Why powerful States lose asymmetric wars: Lessons from Ukraine – Op ed

Professor Jimmy D. Kandeh: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 01 April 2022:

The wars powerful States like to fight are precisely the ones they tend to lose. Wars of aggression against weaker opponents have not always ended well for aggressor States, not because of hard power deficits but because they overestimate their capabilities and underestimate the capacity, resolve and tenacity of weaker adversaries. (Photo above: Professor Jimmy D. Kandeh).

Wars of aggression are inherently unjust and tend to stiffen the resolve of the weak, rally the nation against a common enemy and unite a people with a sense of purpose, mission and collective sacrifice.

No event, it can be argued, has contributed more to unite Ukrainians since the establishment of the Kievan Rus in the 9th century than Putin’s brutal invasion. Russians living in Ukraine, not to mention Ukrainians and the rest of the world, have been horrified by the maddening ferocity of Putin’s assault. War crimes may produce a few battle-wins but they can never form the basis for sustainable peace and security.

Several factors help determine the outcome of wars involving combatants with asymmetric capabilities and resources. These include military capabilities, resolve or determination to fight, terrain and tactics, legality of war (just/unjust wars) and external/domestic support.

Superior military capabilities advantage powerful States but they don’t guarantee victory in wars. The resolve of a State or its people to fight can offset the military advantages of the most powerful States in the world. United States in Vietnam, China in Vietnam, Soviet Union and United States in Afghanistan and United States in Iraq are examples of armed conflicts that did not end in victory for powerful States.

The current invasion of Ukraine by Russia invites comparison with its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, a war the Soviets lost to the Mujaheddin and a defeat that precipitated the Soviet empire’s demise. Ukraine looks like a quagmire for the Russians, just as Afghanistan was for the Soviets and Americans, proving once again that powerful States don’t always win wars over weaker foes. The balance of resolve, nature of the war, combat terrain, tactics of combatants, external and domestic support, are important factors that can neutralize the advantages of military superiority.

An imbalance or disparity in resolve is a key dynamic that shapes the outcome of asymmetric wars. In many cases it is the States with superior military capabilities that lack resolve while those with high levels of resolve often possess inferior military capabilities. But what weak States and combatants lack in capabilities they often make up for by the sheer force of their determination to ultimately prevail.

Playing the long game favors weak States but frustrates strong States who can invade and occupy the former but can never hold on to them because of sustained resistance to occupation. Superior resolve trounced the French army in Algeria, the American army in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq and the Soviet army in Afghanistan.

A similar scenario may be unfolding in Ukraine where Russia’s invasion has run into problems that have less to do with capabilities than troop morale and the determination of Ukrainians to defend their country against Russian aggression.

It is tough to win any war with unmotivated foot soldiers consisting largely of draftees, as is the case with Russian troops, and whose low morale is compounded daily by mounting combat fatalities.

Terrain can favor the weak in asymmetric wars. Terrain familiarity is a critical asset weaker forces tend to have that aggressor States often lack. This differential renders the armed forces of aggressor States highly vulnerable to ambushes, traps and mass fatalities. Afghanistan is the ‘graveyard of empires’ because of the historical role of its impenetrable mountainous terrain in stalemating and fending-off foreign invaders (British, Soviet, America). Tora Bora was both hideout and escape route for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters after the United States invaded Afghanistan and the jungles of Vietnam in an earlier period provided cover for insurgents that helped minimize American air superiority in the Vietnam war.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been slowed due to the adaptability of Ukrainian forces, which include civil defense units, and the inability of Russian forces to adapt as quickly to rapidly changing environments. This difference in capacity to adapt on the battlefront is best illustrated by Russia’s forty-mile blitzkrieg convoy that was headed for Kiev but got nowhere.

Tactics (guerrilla warfare, civil defense, booby traps, roadside bombings, suicide missions, etc) and weaponry (platform versus anti-platform) distinguish combatants in asymmetric warfare. While powerful States like Russia rely heavily on platform weapons like fighter jets, battle ships and tanks, it is the strong anti-platform capabilities of the Ukrainians that is leveling the battlefield with the Russians. These weapons have been so effective against Russian tanks and fighter jets that Volodymyr Zelensky is asking for 500 javelin missiles a day to shoot at Russian tanks.

Ukrainians are making use of fortified checkpoints and guerilla tactics to defend their cities and towns, options that are not readily available to the Russians whose forces are taking heavy losses in a war that has certainly not gone Putin’s way.

Powerful States often claim to be in compliance with the rules of war while weaker belligerents, especially armed irregulars, are typically portrayed as non-compliant. But in Ukraine it is the Russians, not the Ukrainians, that are committing war crimes. Counter-value targeting of civilians may have worked in Chechnya where Putin incinerated Grozny but Chechnya is inside Russia’s borders unlike Ukraine where Putin may be following the same playbook albeit against a sovereign State.

Powerful States are most vulnerable in ground wars. They can control air spaces, launch missiles and fire artillery at chosen and collateral targets but they cannot occupy a country without putting boots on the ground. And it is when they engage in ground combat that battles begin to tilt in favor of the weak and against the powerful. Vietnam taught America to be wary of ground wars (Nixon doctrine) and to instead support proxies in Low Intensity Conflicts (LICs).

Low-intensity conflicts became synonymous with a policy of destabilization (Reagan doctrine) in places like Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Angola where the United States supported insurgents (Contras, Mujaheddin, UNITA) against incumbent governments in the name of containing communism. Iraq and Afghanistan were the first post-Vietnam conflicts in which America committed large ground forces and the outcomes in both cases were disastrous. A similar result seems to be unfolding for Russia in Ukraine where the advance of ground forces on major cities has stalled and weary Russian troopss continue to take heavy losses at the hands of Ukrainian armed regulars and irregulars.

External support can make a difference in combating aggression and prolonging armed conflicts. Aggressors tend to lose long, protracted wars of attrition that strengthen the resolve of weaker States and combatants while demoralizing and weakening the resolve of powerful States. Other than a few Jihadists who joined their ranks, Chechnya separatists attracted little or no external support in their struggle for independence from the Russian State.

Ho Chi Ming’s Forces could not have held their own against the superior military might of the Americans without support from the Soviet Union and China, and the anti-aircraft stinger missiles used by the Mujaheddin to bring down Soviet fighter jets and helicopters in Afghanistan were supplied by America. These same stinger missiles are once again being used with great effectiveness in Ukraine against the Russians.

With NATO united in its support of Ukraine and given the groundswell of goodwill for Ukraine around the world that Russia’s invasion has triggered, it is difficult to see an off-ramp for Putin that does not leave Russia diminished and far weaker after than prior to the invasion. By helping Ukraine resist aggression, prolong the war and make it costly for Russia, external support has eroded Putin’s chances of subjugating Ukraine.

Putin’s best outcome is a stalemate in which he cannot win but does not want to lose or be seen as loser. Stalemates are associated with quagmires and both the Russians and Americans have had plenty of experience dealing with such situations but the isolation Russia is currently facing is unprecedented in the post-cold war era and more damaging to its war efforts in Ukraine than when it invaded Afghanistan. Russia was also far less integrated into the global economy during the cold war than it is today and sanctions have amplified its vulnerabilities.

While Ukraine enjoys robust external support Russia has been widely denounced and slapped with very punitive sanctions. Domestic support for Ukraine’s counter-offensive against Russian invaders is strong and not likely to recede even with mounting casualties, dislocations and privations.

Russian casualties are hidden from the Russian public out of fear that such reportage could stoke opposition to the war and Russians who have demonstrated against the war have been rounded-up and detained. Huge combat fatalities, which already exceed the combined figures from Afghanistan and Chechnya, and the sudden isolation of Russia are likely to turn many Russians against Putin’s war and personalist dictatorship.

Censorship and propaganda may prevent Russians from learning about the war but it cannot insulate them from the effects of biting sanctions and global isolation.

The deck is stacked against Putin who may lose his latest war of aggression because of some of the reasons outlined above. Russia lacks the resolve of the Ukrainians and Putin’s invasion has united Ukrainians and steeled their determination to fight against a superior and ruthless military power.

International law is on Ukraine, not Russia’s, side and the unprecedented levels of external support for Ukraine is tilting the scales of war against the Russians. Sanctions and isolation have transformed Russia into a pariah State and this creates all sorts of difficulties not just for its troops in Ukraine but for the entire Russian population.

Fighting in their own backyard gives Ukrainians the upper-hand against Russians whose lack of terrain familiarity, with low morale and high combat losses may explain their stalled advance on Kyiv and their preference for shooting missiles and artillery from afar rather than engage in close armed urban combat. The fact that Russia is fighting an unjust war in Ukraine and is on history’s wrong side also increases the odds of failure.

With Ukraine outperforming and Russia underperforming expectations, what is unfolding in Ukraine is yet another reminder that powerful States, especially superpowers, do not always prevail in asymmetric wars of aggression. (Photo: Author – Jimmy D. Kandeh).

Putin wants independence for Russian separatists in Ukraine but does not want Chechens in Russia to be independent. He would like nothing more than to reconstitute the former Soviet Union by reincorporating as many of its former republics into Russia. But centuries of Russification under tsarist and socialists did not fundamentally change the orientation and attachment of non-Russians to their respective national identities.

What united Soviet citizens was weaker than what divided them and it is this reality that, among other factors, made possible the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Putting this empire back together in whatever form would represent an existential threat not only to Russia’s neighbors but to the rest of the world.

About the author

Jimmy Kandeh is a professor of political science at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. He retired as a professor of political science at Richmond University, the USA, in 2021.


  1. It is clearly useful to draw readers’ attention to historical facts regarding Russia’s Great Power status and to the history of how Ukraine came into being. However, do these historical facts justify the monstrosity – colossal loss of lives and large-scale damage to property and basic infrastructure – that Russia’s invasion of choice of Ukraine has become? But first let me be clear. As a non-specialist commenting on an issue that falls within the disciplines of imperial history and political science/ international relations, I have only very rudimentary ideas to put forward, hoping that they will make sense to readers interested in the ongoing conversation about Russia’s current war effort – call it a special military operation if you will – aimed at keeping Ukraine within its geopolitical orbit.

    It is being argued that Russia has the right to seek to create, or rather, recreate its spheres of influence as a Great Power and to thus protect ethnic Russians living outside its current boundaries in those nation states which until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 had been part and parcel of that Russian-dominated and controlled imperial entity. Yet the basic issue, to my mind, is that the Soviet Union has disintegrated, giving rise to a new geopolitical reality. And it seems that no amount of military muscle flexing by Russia can put it back together. Remember the tragic fate that befell that very well-known English nursery rhyme character Humpty Dumpty! In other words, we now live in the 21st century, in which the inalienable right of peoples and nations, big and small, to determine their political trajectories and indeed destinies is forever enshrined in international law. I will repeat: Czarist Russia and its successor state of Russian-dominated and controlled Soviet Union are no more. Just like the Roman Empire before them. And just like the British and French Empires, both of which disappeared soon after the Second World War. For the good of its own people, those of neighbouring East European states including Ukraine for that matter, and, more generally, those of the wider world, post-Soviet Russia under Putin should learn to accept and live with the fact that empires are not eternal, unpalatable and indigestible though this truth may be.

    Lastly, let us argue for a moment that 21st-century Soviet Russia is justified in annexing Crimea and in seeking to do the same to the Donbas on the grounds that the inhabitants of those regions of Ukraine are ethnic Russians. Taking that point to its logical conclusion, one could say that annexing Russified areas of the Baltic States will be in order and should be Putin’s next step. But the logic of such identity politics echoes inevitably Hitler’s expansionist ambitions in Eastern Europe, epitomised by his annexation of Sudetenland. Furthermore, the ethnic argument leads us back to the Soviet Union itself. Was that polity not then an anomaly, that is, illegitimately constituted? Indeed, were the tens of millions of non-Russian peoples (ethnic Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Georgians, Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmens, Uzbeks, Azeris and so on) that were part of that imperial entity not held there against their will? Now that they have regained their independence and sovereignty, should they not be allowed to rule themselves as they ‘see fit’? After all, if post-Soviet Russia has areas within its internationally recognised boundaries that are home to non-Russian ethnicities (the Chechens for example), why deny Ukraine the right to exist as a linguistically and culturally diverse country? Let us hope and pray that the translation of the ethnic argument into military action by Russia in its attempt to annex the Donbas region of Ukraine will be stopped dead in its tracks. Russia should learn to live and let live.

  2. Please forgive typo errors in previous post. That said, I thought it best to partly re-post comments from an article written by Pepe Escobar on the Ukraine v Russia conflict:

    “There’s a lot of analytical discussion on the possible endgame of Operation Z. A fair assessment would include the liberation of all of Novorossiya and total control of the Black Sea coastline that currently is part of Ukraine.

    “Ukraine” in fact was never a state; it was always an annex to another state or empire such as Poland, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and crucially Russia.

    The landmark Russian state was Kievan Rus. “Ukraine”, in old Russian, means “border region”. In the past, it referred to the westernmost regions of the Russian Empire. When the Empire started expanding south, the new regions annexed mostly from Turkish rule were called Novorossiya (“New Russia”) and the northeastern regions, Malorossiya (“Little Russia”).

    It was up to the USSR in the early 1920s to jumble it all together and name it “Ukraine” – adding Galicia in the west, which was historically non-Russian. Yet the key development is when the USSR broke up in 1991. As the Empire of Lies de facto controlled post-Soviet Russia, they could never have possibly allowed the real Russian regions of the USSR – that is, Novorossiya and Malorossiya – to be again incorporated to the Russian Federation.

    It was up to the USSR in the early 1920s to jumble it all together and name it “Ukraine” – adding Galicia in the west, which was historically non-Russian. Russia is now re-incorporating them – in an “I Did It, My Way” manner.”

    Good day!

  3. With due regard to Jimmy and Yusuf Bangura, Leo Africanus’ post is an accurate analysis of the ‘matter’ in Ukraine. Great Powers (Russia is and has been for the past 300/400 years) have geo-political and existential strategic interests. Ukraine is such! Hardly surprising! Ukraine, as presently configured, was created by the Soviets in 1922 or thereabouts. Western Ukraine, prior, was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Arguably, the Poles would like to have it back. Central, and South-eastern Ukraine (including the coastlands) were, even prior to the existence of the United States, was and still is populated by predominantly ethnic and cultural Russian peaking populations.

    To close, this “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine, as stated by the Russian State is exactly what it is! Conflict? Yes! Not a war by the Russians (at this time) for existential reasons. My settled opinion on the matter, and I don’t have “a dog in this fight” is that its a civil war between Western and Eastern Slavs. There is not only unfinished business from WW2 (western Ukraine, largely welcomed the German invaders) but also the manner in which the Soviet Union was dissolved. Mr Putin referred to this in his Munich Conference speech in 2007. He stated, and I paraphrase, that overnight 25 to 30 million ethnic and cultural Russians found themselves ‘stateless’ in these ‘new states’ that had been part of the Soviet Union! As he stated then, and I paraphrase, the Russian State would seek to resolve his matter as it ‘sees fit’

  4. This essay by Professor Jimmy Kandeh is a fine, rich, well-argued and informative account of the nature and function of asymmetric warfare with particular reference to the ongoing horrendous Russo-Ukrainian fratricidal bloodletting. An equally fine and well-argued piece albeit much shorter in scope is Mr Leo Africanus’ response to the essay, in particular his refutation of Professor Kandeh’s overarching claim that for all its ascendancy over Ukraine where the possession and deployment of hard ware capabilities are concerned, Russia has for all sorts of reasons lost (or is at the very least losing one might say) the war.

    Indeed, Mr Africanus claims that it is Ukraine that has in fact lost the war, being as he points out the sacrificial lamb of NATO’s deliberate and provocative expansionist ambitions and actions that have resulted in undermining Russia’s global ambitions and sense of its own security. Hence Russia’s decision to wage war and apparently legitimately so because that decision is quite in keeping with the theory that in a world where anarchy prevails powerful states tend to assert, pursue and bring to fruition their hegemonic interests and objectives. However, in my humble opinion, much as Mr Africanus has a point when he implies that NATO is no innocent bystander (it is instead directly implicated) regarding the catastrophe that is unfolding before our very eyes, the fact remains that the scale of destruction visited on Ukraine and its people by Russia’s pursuit of its hegemonic ambitions delegitimizes completely any moral basis such pursuit might have, exposing in the process its deeply flawed, nihilistic and indeed diabolic practical consequences and ramifications and those of the theory underpinning it. Additionally, if Russia has proved over the centuries to be the graveyard of both Napoleon’s and Nazis’ imperial expansionisms, it seems quite logical to assume that its current action in Ukraine will meet the same fate – the graveyard of its 21st-century version of what Napoleon and the Nazis in their varying ways sought to do to it and failed most disastrously.

    Professor Kandeh’s argument therefore comes across as being both logical and convincing. What is more, the breadth and depth of analysis the Professor provides and the flair and elegance with which he writes result in a first-rate piece. It definitely reminds me of the exceptional quality of Dr Yusuf Bangura’s recent piece on the war and its implications for our own continent. It is really great to have two Sierra Leonean academic giants for company. But Kudos none the less to Mr Africanus for his perspicacity and robust counter argument, proving that debate and dissent are essential if we are to understand our world and how it works.

  5. John Mearsheimer has an alternative view to the professor. He warned that the expansion of NATO to Ukraine will be an existential threat to the Russians. His theory of offensive realism is best encapsulated in the Ukraine. States will seek to achieve hegemony in their spheres of influence due to anarchy in the international arena. Therefore, any state that fails to act would be irrational. Russia has already won the war in Ukraine. Zelensky is an idiot and a comedian, else he would realise that he has been abandoned.
    The Americans are engaged in passing the buck to Ukraine as a sacrificial lamb for their territorial expansion into Eastern Europe, as their hands are tied due to the mutually assured destruction policy.

    Putin has no need to enter Kiev. Strategically, Russia is implementing a stranglehold on Ukraine by attacking the major ports and then Ukraine will be landlocked without access to the sea. The brain drain of Ukrainians into the EU, where, they are as eager to reach as any Afghan will subsequently affect the nation. Any general worth his salt will avoid entering Kiev. A siege would be more effective, as the best and most aggressive fighter cannot function without basic logistics. Therefore, the Russians do not need to fight them but starve them, as they did in Mariopol. Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, yet the honourable professor fails to note that Russia is the graveyard of imperialist ambitions. Ask the Golden horde, the French under Napoleon and the Nazis.

    Finally, the ethnic makeup of Ukraine has been disregarded, as Eastern Ukraine is mainly Russian speaking and Russian orthodox in faith, while western Ukraine is Catholic and Ukrainian speaking, therefore, the comparison with Afghanistan does not stand. As the Russians have heavy support in the east.

    • Great piece, Jimmy. Russia is a declining imperial power with expansionist ambitions. The history of national struggles for independence has repeatedly shown that imperial powers don’t win wars in which those they try to dominate resist subjugation and are supported by powerful external forces and large sections of the community of nations. The balance of resolve, as you rightly explained it, is heavily titled in favour of Ukraine.

      The big question Putin and his supporters should ask themsevles is why is it that most countries that were part of the Soviet bloc don’t want to remain under Russia’s influence and seek instead stronger ties with West? Russia’s backward economy, imperial mindset and mindless authoritarianism explains why ex-Soviet republics and the countries of Eastern Europe now find Russia repulsive.

      This war has shown that Ukraineans do not only want to be free and independent, they now hate Russia despite the cultural ties between the two countries.

      I don’t se how Putin or any other Russian leader with an imperialist mindset will incroporate Ukraine back into the Russian empire. Imperialism and the doctrine of spheres of influence equate might with right and render the fredom, sovereignty and territorial integrity of small states meaningless.

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