What Makes Ukraine Resilient in the Asymmetric War?

Oksana Huss


The initial shock and outrage after the Russian aggression against Ukraine shifted into an increasing admiration and surprise at how strongly Ukraine is fighting this asymmetric war. The nominal defence spending of Ukraine reaches not more than 20 per cent of Russia’s.[1] Against the backdrop of the fast capture of Ukrainian territories of Crimea and Donbass region in 2014, it is puzzling that Russia had to adjust its military goals in 2022 and has still not reached its goals four months since the beginning of the war. The resistance and resilience have surprised not only the aggressor, who was hoping for a Blitzkrieg, but also the Western partners of Ukraine, who used to criticize the quality of governance in Ukraine in a patronizing way. Moreover, during this war, Ukraine has developed even stronger international agency than before, in contrast to an intuitive failed state scenario.

I propose that the resilience of the country is fostered by the culture of collaborative governance and participatory democracy, underpinned by the use of digital media. The argument is built in continuation of Dan Reiter and Allan C. Stam’s ideas about capacity of democracies to fight wars (Reiter and Stam 2002). They argue that it is ‘neither economic muscle nor bandwagoning between democratic powers’ that strengthens democracies at war (Reiter and Stam 2002). Instead, it is ‘democracies’ dependence on public consent’ and ‘the emphasis on individuality within democratic societies’ that foster greater initiative among soldiers in the fight and superior leadership.

The case of resilience in Ukraine goes even beyond the features of representative democracy analyzed by Reiter and Stam, given the peculiar features of evolving participatory democracy in Ukraine. I conceptualize participatory democracy as the expectation of partnership between citizens and authorities in contrast to manager–customer relations common to representative democracy. Collaborative governance as a central mechanism of participatory democracy ‘brings public and private stakeholders together in collective forums with public agencies to engage in consensus-oriented decision making’ (Ansell and Gash 2007: 543). The demands for more direct influence of citizens on politics were triggered by the Revolution of Dignity in 2013–2014 and ever since shaped multiple major interconnected reforms, such as decentralization, anti-corruption, judicial, electoral, public administration reforms, that were developed, and implemented with an active engagement of civil society.[2] In addition, digital transformation of the country enabled coordination of collaborative governance by means of e-democracy tools, while extensive implementation of e-governance tools increased efficiency of public services.

Methodologically, my argument is based on the previous research on citizen–state relations in Ukraine, based on numerous interviews of civil society activists and public authorities on the national and local levels of governance. The causality link to the war is based on observations and fragmented evidence from public events, social media, personal discussions with active citizens, international organizations, sectoral experts in Ukraine, while the systematic data collection is lacking due to the recent nature of the events since 24 February 2022. Analytically, I discuss three dimensions of resilience: practices, structures, and norms.


Collaborative governance practices

Under conditions of the war, there are numerous instances when Ukrainian citizens and local authorities rely on the established engagement practices, communication channels and networks to estimate and provide humanitarian aid, accommodate internally displaced persons (IDPs), restore basic public services in the destroyed communities, and provide social and psychological support.[3]  A public survey in May 2022 showed that over 60 per cent of citizens are physically or financially engaged in volunteering to help the army, territorial self-defence units, or IDPs. The increasing outbreak of civic activism and citizens’ engagement in politics since 2014 in Ukraine is rather unusual and worth highlighting, against the background of post-soviet political culture, created by massive attempts of the communist nomenklatura to make citizens apolitical.

The Revolution of Dignity in 2014 consolidated a country-wide demand for the new citizen–state relations. The movement for change aimed at an active citizen engagement in decision making and distribution of public goods on both the national and local level of governance. After the Revolution, many civil society activists entered authorities after 2014, which opened opportunities for the dialogue and collaboration. In the Parliament, the reform-minded MPs created an interfactional union “Eurooptimists”, where many former activists entered leading positions in different governments, while same patterns were noticeable on the local level of governance. Numerous civil society organizations professionalized and participated in multi-stakeholder working groups to shape reforms in legislation and governmental policies.

While the Kyiv-based NGOs in Ukraine used to be criticized as elitist and detached from grassroots, the decentralization reform opened massive opportunities for ordinary citizens to engage in decision-making. Directly elected local councils and mayors became responsible for the provision of public services in education, health care, and socioeconomic issues. Simultaneously, the fiscal reform redistributed public budget so that the revenues on the local level almost tripled within the first five years of the reform. Political decisions became closer to citizens, which opened the opportunities and motivation for citizens to engage in societal issues that directly affect them. Thus, since 2015, there was an increasing outbreak of local civic activism. For instance, almost every third community introduced participatory budgeting practice, that allows citizens to directly propose and implement projects in their community that will be implemented from the public budget. The practice of citizen consultations became widespread in different forms from the use of e-petitions to citizen surveys and neighbourhood fora. In addition, informal networks of activists’ organizations were created across Ukraine to foster horizontal (among communities) and vertical (national-level and local level activists) exchange among them.


Multi-level resilience structures

The increasing importance of the local public authorities due to the well-advanced decentralization reform, became critical for a quick implementation of the military resistance and societal resilience. The structure of the multi-level system of the national military resistance has been created around the volunteering practices during the Russian invasion in 2014. The Territorial Defense Forces were created to organize volunteers willing for military engagement. Institutionally, the Territorial Defense Forces were incorporated into the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 2021, while the local public authorities are to play a central role for supply, funding, provision of facilities and capacity building of the territorial defense. Although the formal provisions were not implemented before the offensive, after two weeks of full-scale invasion, the Territorial Defense Forces counted ca. 100,000 volunteers – almost half of the size of the professional Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Local level of governance also plays a critical role in maintaining social infrastructures, including functioning hospitals, education, covering basic needs (such as water and power supply), in the destroyed regions and deal with large numbers of IDPs in the relatively safer regions. The capacity of the local public authorities to provide public services evolved with the increasing efficiency of the local governments on course of the decentralization reform. The administrative units reform, as a part of decentralization, aimed at increasing efficiency of local governance. New administrative and territorial units – the amalgamated hromadas – were created, which had the major effect on the redistribution of schools, hospitals, and centres for provision of administrative services according to the population numbers in a demand-driven way.


Legitimacy & trust

Trust is a foundation for collaborative governance (Rapp 2020) and the main predictor of resilience (Eshel, Kimhi, and Marciano 2020). Most of the ongoing reforms aimed directly and indirectly to increase legitimacy of the state and rebuild trust in society. For example, due to the anti-corruption reform, it was possible to break the vicious circle of impunity, when the High Anti-Corruption Court convicted first cases of corruption on the high political level in 2020, or when the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the National Agency for Corruption Prevention proved their initial independence on multiple occasions. An indirect effect on legitimacy and trust was expected from the extensive evolvement of participatory (e-)democracy practices and e-governance, as well as successful attempts to improve efficiency of public services (Dimitrova and Mazepus 2022). On the local level of governance, the overall approval of the work of local self-governance authorities (mayor and city councils) has steadily improved since 2015 and was the highest in comparison to all other public authorities on the national level in 2021 (International Republican Institute 2021).

On the national level of governance, the support for the public authorities drastically increased under conditions of the war: In May, the overwhelming majority of respondents stated that national public authorities are effective in pursuing most (54 per cent) or a part (39 per cent) of their tasks, while in November 2021, only 5 per cent of respondents considered public authorities as fully and 40 per cent as partially effective. The fact that President Zelensky and his team, including military leadership, did not leave the country and continued to professionally perform their duties in such a critical moment surprised many citizens, in view of traditionally low levels of trust towards public authorities. Among local public authorities there were almost no traitors likewise. On the contrary, local authorities of areas under occupation have proactively resisted and hampered the organization of Russian referenda in their cities (Romanova 2022). The loyalty and dedication of political elites resonated internationally and affected Ukrainian citizens’ attitudes towards politicians positively.



Despite extremely high damages and collective trauma from numerous civilian deaths and war atrocities that have occurred in the four months since the invasion, Ukraine demonstrates surprising resilience of the state and society. On both national and local levels of governance, authorities are not only able to fulfil their representative and decision-making functions, provide basic public services like healthcare and education, and maintain and restore critical infrastructures but support from the citizens is historically unparalleled. Simultaneously, citizens’ voluntary engagement is also at an all-time high.

This contribution shows that societal change since 2014 on the level of societal practices, institutional structures, and norms created conducive conditions for societal resilience under conditions of war. Three outcomes were critical:  First, the practices of collaboration and partnership between citizens and authorities created necessary social capital networks, communication channels, and formal and informal procedures to collectively assess a problem and elaborate solutions. Second, decentralization reform strengthened local self-governance and extended political and fiscal powers of local public authorities, which allowed for the implementation of the multi-level structure for military resistance and societal resilience. Finally, the direct and indirect focus of the reforms on restoring legitimacy to and trust of citizens towards public institutions contributed to the normative foundation for increasing national identity among public authorities and citizens.

Further research is needed to test these propositions on a more solid empirical basis and elaborate causal relationships on a more systematic basis. Nevertheless, the observations delineated here provide guidelines as to what needs to be prioritised when rebuilding not only infrastructure but also institutions in Ukraine. In particular, strengthening local authorities, promoting citizen engagement, and building trust as well as sustaining agile network structures for multi-level resilience are critical aspects to maintain as high priority issues. These ideas can also contribute to the international security research, as they challenge the exclusive prioritization of military capacity for security and shift the focus towards societal potential to build up military resistance and societal resilience.


[1] The estimates, depending on the calculation, vary from 10 per cent to 20,6 per cent, according to the Economist.

[2] The reanimation package of reforms is an association of major civil society organizations, who provide expertise and monitoring of the major state reforms. More information on the reforms and the RPR is available here: https://rpr.org.ua/en/12943-2/

[3] Although there is no systematic data yet, fragmented evidence about these practices is visible in many experience-sharing events. For instance, multiple such examples were provided in the event among local youth organizations to share their practices of engagement in the war, organized by the Association of Ukrainian Cities and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe on 20.05.2022 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_97myc2MCkk&t=603s


Ansell, Chris and Gash, Alison (2007). ‘Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice’, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 18(4): 543–571. doi.org/10.1093/jopart/mum032

Dimitrova, Antoaneta. & Mazepus, Honorata (2022).  Do reforms in public administration increase trust in government in transitional settings? Evidence from a survey of Ukrainian citizens. Forthcoming.  Research paper presented at the ECPR Standing Group on the European Union Online Seminar Series, 20.01.2022.

Eshel, Yohanan, Kimhi, Shaul and Marciano, Hadas (2020). ‘Predictors of National and Community Resilience of Israeli Border Inhabitants Threatened by War and Terror’, Community Mental Health Journal, 56(8): 1480–1488. Available at: doi.org/10.1007/s10597-020-00592-w

International Republican Institute (2021). 'Seventh Annual Ukranian Municipal Survey', Center for Insights in Survey Research, available at: www.iri.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/seventh_municipal_survey_may_2021_eng_-_v2.pdf

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Romanova, Valentyna (2022). ‘Ukraine’s Resilience to Russia’s Military Invasion in the Context of the Decentralisation Reform’. IdeaForum: Stefan Batory Foundation, available at: www.batory.org.pl/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Ukraines-resilience-to-Russias-military-invasion.pdf

About the Author

Dr Oksana Huss is a researcher in the BIT-ACT research project at the University of Bologna, Italy and lecturer at the Anti-Corruption Research and Education Centre and Kyiv School of Economics, Ukraine. Her areas of expertise cover political corruption, open government and social movements against corruption in the post-communist states. She is a co-founder of the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network and author of the bookHow Corruption and Anti-Corruption Policies Sustain Hybrid Regimes: Strategies of Political Domination under Ukraine’s Presidents in 1994-2014 (ibidem Press, 2020).

Contact:  oksana.huss@unibo.it