December 22, 2016

Defining Ukraine’s National Resilience in Light of Non-linear Threats: Where to Start?

People hold a Ukrainian National flag as they take part in a rally in Kiev on October 14, 2016 to celebrate the Defender of Ukraine Day and the creation of the paramilitary partisan movement Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), aimed at fighting for independence against Polish, Soviet and German forces in western Ukraine.
People hold a Ukrainian National flag as they take part in a rally in Kiev on October 14, 2016 to celebrate the Defender of Ukraine Day and the creation of the paramilitary partisan movement Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), aimed at fighting for independence against Polish, Soviet and German forces in western Ukraine.

What makes eastern Ukraine more resilient than expected and/or calculated by the aggressor, which has succeeded in annexing the Crimea and occupying a territory of some four million people,1 but was stopped from penetrating further? A non-violent civilian defence was one of the key factors in deterring the aggression. A bigger question is what is required to build a sustainable societal and national resilience, where society can become an effective player in providing security. We have been seeking the answers to these questions, as the security threats in Ukraine are similar to those in Estonia.

To find the answers and lay out a road map of national resilience-building, we must first define resilience in light of growing unconventional security threats.

First Steps in Defining National Resilience as a Concept of National Security Policy

In development, humanitarian, and disaster- and risk-reduction management policies, resilience is defined as “the ability of an individual, a household, a community, a country or a region to withstand, cope, adapt, and quickly recover from stresses and shocks such as violence, conflict, drought and other natural disasters without compromising long-term development” (European Commission).2

Yet central to withstanding hybrid attacks are understanding the transformation of the nature of the conflict, created and fuelled by unconventional means, and a swift response and recovery from the crisis. The concept of resilience being part of a comprehensive approach to building national security has made its way into security and foreign policy. The crisis in the EU’s neighbourhood made it understand the need no longer to ensure democratisation and economic growth but rather the ability of its partners to stand up to emerging threats. The policy of supporting civil society as a promoter of democratic values requires the civilian sector to become a support for security-sector players. The move from democratisation to security-oriented foreign policy influenced by the concept of resilience is a sign of the securitisation of policy thinking on all levels (all sectors of socio-economic activity) in light of non-linear threats. Better late than never. It led the EU to accept reality and take a pragmatic approach in its foreign policy in the neighbourhood. This could be seen as a step back from a values-based approach towards pragmatism, but it can respond to growing uncertainty and complexity. It should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat—the opportunity to move beyond the liberal peace to a bottom-up approach to peace-building.

As is now even clearer, there is no way to promote democracy where security is endangered. The methods Russia applied to wage war targeted the weak link—the lack of trust between society and government institutions. The moment an aggressor succeeds in discrediting state actors it achieves the momentum of controlling popular opinion in its favour and thus gains support for its military actions. This showed the need to strengthen the resilience of the EU’s partners in the face of external pressures and their ability to make their own sovereign choices.3

Ukraine’s traditional neutrality and inertia towards investing in its own security and fix internal weaknesses in the state, the failure of its citizens to think about security, and reliance on the peaceful mindset of its “reliable” neighbour all kept Ukrainian society dormant and blind not only to external threats but also to deep-rooted internal systemic diseases such as corruption and dysfunctional institutions. The Kremlin effectively exploited a number of vulnerabilities in Ukraine’s societal cohesion, the lack of a nation-state narrative, corruption and weak government institutions, and a lack of trust and cooperation between the state and civil-society actors and citizens. After three years of conflict, it is time to build a system of national resilience in place of identified vulnerabilities.

In the framework of “resilience” as used here, we expect an automatic switch and immediate cooperation between state, the military and civil society as one united body in times of crisis. The ability to “bounce back” (as in the Latin resilio) means that all sectors would revert to functioning as usual after being mobilised to pull together all resources to deter the aggression without losing or disrupting social and civil–state links and relations. The latter can evolve and develop following a crisis if not completely interrupted (e.g. civil-military cooperation).

When Ukrainian society mobilised in 2014, it did so to replace the government’s inability to react quickly. Ideally it would only have supported and complemented government institutions, not do their job for them. Yet what happened in the end? We saw an incomplete system in which institutions lacked operational capability and civilian actors that lacked the tools and knowledge to support the state actors coherently.

What Do We Mean by Resilience-building?

The European Union’s Global Strategy refers to building state and societal resilience in the EU’s neighbourhood as one of its key priorities. The strategy introduces resilience-building alongside an emphasis on flexibility and tailor-made approaches and the need for local ownership, capacity-building and comprehensiveness.4 But the Ukrainian government’s approach is the same as that of NATO allies and EU member states, which pay most attention to the provision of direct protection of infrastructure and civilians. There is less effort to include citizens proactively in its monitoring and support. This is particularly important from the perspective of maintaining the credibility of and public support for the state’s national goals.

Resilience-building requires local ownership, capacity-building and comprehensiveness. The process requires a bottom-up approach: only a community approach to security and building a community-based sense of responsibility for security can ensure a rapid response to a crisis. If society is able to self-organise, mobilise and provide a solid base for government institutions in a crisis, the response mechanism that can determine resilience is in place. The sense of responsibility for the provision of security is distributed on different levels. Government institutions become one of many actors responsible for responding in a time of crisis. Trust between the state and civilian actors is paramount, and Ukraine failed to develop this in the decades since its independence.

Estonia’s experience of introducing a “comprehensive” approach to national security is relevant as a response to the current nature of unconventional threats. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine used institutional weakness in order to undermine trust in the government by a myriad of non-military means: disinformation, plausible deniability, internal subversive operations (civilian-led collective non-violent action) and attacks on critical infrastructure.

The gap of trust between government institutions and society opens a window of opportunity for destabilisation operations. Civil society has the potential to fill the vacuum between two sectors as a buffer and a fact-checker to ensure the government and society remain cooperative and mutually supportive.

A manual for Lithuanian citizens published by the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence introduced the idea of non-violent civil resistance.5 Citizens can use a number of non-military means particularly appropriate in times of crisis to deter aggression by non-conventional, hybrid threats. This approach recognises the limitations of the armed forces and government agencies to understand and deter the complexity of methods Russia used to seize territory in Ukraine.

This means that civil resistance, as practised in the history of military conflict, has now become a more complex system in which citizens can create a functional network able to switch on and involve all sectors of socio-economic activity in a state. Community-based organisations, which cooperate with local law-enforcement bodies and local administrations, volunteer rescue brigades, neighbourhood-watch groups and other entities can boost the sense of security and monitor at both the local and regional levels. In order to counter negative disinformation attacks, coordinated communications must create a channel of proactive outreach by government institutions not only to the media but also to civil society, which would multiply the information-checking effect for society as a whole.

The long-standing links of social and civil–state relations can be mobilised in a crisis mainly if they worked and were active in peacetime. In order to create a cohesive and comprehensive system of national security and defence it is necessary to create an embedded society—a pillar between the government institutions and citizens, a pillar to build trust.
1 2.3 million remain in the occupied territories; 1.7 million are registered as displaced.…
2 “Resilience”, European Commission Factsheet 2016. Available at…
3 European Commission and HR/VP, 2015. Review of the European neighbourhood policy. Joint
Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, JOIN (2015) 50 final, Brussels, 18 November.
4 Ana E. Juncos (2016): Resilience as the new EU foreign policy paradigm: a pragmatist turn? European Security, DOI: 10.1080/09662839.2016.1247809
5 Andrius Kuncina and Daisy Sindelar, “Wary Of Russian Aggression, Vilnius Creates How-To Manual For Dealing With Foreign Invasion”. RFEL, 19 January 2015.…