Ukrainian Strategic Lessons for Militarily Small States

On February 24th, 2022, Russian generals crossed the border into Ukraine expecting Ukrainian forces to rout and resistance to be minimal. Ukrainian forces were quick to dash these assumptions, bloodying the nose of their Russian invaders and proceeding to stop the invasion in its tracks. While a significant portion of Ukrainian success can be attributed to foreign support as well as the ineptitude of the Russian military, Ukraine has also undertaken a number of investments and preparations which have been fundamental to their success. These successful tactics encompass Ukraine’s development of a robust Non-Commissioned Officer corps within its Armed Forces, their extensive adoption of man-portable anti vehicle weapons and their creation of a competent reserve force to supplement their regular military. An examination of these tactics and initiatives reveals lessons on how smaller nations might be able to repel foreign invaders, or at least, deter aggression by threatening to drag conflicts into a pyric victory. As the world enters into a multi-polar era, many emerging powers may be emboldened or feel it is necessary to take hard power approaches to territorial or political disputes. If smaller states are able to effectively implement approaches similar to those employed by Ukraine, it may serve to protect their sovereignty against larger aggressors. Whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine emboldens or deters authoritarian states is unknown. However, states with relatively small militaries should endeavour to learn and implement the strategic lessons offered by Ukraine.

Ukrainian Non-Commission Officer Corps

Key to the strength of any modern military is the development of a non-commissioned officer corps. These soldiers, generally a rank of corporal, sergeant, warrant officer, or the national equivalent, provide the crucial link between officers and enlisted men. These ranks undertake the key middleman leadership roles essential for retaining cohesion on the battlefield. Ukraine, under the tutelage of NATO, has recognized the importance these soldiers play on the battlefield and has committed to their cultivation. In 2014, NATO implemented the Ukrainian DEEP program, seeking to instill in Ukrainian NCO’s an ability to train future leaders, the creation of a professional education system, and a coherent career system for Ukrainian NCOs.[1] Ukraine has recognized the importance of a strong NCO corps as well, and the country has begun to plan a progressive system of cash benefits for aspiring NCOs to incentivize enlisted troops in pursuing a military career.[2] The success of these reforms is being demonstrated on the battlefields of Ukraine daily. Chief Master Sgt. of the Ukrainian Air Force Kostiantyn Stanislavchuk argued that the dynamism and independence offered by a well-trained NCO corps is something the Russians cannot cope with using their outdated, top-down organization.[3]

The lesson of Ukraine’s NCO corps should be headed by all nations, especially those with relatively smaller militaries. Developing a corps of career leaders will aid a government immensely if the need for mass mobilization against a larger foe ever arises. While this NCO corps will not be able to win a conflict on its own, it will be instrumental in providing training for the incoming generation of soldiers. Moreover, a smaller yet more professional Ukrainian Force is proving more than capable of tackling a significantly larger but less organized opponent. This should serve as a lesson to defence planners throughout the world that while war is very much a numbers game, quality over quantity should be the end goal of any training regime. States which currently possess small militaries should take the lessons from Ukraine to seek out greater professionalization of currently enlisted soldiers, as well as examining avenues of retaining soldiers who would otherwise retire for the private sector at the end of service. States should also see the example of Ukraine as a call to make their military an enticing career option for skilled and talented young people. Governments possessing small militaries must revaluate their current prospects of career progression within the military and benefits to make their military a more appealing career option for young professionals.

Investment in Man Portable Anti Vehicle Weapons

One of the largest perceived advantages the Russian military held prior to and in the early stages of their invasion was the mechanization of their military. In 2021, foreign reports stated that Russia’s air power had increased significantly as a result of a modernization program.[4] Russia also boasts the largest arsenal of tanks in the world, possessing 2800 operational tanks and 10’000 tanks in reserve as of April 2022.[5] Ukraine, rather than attempting to match Russia’s number of vehicles, has opted instead to use man portable systems such as the Javelin Missile and Stinger Missile. These weapon systems are intended to offer a singular or small team of soldiers the firepower necessary to disable or destroy enemy aircraft or tanks. Ukraine has utilized these weapons to inflict a campaign of attrition against the Russian military. Thus far, Russia has lost over 1000 main battle tanks, 50 helicopters, and 36 fixed wing aircraft.[6]

The losses suffered by Russia are, in part, due to logistical and tactical failures of the Russian military. However, the fact the Russian military has not been able to simply overwhelm Ukraine with their sheer volume of tanks and aircraft attests to the effectiveness of these weapons and should be heralded as a call for nations to adopt them. The weapon systems serve as a remarkably cheaper alternative, with the Javelin costing less than $200k a unit and Singers only costing $38k a unit. These systems have the potential to destroy multi-million-dollar pieces of equipment, making their benefits far outweigh the costs. As Ukraine has demonstrated to the world, these weapons can serve as a cost-effective solution for smaller states who wish to defend against larger mechanized aggressors without investing in large vehicle or aircraft fleets.

Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces

Perhaps the most crucial way in which Ukraine has adequately prepared for the Russian invasion was through the creation of a territorial defense force (military reserve). In May of 2021, President Zelensky signed into law legislation aimed at increasing preparing the general population of Ukraine for national resistance.[7] On January 1st, Ukraine officially founded the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine as a separate military branch, and immediately set about seeking thousands of new recruits. These civilian volunteers are not expected to fulfil the same role as front line soldiers. Rather, they serve in crucial auxiliary positions such as aiding local authorities in securing population centers, combatting Russian sabotage operations, or working in logistical formations.[8] The positive impact of this force is being currently observed in Ukraine. Since the start of the invasion, Territorial Defence Units have been observed to be highly effective at countering Russian information campaigns, as well as responding quickly to threats present in their areas of operation. Their awareness of local conditions and terrain have allowed them to protect crucial infrastructure and civilian population centers, effectively halting Russia’s subversive activities In addition, their presence allows for greater mobility of Ukraine’s armed forces in confronting Russia, given that their auxiliary considerations are secured.[9]

The lesson of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force is one that should, perhaps more than any other, be emulated by militarily small nations, especially in conjunction with an aforementioned NCO corps. The establishment of a similar force would allow governments and defence strategists to dedicate more enlisted troops to direct engagements, entrusting auxiliary roles to civilian volunteers. This would greatly aid smaller militaries in struggles against larger opponents. Moreover, replicating such an initiative would not be a difficult feat. Governments could seek to recruit students, retired soldiers, and technical professionals into the ranks of this auxiliary force. Governments may consider the possibility of partnering with schools and employers to offer incentives and benefits for citizens to enlist, or to attempt to legislate time off in order to participate in training. A volunteer force such as this would require professional leadership however, and any government attempting to implement a program such as this should budget the allocation of experienced career soldiers in order to staff the command structure of this force.


Ukraine’s survival and success against a Russian onslaught has been noting short of amazing, and many nations who today find themselves at risk of a similar invasion should study closely which tactics have enabled this success. Many countries maintain small militaries, but Ukraine has demonstrated how even a small military can be used effectively. Investing in the professionalization of soldiers is key to drawing in young, talented individuals who will make the military their careers. Cheap but deadly weapons systems will also greatly assist nations who do not wish to pay to maintain large fleets of military vehicles. Lastly, preparing the general population is a highly effective way to ensure a robust defense against a foreign aggressor. For militarily small states, every responsibility that can be delegated to a civilian volunteer frees up another solider to confront the enemy, greatly aiding a government in its ability to confront threats. Defence planners around the world should dedicate serious analysis to emulating the example of the Ukrainians.

[1] “Building a Corps of Professional Non-Commissioned Officers in Ukraine.” NATO, April 20, 2016.

[2] Бокій, В. Г., В. В. Коваль, and В. В. Світак. “Training of Privates, Sergeant Staff in the Training Center of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” Системи обробки інформації, no. 2 (169) (2022): 19–24.

[3] Woody, Christopher. “Russian Forces ‘Can’t Cope’ with the ‘Unpredictability’ of Ukrainian Troops, Top Enlisted Leader Says.” Business Insider, August 2, 2022.

[4] Nersisyan, Leonid. “Russian Combat Aviation: Procurement, Modernization, and Future Outlook.” Center For Naval Analyses, December 2020.

[5] Mark F Cancian, “Will the United States Run out of Javelins before Russia Runs out of Tanks?,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 12 April, 2022,

[6] Jones, Seth G. “Russia’s Ill-Fated Invasion of Ukraine: Lessons in Modern Warfare.” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 1, 2022.

[7] “President Signed Laws on National Resistance and Increasing the Number of the Armed Forces.” President of Ukraine, July 29, 2021. President Of Ukraine.

[8] Kossov, Igor. “Ukraine’s New Military Branch: Citizens Protecting Their Neighborhood.” POLITICO, February 13, 2022.

[9] Horyń, Wojciech, and Robert Tomasik. “Territorial Defense Forces in Hybrid Warfare in the Light of Experience of the Conflict in Ukraine.” Scientific Journal of the Military University of Land Forces 203, no. 1 (2022): 81–95.