Will to Fight Difference-Maker in Ukraine

Will to Fight Difference-Maker in Ukraine

A U.S. and a Ukrainian soldier train together.
Photo by: U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. John Yountz

After more than 16 months of fighting, the Ukrainian soldiers’ will to fight has emerged as one of the most important lessons of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a senior intelligence officer said.

Col. Sean Stinchon, director of foreign intelligence for the deputy Army chief of staff, G2, said that as the world watched Russia amass its troops on Ukraine’s border in the latter part of 2021, “we were like, man, the Ukrainians are going to get smoked very quickly.”

But while Army intelligence “got the Russian invasion part right, we didn’t exactly get the Ukrainians’ will to fight right,” he said.

In a war that has been marked by the use of technology such as weaponized drones, a breadth of data from social media and other forms of open-source intelligence, and a saturation of sensors and hyperconnectivity, it was the very human response to defend the country that made, and continues to make, a difference, Stinchon said.

“There are a lot of lessons here, but that lesson, that the will to fight matters in a conflict, is one I think we should all take away,” Stinchon said at a recent Association of the U.S. Army Hot Topic forum focused on Army cyber programs.

When the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, Stinchon said, the assessment by the intelligence community was that after two decades of being trained and equipped by U.S. troops—and making sacrifices alongside U.S. troops—the Afghan soldiers would fight and hold their ground.

“We assessed that the Afghans would fight, potentially lose some ground over time to the Taliban. We all know that’s not what happened,” Stinchon said. “We had the Afghan security forces collapse very quickly, we saw the Taliban take over very quickly, we saw Afghan President Ghani flee the country.”

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stayed, led and inspired the nation, while Russian President Vladimir Putin, planning to rely on his cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, underestimated Ukraine’s will to fight, Stinchon said.

“He didn't employ his maneuver correctly, he didn't use dismount effectively, his folks were decimated and had to withdraw,” Stinchon said, adding that Putin “didn't really push his electronic warfare forces forward like he should have … certainly not with the plan for a months- to yearlong conflict.”

The intelligence community continues to watch developments in Ukraine very closely and is working to assess how it can apply the will to fight lesson to a potential China-Taiwan scenario in the Indo Pacific theater, he said.