Never Underestimate Your Enemy: A Lesson from the Russia and Ukraine Crisis

Photo by the Atlantic Council


Throughout the history of conflict, many lessons have been learned. However, one theme remains consistent: never underestimate your adversary. From the Vietnam War (1955-1975); when the United States miscalculated the capabilities of the North Vietnamese forces, to the Arab Spring (2010-2012); when several Middle Eastern regimes overlooked the power of public uprisings; to the American Revolution (1775-1783), when Britain underestimated the military capabilities of the Americans, there have always been instances of when undervalued the strength of opposing parties led to influential players becoming unsuccessful. The most recent example of this is the war in Ukraine. Moscow severely underestimated the power of Ukraine and its army, particularly their strong desire to fight back against their oppressor. Russia’s lack of oversight when considering Ukraine’s military, a calculative and fiercly patriotic force, has led to some detrimental results for Putin’s original objectives.

Russia’s stated intentions for Ukraine consisted of two primary aims: preventing the nation from entering the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and maintaining power over the region. Both of these would significantly help Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, to further his geopolitical goals for Russia. An earlier attempt towards this was made in February 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, a region in Ukraine that was once under the control of the Russian Empire and thus still holds strong cultural and historical significance to Russia. Crimea is critical to Russia for more than just historical reasons—the peninsula grants access to the Black Sea region, which neighbors countries such as Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. With control established in Crimea, Moscow can gain a unique advantage, as Putin can now exert influence over these countries and maintain international connections. As Jonathan Masters, Deputy Managing Editor at the Council of Foreign Relations puts it,  “Russia’s seizure of Crimea was the first time since World War II that a European state annexed the territory of another. More than fourteen thousand people died in the fighting in the Donbas between 2014 and 2021, the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.”Although this annexation was unexpected for the international community, the war did not stop there, and other regions of Ukraine subsequently became involved.

The seizure of Crimea led to pro-Russian advocates in Luhansk and Donetsk, cities in eastern Ukraine (as seen in the map below) wanting to separate from Ukraine and seek interdependence with Russia. These regions consist of a significant ethnic Russian population, and the annexation created a higher rate of increase for the already existing pro-Russian sentiment there. Although Russia repudiated any military interference in these provinces, “both Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) reported the buildup of Russian troops and military equipment near Donetsk and Russian cross-border shelling immediately following Crimea’s annexation.” The differing opinions for Ukraine’s future that resulted from this conflict continued to escalate, and they help explain why these sentiments are still at stake today.


As an expansion of the ongoing war, Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and through military power, continuously aimed to infiltrate Ukrainian cities and exercise control: “In February 2022, Putin ordered a full-scale invasion, crossing a force of some two hundred thousand troops into Ukrainian territory from the south (Crimea), east (Russia), and north (Belarus), in an attempt to seize major cities, including the capital Kyiv, and depose the government.” Due to Moscow’s immense military capabilities and influence in eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian groups, the nation suspected that they could easily invade Ukraine. Russia utilized “hybrid warfare” in the Donbas region (consisting of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts) in Ukraine. This was through cyberattacks, information warfare, and military tactics. Per the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, “Military aggression is just one element of the Russian hybrid warfare against Ukraine. Other elements encompass: 1) propaganda based on lies and falsifications; 2) trade and economic pressure; 3) energy blockade; 4) terror and intimidation of Ukrainian citizens; 5) cyber attacks; 6) a strong denial of the very fact of war against Ukraine despite large scope of irrefutable evidence…” 

Through immense military power, Russia continuously destroyed Ukrainian regions and caused detrimental effects throughout the nation as the war dragged on. The Defense Ministry in Moscow states that “Russian aircrafts blew up two vessels carrying “Ukrainian saboteurs” off the Crimean peninsula, killing 13 commandos.” Another instance of this occurred when “Russia employed a tactic of attacking Ukraine’s power system throughout last winter, with some estimates saying Ukrainians living away from the front line spent about 35 days without power during the coldest months from October to March…In June, the UN estimated that Ukraine’s power generation capacity had been reduced to roughly half the level it was before Russia’s invasion began.” Moscow’s significant military power increased its success rates when invading Ukraine; however, Ukraine had a fierce response that demonstrated they were not to be underestimated. 

Internationally, Russia is known for having a robust military. Before the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, “As many as 190,000 Russian troops were poised to invade the country. Organized into as many as 120 battalion tactical groups, each had armor and artillery and was backed by superior air support.” However, Russia’s powerful possession of military resources was futile, as Vladimir Putin lacked strategy in his aim to attack Ukraine. On February 7, 2022, Russia began to attack the Chornobaivka airfield in Ukraine. However, “Ukrainian forces began counter attacking with armed drones and soon struck the helicopters that were flying in supplies from Crimea….By May 2, Ukraine had made 18 separate attacks on the airfield, which.. had eliminated not only dozens of helicopters but also ammunition depots, two Russian generals, and nearly an entire Russian battalion… Lacking both a coherent strategy for defending the airstrip and a viable alternative base, the Russians simply stuck to their original orders, with disastrous results.” Without creating a robust strategy to respond to a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Moscow overestimated the power of its military resources, and ended up losing a significant amount of capital. In an attempt to target Ukraine, the large amount of military power that Russia holds is insignificant against Ukraine’s calculated and careful attempts at defense. 

To supplement their computed defense strategies, Ukraine had a strong source of motivation that helped them resist the attacks. Although there was pro-Russian sentiment in the Eastern cities of Ukraine, the power of patriotism in the rest of the country made them successful. In an article entitled “Why War Fails”, British historian Lawrence Freedman compares and contrasts the motivation of Ukrainians and Russians. He states that, “in these circumstances, local initiative can simply lead to desertion or looting. By contrast, the Ukrainians were defending their territory against an enemy intent on destroying their land.” Although Ukraine did not have nearly as many military resources as Russia, their patriotism shone through their defense strategies, thus allowing them to fight back with fewer resources. Because they share a common enemy, their intrinsic motivation is stronger, and the risk of desertion is significantly smaller. Ukrainians also have the intent to protect their country, so they were able to stop a column of Russian tanks with merely 30 soldiers on quad bikes.  According to one account, a “huge column of Russian tanks that was destined for Kyiv was initially stopped by a group of just 30 Ukrainian soldiers, who approached it at night on quad bikes and succeeded in destroying a few vehicles at the head of the column, leaving the rest stuck on a narrow roadway and open to further attack.” As shown continuously throughout this conflict, the mistake of underestimating Ukraine’s willpower and patriotism caused a surprising defeat for Moscow. 

The consequences of underestimating Ukraine have been high for Moscow: “In November, Milley put the number of dead and wounded Russian soldiers at 100,000, and that could fall on the low side. A Pentagon official said in early August Russian casualties numbered 70,000-80,000…The Russian military has lost significant amounts of equipment. The Oryx website reports 8,000 pieces of equipment destroyed, damaged, abandoned, or captured, including some 1,500 tanks, 700 armored fighting vehicles, and 1,700 infantry fighting vehicles.” The limits to Russian military power have been consistently proven through Ukraine’s successes throughout the war, although they lack military and economic resources. This complex war has brought many losses, and a significant portion of them on Russia’s side came from a lack of strategy and underestimating Ukraine’s potential to succeed. From downplaying the quantity and effectiveness of military resources in Ukraine to undervaluing the patriotism that is strongly present in the nation, Ukraine has been able to resist many attacks from Moscow. The main lesson that can be learned from this ongoing war is to strategize offensives by understanding the potential of adversaries. By accurately noticing the capabilities and resources of the opposing side in a war, not only can a nation prepare accordingly but also prevent the losses that follow when coming into a fight unprepared. 


This article was edited by Hannah Pearce.