External Publications

Nov 06, 2023

Socially Inclusive and Exclusive Warfighting: Comparing Ukraine and Russia’s Ways of War

Chapter from the book "Russia's Imperial Endeavor and Its Geopolitical Consequences"
Russia Ukraine Military Operation Howitzers
Public Domain

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has precipitated not just a humanitarian crisis but a profound alteration in Eastern European and Eurasian geopolitics. The war unleashed by Putin in Ukraine has become the setting not only of military conflict but also of institutional competition. While Russia, in its military organization, seeks to showcase the advantages of patronal autocracy and its potential for top-down mobilization and normalized violence, Ukraine strives to compensate for Russia’s initial economic and military advantage through resources of horizontal mobilization and networks of trust, inclusiveness, and crowdfunding.

This book chapter was published in Bálint Madlovics and Bálint Magyar (eds.) »Russia's Imperial Endeavor and Its Geopolitical Consequences«.



Framing the war: “special military operation” vs. patriotic war

Setting and pursuing the war objectives: offensive vs. defensive strategy

Getting the whole society involved: inclusive vs. exclusive warfighting

From patriotic volunteering to criminal recruitment

Crowdfunding for weapons and equipment in Ukraine and Russia

Internationalizing the war: isolation vs. alliance-seeking in the West



A full-scale escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war has been going on since February 24, 2022. Since then, Ukraine has been fighting for its survival and is mobilizing every possible resource both at home and abroad. Meanwhile, Russia is officially still not at war, but is conducting a “special military operation,” which intends to limit the effect of the war on Russian society to the bare possible minimum. This discrepancy between how Ukraine and Russia have been fighting this war constitutes the focus of the present chapter.

Hence, I intend to provide a comparative overview of the wider political, social, and sociological aspects of how Ukraine and Russia are fighting this war. It is not about military sociology, however; the generally scarce availability of data about both the Russian and the Ukrainian forces, combined with operational security considerations and increased secrecy since February 2022, make any military sociological research currently impossible. Hence, while the chapter discusses how the armed forces are used on the strategic level, and how the two societies relate to their own armies, it can barely touch upon the relations within the militaries themselves.

In terms of methodology, the overall availability of data constitutes a serious limitation in conducting in-depth research on countries and societies that are actively engaged in a high-intensity, all-out war. The war also affects the legal context of the accessibility of data. With Ukraine having declared martial law on February 25, 2022, a great deal of information has become classified, and it is hard to verify any official data released by the government or its related institutions. On the Russian side, although the country is officially not at war, since February 2022 control over the media and limitations on freedom of speech have progressed even further, to be discussed in detail below. Under such circumstances, accessing and verifying official data from either of the fighting sides has become extremely complicated, and one needs to have realistic ambitions about the extent to which official data can be used to describe the actual situation.

Moreover, particularly when discussing military-related developments, one needs to take into account the “fog of war” effect, as well as the operational security considerations of both fighting sides. Deliberate disinformation and propaganda conducted by the fighting parties add additional layers of complications to this already complex methodological situation.

This chapter relies to a large extent on information provided by third parties, or by actors that are independent of the fighting sides. Regarding primary sources, this includes declarations and speeches from third country officials, journalists, experts, and NGO-activists, as well audio-visual material produced by independent reporters accessing the frontlines. Still, the “fog of war” prevails and hampers any indepth analysis of the actual military situation. Consequently, this methodological caveat stemming from the limited accessibility of reliable information constantly needs to be observed and factored in.

Instead of focusing on the changing position of the elites in the war, this chapter intends to answer how the Russian and Ukrainian states are presenting the war to their own societies, and how they have been striving to get their societies involved or disengaged, starting from the first day of the full-scale Russian invasion. Hence, both the overall framing of the war as well as its military objectives have been studied in detail. Another, highly indicative aspect of involving society is the phenomenon of volunteering, i.e., how the two states rely on volunteers to expand their combat capabilities beyond the regular armed forces.

The chapter is composed of five main parts. Following a short introduction, the text first studies how the two fighting states and administrations are framing the war for their own domestic audiences. The second part compares how the Russian and Ukrainian leaderships present their military objectives to their respective publics and how these objectives have changed over time. Thereafter the phenomenon of volunteering is discussed in detail, focusing particularly on combatrelated volunteering. The fourth part focuses on how the Russian and Ukrainian governments are trying to internationalize the war by forging alliances and how they present this to their domestic publics. The study ends with a short, concluding part.

Framing the war: “special military operation” vs. patriotic war

When Russian President Vladimir Putin de facto declared war on Ukraine, following the massive invasion on February 24, 2022, he did not de jure declare war. Instead, he announced the launch of a so-called “special military operation.” By not calling it a war, Putin apparently intended to limit the fighting to the exclusive task of the Russian armed forces, leaving the public as unaffected as possible. Based on the information obtained about Russia’s initial plans, Moscow calculated on a short, Blitzkrieg-type military operation, which was supposed to end approximately one week after its commencement. In other words, the Kremlin framed the attack as an action much smaller and much more limited than a war, because it was actually planned to be so.

Consequently, martial law was not declared in Russia, nor was even a partial mobilization announced. The country’s economy was not set on a war footing either. The Russian regime was so confident that it did not even bother to relocate the country’s approximately USD 300 billion foreign exchange reserves deposited in the West, which were swiftly frozen by EU sanctions.

However, once it turned out that Ukraine’s state, army, and society did not collapse and instead of a rapid victory the war had turned into a long, grinding struggle, the Kremlin confronted a major political dilemma about framing the war. On the one hand, abandoning the “special military operation” narrative and declaring war on Ukraine would enable Russia to concentrate much more human and economic resources for the fight. Doing so has long been demanded by radical nationalist circles among the Russian elites and society. On the other hand, openly declaring war would also mean admitting that the Kremlin had seriously miscalculated the attack and its consequences. As of February 2023, Moscow is still maintaining the “special military operation” narrative, although the partial mobilization ordered in September 2022, as well as several measures taken in order to strengthen state control over the economy, indicate that the Kremlin is gradually setting the country on a de facto war footing, despite not calling it a war.

Meanwhile, the Russian President’s narrative about the role of the West in the conflict has remained consistent: since the beginning of the escalation, Putin has framed this war as a conflict between Russia and the collective West, particularly NATO. Already in his speech of February 24, 2022, Putin accused the West of misleading and tricking Russia by ignoring Moscow’s security interests and by not keeping alleged promises about not expanding NATO. These claims were reiterated a year later, supplemented by the accusation of Western biological laboratories deployed in Ukraine, Western instructors training Ukrainian neo-Nazis, and a number of other accusations. Hence, after a year of fighting, the official framing of the international context of the war has become only more radical.

Contrary to Russia’s exclusive approach, Ukraine has from the very beginning framed the war and the need to defend the country in a fully inclusive way. In his speech on the eve of the invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the whole Ukrainian people to stand up and defend the homeland; he even summoned those Ukrainians working abroad to return home. Moreover, the president addressed the Russian people specifically as well, refuting accusations that Ukrainians were Nazis or that Ukraine posed any threat to Russia. He also called for the solidarity of the whole international community, with him and his officials giving several interviews to the international media even in the very early days of the war, even when their personal safety was at risk.

Another difference reflecting the way in which the Ukrainian government has framed the events is that Kyiv introduced martial law already on February 25, 2022, so the country has been in a state of war for more than a year. This has allowed the government to mobilize reservist soldiers, ban the travel of military-aged men abroad, nationalize economic assets, and limit freedom of the media and freedom of speech, including the possibility of banning pro-Kremlin political parties. Hence, by declaring martial law, the Ukrainian government has, by definition, included the whole society in the war, because martial law affects very many aspects of everyday life.

Setting and pursuing the war objectives: offensive vs. defensive strategy

In his already mentioned speech at the start of the invasion, Putin enumerated several ambitious military objectives for the “special military operation” to present and justify the war primarily to the Russian public. The first was to protect the people of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk National Republics (DNR and LNR), unilaterally recognized by Russia as independent states on February 21, from an alleged genocide continuously committed by Ukraine. This genocide claim has been present in Russia’s narrative about the war ever since 2014, even though it has not been substantiated by any independent international organizations. Nevertheless, this narrative resonated well within Russian society because of the eight years of propaganda that preceded the attack in 2022.

He also pledged to de-nazify and de-militarize Ukraine. Without publicly elaborating the details of “de-nazification,” accusing Ukraine of being ruled by a Nazi regime has again been a persistent element of Russia’s narratives of the war ever since the change of power in Kyiv in February 2014. The fact that President Petro Poroshenko was elected democratically on May 25, 2014 and that Russia recognized him as the legitimate president did not interfere with the continuous repetition of the Nazi accusations. Calling Ukraine and its people Nazis has been an integral part of how Russia has framed the conflict ever since 2014; hence, by defining “de-nazification” as one of the key military objectives the Kremlin could well count on this well-established Nazi-narrative.

Based on the events of the early days of the full-scale escalation, “de-nazification” in fact meant the objective of killing or capturing Zelensky and probably other members of his government too. In the first days after February 24, 2022, several Russian special operation and diversionary groups operated in Kyiv and attempted to neutralize the Ukrainian president. There were reportedly two assaults against Zelensky’s compound in Kyiv, but both failed. Meanwhile, the third main objective, the demilitarization of Ukraine, meant militarily defeating Ukraine’s armed forces.

In order to realize these objectives, Russia launched a full-scale attack against several of Ukraine’s regions, entering the country along four main axes (from the north, the north-east, the east, and also the south), with altogether seven thrusts. Hence, Russia’s initial objectives covered the whole territory of Ukraine: they intended to conquer Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, possibly also Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia, and planned to cut Ukraine off completely from both the Azov Sea and the Black Sea.

However, after the siege of Kyiv failed, Russia officially downscaled its territorial objectives. On March 29, Moscow declared that it had given up the fight for Kyiv, Chernihiv, and the whole north and north-east, and was concentrating on the Donbas instead. This shift was presented to the Russian public as if it was a deliberate choice and not a necessity dictated by the military defeat at Kyiv. This decreased ambition level enabled Russia to better concentrate her forces, resulting in the capture of Mariupol, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk in late spring and summer of 2022.

However, Russia could not realize even these downscaled objectives: in August, Ukraine launched a counterattack in the Kherson region, and liberated most of the Kharkiv region in September. As a reaction to these Ukrainian successes, Russia hastily organized four quasi-referenda in the occupied parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions on September 23–27 on their joining the Russian Federation. By referring to the results of these “referenda,” Moscow swiftly declared the annexation of these four regions of Ukraine. Still, regardless of the claimed annexation, Russia was forced to withdraw its forces from the right bank of the River Dnipro, including the city of Kherson, in mid-November. Since then, Russia’s military objectives have been essentially limited to the capture of the entire Donbas as well as to defend the parts of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions that it still occupies.

In short, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Russia’s military objectives have been factually reduced to a considerable degree, even though in the official narrative the “denazification” and “demilitarization” slogans are still frequently repeated. In other words, the original Russian ambitions to directly control the whole of Ukraine, including capturing large parts of its territories and changing its government, have been reduced to annexing four regions of Ukraine, while the core narratives surrounding the “special military operation” have remained the same.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s war objectives have developed along a fundamentally different trajectory. As Ukraine has been fighting a defensive, rather than an offensive, war, the evident goal to achieve after February 2022 has been first to stop the Russian aggression, and thereafter to start regaining the occupied territories. Taking into account the size and scale of the Russian attack, this evidently required the involvement of the whole Ukrainian society from the very first day of the aggression. Hence, both Zelensky and members of his administration have been very active in communicating with Ukrainian society about the war since February 24, 2022. Since then, Zelensky has addressed the population in video messages every night, discussing various aspects of the war and encouraging the Ukrainian people to keep fighting.

An interesting phenomenon is that, before February 2022, Ukraine did not make notably active efforts to regain either the occupied Donbas or the Crimea. The loss of de facto control over these territories in 2014 was never recognized by Kyiv, but no offensive actions for regaining them were taken either. Shortly after the invasion, Zelensky even voiced the possibility of reaching a compromise on the status of the Crimea in exchange for stopping the Russian invasion.

However, since late summer 2022, the official rhetoric started to change. More and more Ukrainian officials, including the president and the military leadership, started to talk about the need to regain all the occupied territories, including the ones that Russia seized in 2014, thus also the Crimea. Most recently, Zelensky reiterated this intention at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Hence, Ukraine’s war objectives have become considerably broader since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. This is in sharp contrast with how Moscow has been setting her objectives, which have factually shrunk from controlling the whole of Ukraine to holding the four occupied eastern regions and the Crimea.

Parallel to Moscow’s changing military objectives, a new element of Russian strateg y emerged from October 2022 on: systematic, large-scale attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. By using the Ukrainian attack on the Kerch Bridge on October 8, 2022 as a pretext, Russia launched—from 10 October on— a massive air and missile campaign against Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure, namely the energy infrastructure and the components related to it. As far as can be determined from open sources, the objective of this campaign has been to deprive the Ukrainian population of electricity, heating, and running water during the winter, and thus break their morale. A likely secondary objective has been to induce another massive wave of Ukrainian refugees to flee the country, and thereby put further pressure on the West, hoping to weaken the political resolve behind Ukraine’s international support.

Russia used thousands of ballistic and air-launched missiles, as well as cruise missiles and also drones supplied by Iran (to be discussed later in detail); even a few of Moscow’s brand new hypersonic Kinzhal missiles were launched. Although Ukraine’s energy infrastructure suffered widespread and severe damage, and the winter was marred by long electricity blackouts and other supply interruptions, the Russian campaign did not manage to break either the Ukrainian population or Western support for Kyiv.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that so far Ukraine has refrained from similar attacks against Russia’s civilian infrastructure, even though Ukraine would also be entirely capable of hitting such targets in Russia’s border regions. Ukraine hit a few oil industry facilities in the border regions, but these attacks were more related to hampering Russia’s war effort than targeting the Russian civilian population. Hence, the attitude towards hitting civilian infrastructural targets constitutes another difference between how Russia and Ukraine have been fighting this war.

Getting the whole society involved: inclusive vs. exclusive warfighting

From patriotic volunteering to criminal recruitment

Another aspect in which Ukraine’s and Russia’s way of fighting differs is how the two states operate their military recruitment systems and particularly on how they channel in or rely on the phenomenon of volunteering. Volunteering has been an integral and crucially important part of Ukraine’s war effort ever since 2014. Back then, following the Russian occupation of the Crimea, several volunteer battalions were established, often partially composed of Maidan activists. These volunteer formations, albeit badly trained and equipped, played a key role in halting the spread of the Russian-instigated separatism in Eastern Ukraine. During the mid-2010s, these volunteer units were integrated either into the army or into the National Guard, but the phenomenon of volunteering for defending the country continued unabated.

Even before the full-scale Russian invasion, on January 1, 2022, Ukraine set up a separate command for creating Territorial Defense Forces (commonly called teroborona, which is the abbreviation of the official Ukrainian expression territorialna oborona). This newly established branch of the armed forces was supposed to be composed of both reservists and volunteers, who signed up to defend their own neighborhoods against a possible attack and also to assist the regular army in its duties, including enforcing public order, manning checkpoints, and other duties. Each of Ukraine’s 26 regions was supposed to set up a separate territorial defense brigade, with a size of 3,500 soldiers, composed of battalions with 600 soldiers each. Most volunteers received only rudimentary infantry training before the full-scale escalation broke out. Nevertheless, the teroborona units of Kyiv and the Kyiv region played an important role in stopping the Russian invasion, and also in neutralizing the Russian sabotage groups that infiltrated the capital, though they suffered severe losses. Since spring 2022, territorial defense units can also be deployed in regions other than their home, meaning in practice that teroborona forces—which were originally meant to be mere auxiliaries to the regular army—can also be sent to the frontline. Despite the severe losses suffered by many territorial defense units, the phenomenon of volunteering has persisted.

Besides the territorial defense units, tens of thousands of Ukrainians also volunteered for the regular military units, particularly such people who had previous military experience, so their skills could be refreshed relatively easily. The willingness to volunteer to fight is so widespread that Ukraine decided to set up a new type of unit in February 2023, the so-called storm brigades (gvardiya nastupu), intended specifically to participate in the liberation of the Russian-occupied territories. The main difference compared to the teroborona units is that the storm brigades are subordinated to the Ministry of Interior and are not intended for auxiliary duties, but for combat operations. While the exact number of these volunteers is classified, in mid-February a Ukrainian official said that 15,000 people had already applied. In early March, a Ukrainian member of parliament, Andrey Zhupanin, spoke of about 20,000 people who had already joined the storm brigades.

In addition to this, Ukraine also has foreign volunteers fighting on her side. One of the most numerous groups is the Georgians, some of whom have been in combat since 2014 in the framework of the so-called Georgian legion. There are also anti-Russian Chechen volunteers, who joined Ukraine’s fight against Russia also in 2014.

The most interesting phenomenon, however, is the so-called International Legion, which is a separate unit of the Territorial Defense Forces created by President Zelensky already on February 27, 2022, that is, on the fourth day of the invasion. Setting up such a unit served as a framework for channeling foreign military expertise and manpower into the war effort. According to official information from March 2022, altogether some 20,000 volunteers from more than 52 countries had already joined the International Legion, not only to fight but also to provide cyber security help or medical assistance.

Meanwhile, on the Russian side, volunteering has turned out to be a fundamentally different phenomenon, which has shown considerable differences depending on the various phases of the war. During the initial phase of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, in 2014, tens of thousands of genuine volunteers arrived from Russia to Ukraine to fight against Kyiv. Their motives varied greatly: the predominant majority of them wanted to fight the allegedly fascist Ukrainian government; others were hardline nationalists; and there were also religious fanatics among them. However, once the frontlines stabilized and maneuver warfare transformed into a grinding, trench war, most of the surviving Russian volunteers either returned home or joined the separatist armed forces. This was also in line with Russia’s intention to centralize control over the initially rather chaotic separatist formations and warlords.

When the escalation started in 2022, Russia, unlike Ukraine, initially did not continue the volunteering tradition originating from 2014. Instead, as was already stated above, Moscow tried to keep the “special military operation” as an exclusive task of the regular armed forces. Once human losses started to mount and the Russian army started to desperately need more manpower, the Russian Ministry of Defense opted for a volunteer-based recruitment: they tried to convince reservists, particularly those with relatively fresh military experience, to sign up again for a fixed term of service and go fight in Ukraine. While some call this phenomenon a covert mobilization, initially there was no element of coercion involved; hence, the term “recruitment” describes reality better. The Russian recruitment system tried to motivate reservists with generous financial and other benefits. However, this recruitment effort did not deliver the expected results due to the insufficient number of volunteers.

Another attempt also failed to bring in the required number of volunteers: the use of the so-called BARS system. In 2021, Russia created a new system of reservists, the so-called Combat Army Reserve of the Country or BARS (Boyevoy Armeyskiy Rezerv Strany)—the word bars in Russian also stands for “snow leopard.” The intention was to recruit men to take up a three-year long reservist contract, which also included the possibility of being deployed in combat operations, in exchange for regular salary as well as significant combat pay and bonuses. BARS reservists were also provided with the necessary training; moreover, as many of them were former officers and soldiers, their former skills only had to be refreshed. Still, the system could not fulfill the plan to recruit 100,000 reservists; as only some 40,000 men signed up, and not all of them could be trained before the invasion. Moreover, once Russia started to deploy BARS units, it quickly turned out that these soldiers often did not receive the promised payments, were mistreated by the regular army, and in many cases were not provided the necessary equipment, weaponry, and support. All these recruitment failures, combined with battlefield losses in Ukraine, led to the partial mobilization in September 2022.

However, the phenomenon of volunteering did not disappear on the Russian side but was simply channeled into the paramilitary Wagner Group instead of the regular armed forces. From summer 2022 on, the Wagner Group, led and owned by the late oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, started to recruit convicts from Russian penitentiary facilities. As of January 2023, approximately 40,000 prison inmates had been recruited with the promise of an amnesty and decent payment in exchange for six months of armed service in Ukraine. However, these new volunteers were often sent into battle with minimum or no training and insufficient equipment. Both captured Wagner fighters and the Ukrainian soldiers combatting them often described the convicts as having been used simply as cannon fodder, with a complete disregard for the number of casualties among them. As of February 2023, the Wagner Group had lost at least 30,000 fighters, of whom approximately 9000 were killed. As news about the fate of the volunteer inmates reached the Russian prisons, the Wagner Group started to face serious problems with recruiting new convicts from December 2022 on; later, in early February 2023, the group stopped recruiting prisoners completely. In August, leading prisoner’s rights activist Olga Romanova claimed that the total number of convicts recruited for the war could be up to 80,000, and at least 20,000 ex-convicts from Wagner already returned to civil life.

The palpable disregard for human life in Russian military strategy indicates a fundamental difference between Russian and Ukrainian forces. While the Ukrainian advance is also hampered by the fact that the main bottleneck for them is manpower (the main resource that Western countries cannot send), the Russian army is able and willing to risk larger masses of soldiers on the front line. And although this attitude, as I mentioned above, discourages volunteerism, several semi-official private groups have been mobilized on the Russian side in addition to the Wagner Group. Russia officially bans the creation of private armies and private military companies, but there are more than 40 “volunteer” groups active on the battlefield, according to Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov. Among them are troops of private military companies belonging to different commands. The PMC Redut has been on the ground since February 2022 is connected to Russia’s military intelligence, while the company Potok is owned by the state gas export giant Gazprom. This illustrates well the Russian patronal system’s tendency to rely on informal collusion rather than separation of the spheres of social action (political, economic, and communal). Recent legal changes to allow Russian governors to establish military organizations during wartime also seem to be a desperate step to increase mobilization, but one that empowers Russian sub-patrons vis-à-vis the chief patron and makes it even more difficult for Putin to control his single-pyramid patronal network.

At the same time, it is also apparent that irregular forces, which proliferate out of necessity, are often difficult to incorporate into the Russian military hierarchy. The most prominent example was Prigozhin’s attempted coup d’etat in June 2023, the purpose of which was to get the leadership of the regular armed forces removed, including Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and secure that the Wagner Group can avoid subordination to the ministry. Albeit Prigozhin survived the failed coup attempt and in August he even ambitioned new deployments to Africa, he was killed in an air crash on August 23, 2023 in Russia, together with six other Wagner commanders. This is highly likely to put the moderate autonomy of the Wagner Group to an end.

Crowdfunding for weapons and equipment in Ukraine and Russia

A particularly interesting aspect of combat-related volunteering is how bottom-up campaigns are organized both in Ukraine and abroad to support the Ukrainian armed forces. Within Ukraine, the state has actively supported and encouraged various bottom-up volunteer campaigns to help the war effort. Ukraine’s National Bank immediately opened a dedicated bank account for receiving donations from abroad, and so did several other state organizations and NGOs endorsed by the state. Non-governmental organizations managed to collect not only money, but also procure weapons and equipment for the army. Some of these NGOs already existed since 2014, such as the Come Back Alive Foundation, which collects private donations for military purposes, but even this one has considerably upgraded its activities since February 2022. As of February 2023, the Come Back Alive Foundation is one of the largest non-state buyers of arms for the Ukrainian armed forces. Another one is the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation, also operating since 2014, which has purchased more than 4,500 drones, 1,000 military vehicles, 70 large UAV complexes, and several other types of equipment for the armed forces, based predominantly on crowdfunding. Of course, no NGO would be able import and transfer weapons and military equipment on such a scale without direct state support; hence, these foundations, and several other smaller ones can also be factored into the phenomenon of state-managed volunteering.

Crowdfunding-based support for Ukraine’s military has also occurred outside the country. In May 2022, the Lithuanian public collected money for a Turkish TB-2 Bayraktar attack drone. The campaign was preliminarily approved by both the Turkish and Lithuanian defense ministries. The first such Bayraktar was named Vanagas, after the codename of a legendary Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance fighter, who symbolized the struggle against Moscow. The word means “falcon” in Lithuanian. Shortly thereafter, in summer 2022, Poland followed suit, and the local population collected money for another Bayraktar. This drone was named “Marik,” after the colloquial name of the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol. In Czechia, locals collected money first for a modernized T-72 tank named “Tomáš” to be sent to Ukraine. Thereafter, once Russia started its air campaign against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, Czechs started to collect money for a highly-mobile anti-aircraft system to be deployed against the Iranian drones used by Russia. The system, named “Viktor,” is composed of twin 14.5 millimeter anti-aircraft heavy machine guns built upon a Toyota pickup, manufactured by a Czech defense company. As of January 2023, 15 such systems have been crowdfunded.

Meanwhile, crowdfunding for the armed forces in Russia became widespread only after September 2022, thus after the partial mobilization. The sudden mobilization of approximately 300,000 Russian men quickly shed light on the grave shortages of protective gear, basic military equipment, and even clothing in the Russian army. Relatives of the mobilized soldiers quickly started to collect money for the missing clothes and equipment; hundreds of social media channels popped up, and various crowdfunding campaigns started. As of early 2023, these campaigns are still going on, but the focus has gradually shifted from essential personal equipment to more advanced contributions, such as satellite dishes, batteries, and other electronic goods.

Unlike the Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Czech, and Polish cases, in Russia crowdfunding campaigns cannot provide weapons for the armed forces because the state does not support such initiatives due to both legal and political reasons. Official support for such campaigns would mean the state admitting that there are shortages in equipment, let alone weaponry. Hence, Russian crowdfunding campaigns are limited to non-lethal goods and some dual-use equipment such as commercial drones.

Crowdfunding of military equipment (and particularly weapons) constitutes a very high level of active social involvement and direct contribution of the local (or international) public to the war effort. As of February 2023, Ukraine has clearly been a lot more successful in mobilizing civil society both at home and abroad for assisting its military than Russia. Of course, the difference in the legal framing of the war, namely, that Russia is officially conducting only a special military operation, while Ukraine is under martial law, constitutes a key variable in the social mobilization potential of the two governments.

For Ukraine, Western military assistance, including crowdfunded projects, is of crucial importance. Hence, the state needs to keep corruption down in order not to endanger the influx of supplies. The corruption scandal that erupted in January 2023 over the misuse of donated money and equipment by some Ukrainian officials indicated, on the one hand, that problems related to the misuse of Western assistance are widespread. On the other hand, the swift reaction of the government demonstrated that the state intends to actively step up against such schemes: several of the accused officials were immediately replaced, and a large-scale investigation was launched. Later that year, Zelensky said that “cynicism and bribery during war is treason,” and dismissed all the heads of Ukraine’s regional army recruitment centers on corruption charges.

Internationalizing the war: isolation vs. alliance-seeking in the West

Another key difference in how Russia and Ukraine have been fighting this war is manifested in the approaches taken to get the international community involved. Russia, initially planning for a short war, did not put much effort into forging any alliances. Apart from directly involving Belarus, which was anyways necessary for the attack on Kyiv and Chernihiv, Moscow did not try to set up any international coalition to support its “special military operation.” A spectacular indicator of the absence of any such effort was the voting in the UN General Assembly on February 23, 2022, immediately after Moscow’s unilateral recognition of the DNR and LNR, calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. In addition to Russia herself, only six countries voted against the resolution: Belarus, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua, North-Korea, and Syria. Even Russia’s closest military allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, did not vote in favor of Russia, but only abstained from the voting.

Once the invasion started, Russia’s support decreased even further: on March 2, 2022, only four countries voted against condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine: Belarus (which was a co-belligerent), Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea, meaning the onslaught was beyond the red lines of even Nicaragua and Mali, which did not condemn the DNR/LNR recognition a week earlier. While 35 countries abstained, this did not mean that any of them would actively support Russia’s actions. Russia did not manage to gain more support for the claimed annexation of the four Ukrainian regions either. The act was not recognized by any other UN member states, except Syria and North Korea. Additionally, in the UN General Assembly vote held on October 12, 2022, only four countries voted against condemning Russia: Belarus and Nicaragua joined ranks with Damascus and Pyongyang. Hence, Russian diplomacy failed to widen the country’s international support base.

When it comes particularly to the West, Putin’s February 24 invasion speech clearly accused the collective West of striving to weaken, and possibly even destroy, Russia. This narrative has been fully in line with the increasingly anti-Western directions of Russia’s foreign policy which have been prevalent ever since Putin’s 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference. Hence, from this perspective it is hardly surprising that the Kremlin has also been framing the present war as part of Russia’s long, historical struggle against the West, in which Moscow is in a deepening partnership with Beijing. Regarding military allies, Moscow started to look for capable partners only from the summer of 2022 on, when it became apparent that it could not address certain shortcomings in the Russian army on its own. The most important success Moscow achieved was that Iran agreed to provide Russia with military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including both attack and reconnaissance drones. Meanwhile, as of February 2023, strong international pressure has prevented Moscow from obtaining ballistic missiles from Iran, even though in 2022 Moscow strove to procure such systems too. In addition to Iran, North Korea is also supporting Russia by transferring artillery ammunition. Belarus has been a close ally of Russia also in terms of arms transfers: Russia is documented to have received old, reactivated T-72 tanks from Belarus, as well as BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and military trucks. China has reportedly supplied small amounts of assault rifles, body armor, and commercial drones to Russia, although Beijing has attempted to conceal these goods as dual-use products.

Contrary to Russia’s isolation and very limited military support received from abroad, Ukraine from the very beginning of the full-scale invasion has been actively striving to get the whole international community involved and to internationalize the conflict as much as possible. Since the very first day of the escalation, Zelensky as well as several other Ukrainian leaders have been addressing the international community practically on a daily basis, asking for support and assistance. The effort to get the international community, particularly the West, involved on the Ukrainian side is not a new phenomenon; doing so has been a consistent strategy of subsequent Ukrainian administrations ever since spring 2014, when Russia attacked the Crimea. However, the full-scale invasion brought this strategy to a new level.

Since February 2022, Ukraine has enjoyed an unprecedented degree of international support in its fight against Russian aggression. In terms of diplomatic support, using the UN General Assembly voting as an indicator once again, approximately two-thirds of all UN member states actively favor Ukraine. In the public eye, while Zelensky is generally regarded as a hero in the West and became Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2022, Putin is seen as a war criminal, against whom the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant in March 2023.

Regarding military support, in the framework of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, informally called the “Ramstein Group,” more than forty countries have been regularly participating in and contributing to strengthening Ukraine’s defenses by various means. One needs to add that, as of February 2023, Ukraine’s war effort is very strongly dependent on the continuous flow of Western military support. Hence, aiming to keep the West involved on Ukraine’s side is not a choice, but a factual must for Kyiv. Regardless, the overall attitude towards seeking international support and building coalitions for the war effort constitutes an important difference between the Russian and Ukrainian policies.

Due to the overall secrecy surrounding many details of arms shipments, it is not possible to conduct a detailed comparison of the supplies received by Ukraine and Russia. The shipments to Russia, in particular, are opaque, mainly because any country supplying Moscow with weapons risks widespread international sanctions. But not all shipments to Ukraine are transparent either: there are a number of countries that supply weapons to Kyiv without announcing it. These shipments become public only when the weapons are spotted on the battlefield. This was the case, for example, with the GAIA Amir armored vehicles supplied by Israel: the first systems were spotted in November 2022, but the Israeli government has still not formally admitted to sending these vehicles. Officially, it was only in March 2023 that Israel authorized the sale of defensive military equipment to Ukraine, specifically, electronic warfare devices for use against Iranian-made drones. Hence, the Amirs were most probably sent via an intermediary country. However, even such an indirect transfer requires an export license, only this was not made public in the media. Another example of unpublicized arms deliveries to Ukraine are the Finnish-made Patria Pasi XA-185 armored vehicles, supplied to Ukraine probably since summer 2022, but without any announcement from the Finnish government.

Due to the lack of transparency, it is not possible to compare either the numbers or the value of the military assistance received by Russia and Ukraine. Meanwhile, one may still compare the types of weapon systems received from abroad, based either on the official announcements of the transfers or on the given weapon system having been spotted in Ukraine (Table 1).

All in all, the table above demonstrates that Ukraine can rely on a much wider support base and receives a considerably wider range of weapons than Russia has managed to secure for herself. We should also note that beyond heavy weapons, Ukraine has received high-tech AI-based military software from the West as well, which has given an advantage to Ukraine on the battlefield. Adding to this the Western sanctions on Russia, which severely restrict technology transfer, it seems only a slight exaggeration to accept a journalist’s comment that the war in this field is a clash between “digital” and “analog” armies. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that Russia is not completely left without external military assistance either, even though Ukraine receives a much wider variety of weaponry.


The policies of Russia and Ukraine differ fundamentally in terms of getting their own societies, as well as the international community, involved in support of their respective war efforts. This is summarized in Table 2. Russia has been employing a two-track approach that intends to ensure the continuous general support of the public but intends to keep society directly involved or affected to the smallest possible extent. This duality is manifested on the one hand in the narratives of “denazification,” “protecting the people of the Donbas,” and later in “the whole West is against us” discourses, which are all intended to create a rallying-around-the-flag effect, thus ensure lasting public support for the regime.

On the other hand, the still maintained “special military operation” framing and the absence of martial law and general mobilization all serve the purpose of keeping the direct effects of the war as far away from society as possible. The origins of this approach can be traced back to February 24, 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion against Ukraine. Since back then Moscow planned to conduct a very short and relatively bloodless operation, the Kremlin apparently thought that it was simply not necessary to mobilize Russian society, neither in the political nor in the military sense. The same logic also explains why the Kremlin has not been successful in building up any significant international coalition behind the attack on Ukraine: it simply did not deem forging alliances necessary for a war that would last for only a few days.

Once it turned out that the war was going to be neither quick nor bloodless, amending the narrative framing and starting to call the “operation” a war would mean admitting that the Kremlin originally miscalculated with its offensive. The need to refrain from admitting any mistakes also explains why the Kremlin has presented the defeat outside Kyiv as an intentional re-focusing on the Donbas. Similarly, the Kremlin does not publicly address the discrepancy between the Ukrainian territories it claims since the unilateral annexations and the ones it actually holds. Hence, the military objectives have been tacitly downgraded to capturing the rest of the Donbas and defending the still Russian-held territories of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, while the official narrative about these regions fully belonging to Russia has remained unchanged.

Very similar considerations, i.e., the reluctance to get wider society involved, have been manifested also in the partial mobilization, which was ordered in September 2022 only after Russia had lost significant parts of the territories it occupied in Ukraine in August-September. Before that, instead of mobilizing its reservists, Russia tried to amend its combat losses by intensifying various volunteerbased recruitment schemes, albeit without much success. Since September, the contrast between the “special military operation” framing and the partial mobilization has created a strong contradiction which Russian society needs to face for interpreting the conflict. The intention to keep society involved to the least possible extent and to hide the weaknesses of the Russian army has resulted in the Kremlin’s unwillingness to endorse any wider social movements and crowdfunding campaigns that would like to support the armed forces.

Ukraine has been conducting a fundamentally different policy about getting society involved in the war. From the very first day of the full-scale Russian invasion, the Ukrainian leadership aimed to mobilize both the domestic public as well as international partners to support Ukraine. There has been no effort to confine the effects of the war at all; instead, the objective is to the get society as much and as actively involved as possible. The introduction of martial law and general mobilization, as well as the very active and mobilizing messages of the president and the government, all serve the same purpose. Hence, the Ukrainian policy line is much more coherent than the one employed by Russia. This credibility helps Ukraine mobilize widespread international support for its war effort, and also to extensively rely on the phenomenon of volunteering, including crowdfunding, for the military.

Taking into account the political rigidity and inertia of the Russian system, combined with the upcoming presidential elections which limits the Kremlin’s domestic maneuvering space, it is unlikely that Russia will change its two-track approach, regardless of the growing discrepancies. The Ukrainian policy is also unlikely to change, because from Kyiv’s perspective this strategy, i.e., to mobilize both domestic and foreign societies, has proven successful so far. Hence, differences are highly likely to prevail.

Bibliographic data

Rácz, András. “Socially Inclusive and Exclusive Warfighting: Comparing Ukraine and Russia’s Ways of War.” November 2023.

This book chapter was published in Bálint Madlovics and Bálint Magyar (eds.) »Russia's Imperial Endeavor and Its Geopolitical Consequences«, pp. 27-50.

356 pages, Paperback, ISBN 978-963-386-651-1