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During the all-out invasion of Ukraine, Russia has deliberately targeted civilian objects, such as apartment buildings, presumably to weaken Ukrainian resistance. But does such terror deter or, in contrast, motivate resistance among ordinary Ukrainians? An international team of researchers asked people in Ukraine to report their experiences and found that experiencing such attacks tends to increase people's motivation to join the military in defence. The findings suggest that targeting civilians with terror might encourage more individuals to join the opposing forces.
(foto: Jade Koroliuk)

The team conducted a two-wave survey in Ukraine in March and April 2022, with some 1,000 and 800 respondents in the first and second wares respectively. Surveys were conducted online by a local survey agency, Info Sapiens. People shared how often they or their loved ones experienced military attacks, like artillery shelling. They also rated on a 7-point scale how likely they were to get involved in different types of resistance activities, such as helping war victims, supporting logistics for resistance, joining military defence positions, or participating in open battles.

More willing to resist

The study discovered that, in general, Ukrainians who experienced more harm from Russian violence were more likely to resist, especially by joining the military in defence roles. ‘Our focus was on how being a victim influenced people's desire to resist. From other studies we know that such intentions, what people say they plan to do, usually matches their actual actions’, explains one of the authors Honorata Mazepus of the University of Amsterdam. ‘The stronger connection to wanting to resist in defence positions aligns with research on motivations for revenge, suggesting that while the desire for revenge strongly influences behaviour, it also considers the potential costs and risks involved.’

The authors argue that Russia's tactic of attacking civilians not only goes against international laws but is also unlikely to achieve its goal of weakening Ukrainian resistance. Instead, it's more likely to make more people in Ukraine join the opposing side they're fighting against.

Focusing on experiences and motivations reported by people

What make this study special is that it focused on experiences and motivations reported by people themselves and analysed data from an ongoing event, asking people to report their experiences at the time of the survey, rather than rely on memories of past events. Also, it focused on a major interstate war, exposing people both to extensive victimization and huge personal risks and costs associated with resistance.

Publication details

Henrikas Bartusevičius, Florian van Leeuwen, Honorata Mazepus, Lasse Laustsen, and Andreas Forø Tollefsen, 'Russia's attacks on civilians strengthen Ukrainian resistance', in: PNAS Nexus, Volume 2, Issue 12, December 2023, pgad386,