunding of the army was permanent, barely allowing it to survive. In 2014, when Russia attacked in the Donbass, it was a crumbling army that it found in front of it. On the ground, it is moreover rather civilians, not at all trained, who fight.

The Ukrainian army is completely different today. It still has a lot of problems, starting with corruption, but the state and the citizens have integrated the idea that the Russian threat was present, that it was important to modernize the army, and the Ukrainians are attached to this institution. The latter has benefited from logistical support, training, partnerships with several Western countries and with NATO… Today, unlike in 2014, it has better quality weapons and equipment. Soldiers’ salaries have also increased considerably, and the eight-year war has brought more young Ukrainians into the profession.

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The resistance then organizes itself into what are called territorial defense battalions, which were created with the start of the war in 2014 and in which Ukrainians have been invited to re-engage for several weeks. , given the situation. These battalions are under the aegis of the army and citizens are encouraged to join them and take up arms to defend a territory. They are not made up of professional soldiers but of civilian fighters trained in the use of weapons. Some of those who participated in 2014 joined the army, others left the front but trained and are now mobilized again.

Finally, citizens who are not part of any armed unit also take up arms. We have seen, for example, distribution of Kalashnikovs to the population of Kiev, or residents, men and women, preparing Molotov cocktails, holding the front line, or even taking charge of the evacuation of the most vulnerable people. .

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Vladimir Putin repeats that Ukraine is only a “pseudo-state”, a “little Russia” which would merge into the big one. Don’t the images of this resistance undermine this propaganda discourse?

There is no doubt that there is a massive mobilization of Ukrainians for the defense of their country as an independent state. Civilians fighting in Ukraine are less driven by the desire to protect their own home than by a collective feeling that each year of war since 2014 has consolidated.

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By truly positioning himself as an enemy of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has clearly created a national unity that did not exist before. In 2014, when the war broke out in Donbass, national feelings were more disparate, Ukrainian society was crossed by various perceptions of Russia, of the common past and of the future. The war has pushed everyone, or almost, into the same camp. Today, anti-Ukrainian sentiments are encapsulated: the people who carry them live in a “separatist republic”or left for Russia.

To what extent did President Volodymyr Zelensky, who refused to leave the country and broadcast several videos of himself in Kiev, calling on Ukrainians to fight, participate in mobilizing this resistance?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a filmed speech in Kiev on February 28, 2022.

Its role is considerable. Resistance would have existed without him, but he galvanized it. Ukrainians were highly critical of their president, but many of his critics now find him heroic in stature. He was elected in 2019 by playing on his image of a simple citizen, even if he was not really. It is this symbolism that he embodies today: that of the ordinary Ukrainian who took up arms to defend his country, he who has not even done his military service and has received no training in the matter. .

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Volodymyr Zelensky also sends back to the citizens of his country an image opposed to that of two other personalities: the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, overthrown by the Maidan revolution, who had fled to Russia as soon as a danger of conflagration appeared ; and Vladimir Putin, whose photos the Ukrainians mock showing him seated at a table several meters from his defense minister, when Zelensky poses in fatigues with his in the streets of Kiev.

Can this resistance influence the development of the conflict?

Resistance is a thorn in the side of the Russian president. If this resistance allows the Ukrainians to oppose Russian forces with unexpected effectiveness, it could however lead to a catastrophe for Ukraine if Vladimir Putin changes his strategy to achieve his objectives. If it passes, for example, from an attempt to take cities to a strategy of destruction, with indiscriminate bombardments which would affect many civilians.

It also raises the question of the sources of information on which Vladimir Putin bases his decision to attack Ukraine and his vision of the country. Several elements seem to show that some Russian fighters did not expect to encounter such opposition. However, this potential for resistance had become evident in recent years. Either Vladimir Putin is ignoring the information given to him, or he is not being given the correct information.

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I also do not exclude that Vladimir Putin does not have a perfect knowledge of the real capacities of his army. A lot of money has been poured into military equipment and weaponry in recent years, but the military sphere, like all other strategic industries, is corrupt. It is possible that not all the money has been invested in the equipment, or that it is not performing as well as expected. It is also possible that the men are not as trained as they are said to be in Russia, especially in urban combat.

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