It's a question of morale
Who wins and who loses a war hinges on many factors: Who is best motivated? Whose objective is the most clearly defined? Who has the best weapons? Who has the most weapons? Who can communicate the best on the battlefield? Who has the best intelligence on the enemy? Who is best prepared? Who can resupply forces at the front most readily and efficiently? Who controls the skies? Who is tactically and strategically most flexible? Whose army is best trained? Whose army is best led?
But as we’re seeing in Ukraine right now, it all comes down to morale. Russia is losing the war because it is failing to achieve some of the above-listed goals and criteria, but the big one is its army’s lack of unit cohesion, discipline, esprit de corps – in a word, morale.
Soldiers will go to war and fight for a number of reasons, including patriotism, a strong belief in political objectives, personal gain in their own careers, for each other, for their buddies. But the thing that makes the difference is their drive – their will to fight and will to win.
The tip off came early in the war when there began to be reports from Ukrainian civilians remaining in villages and towns Russian units had taken and then lost or had moved through on their way deeper into the country. Ukrainians reported that the Russian soldiers asked, “where are the Nazis?” as they swept through the towns. They had apparently been fed a steady diet of lies – that Ukraine was being ruled by, or overrun by Nazis, and the Russian nation was being called upon to rid the place of this evil that still carries the weight of a well-taught and remembered history. Ukrainian citizens told reporters the Russian soldiers were shocked when they were told there were no Nazis in control of village governments or anything else.
There were additional reports that some soldiers who appeared to be young, marginally trained conscripts were unaware that they were in Ukraine. Some Russian soldiers told Ukrainian captors they had been told they were on a special exercise and believed they had not left Russia. Some of this confusion and ignorance can be attributed to what is typical in the lower ranks in all armies – privates straight out of boot camp and other low ranking troops are not always informed of a unit’s location, or sometimes even the purpose of its mission. The “details” are left to non-commissioned officers (sergeants) and officers of higher rank.
But we’ve learned from military experts and retired generals commenting on the war in Ukraine that the Russian army doesn’t have the well-constituted and well-trained non-commissioned officers who are the immediate commanders of soldiers in the fighting ranks, and who serve as a command layer between superior officers and low-ranking soldiers. It is these “non-coms” as they are called who carry information and orders from higher command down to the troops. If they aren’t there, there is a large hole in the ranks, a hole that gets filled with the kind of ignorance and confusion that has been reported about captured Russian soldiers.
Here's the thing about troops, even the youngest and least well-trained of them. They may be ill-informed and confused at first, but it doesn’t take long for them to get hold of at least their own portion of the bigger picture, and when they do, if they feel they have been misled or lied to, the sense of betrayal in the ranks is palpable. They begin to lose the will to fight. Our own army experienced something almost exactly like this in Vietnam, especially as the years ground on and on. New draftees arriving in Vietnam late in the war – after 1969 or later – had been exposed to reporting on the war in the United States, and they could see the lies from superior officers before they were even uttered. They lost the will to fight because what they had been told they were fighting for was a lie.
I had a friend at Fort Benning when I went through the Infantry School as a Second Lieutenant who had gotten a direct commission to First Lieutenant from being a sergeant because he blew the only ambush in the entire 25th Infantry Division that killed any Viet Cong in an entire year. He told me they went out on night ambushes and just sat there in the jungle watching VC pass their position and never fired their weapons because they knew it was all bullshit. My friend’s attitude was similar to the famous words of John Kerry when he testified before the Senate, “How do you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake?” My friend said the ambush he commanded was blown when one of his men fell asleep and leaned against a Claymore mine trigger, setting off the whole ambush by accident. They would have never blown it on purpose.
Something similar must be happening in the Russian army in Ukraine. They are being incompetently led by an officer corps that has apparently been corrupted by cronyism and political influence. Evidence of this has been shown in videos of Russian armored convoys tightly packed together as they are hit by Ukrainian ambushes with tank after tank exploding one after another. Russian armored commanders shouldn’t lead convoys into towns or villages that haven’t been cleared by infantry in advance so Ukrainian soldiers or irregulars armed with Javelins couldn’t shoot their highly-accurate and deadly weapons and knock out most of the convoy. When this kind of thing happens often enough, soldiers stop following orders and refuse to move and engage the enemy.
This is probably why all those Russian units which had been tasked with taking Kyiv had to retreat and withdraw into safe havens across the border in Russia. They had been damaged and depleted by Ukrainian ambushes and had lost the will to attack. They were withdrawn because their morale had evaporated along with their losses of tanks and armored personnel carriers and other weaponry.
The only part of the Russian army that still appears effective is its artillery and ground-to-ground rocket launcher units, and what they are good at is shelling civilian targets in Ukrainian cities. The Ukrainian army is very widely dispersed and well trained in small unit tactics for the Russians to engage effectively with artillery. You can’t hit what you can’t see, and the Ukrainian army has been good at hiding and hitting sporadically with ambushes and other small-unit operations and then disengaging before Russian artillery can be brought to bear on them effectively.
And now Ukraine is being supplied with long-range 155 howitzers and counter-fire radar that can quickly target and destroy Russian artillery units that are firing at Ukrainian units or civilian areas. Morale in the Russian rear-area artillery and rocket units is bound to go down when their losses begin to go up because Ukraine will start firing accurate and deadly counter-strikes.
Vladimir Putin does not have anything to pull his flagging army out of its combat doldrums. We saw this on Monday at the Victory Day parade in Moscow. There was Putin looking like somebody had just run over his favorite dog surrounded by a cast of generals and admirals who looked like they had been rolled out of a wax museum and positioned around him like flesh-colored statues. Victory? There wasn’t a smile or look of pride and patriotic morale on anyone in sight.
There is a long way to go in this war. Ukraine has a lot of tough fighting to do if they’re going to push Russian forces back from land they have taken in the Donbas and now along the coast in places like Kherson. Russia is now reduced to lobbing cruise missiles at Odessa and even distant cities like Lviv because they can’t get their artillery and ground-to-ground rockets close enough to shell them. But cruise missiles aren’t cheap like 155 rounds or rockets. They’re expensive, costing more than a million apiece, and with sanctions taking effect on Russia’s defense industries, they can’t be easily replaced. Every cruise missile they shoot is one cruise missile gone, with back-up stocks rapidly depleting.
Putin’s choices are narrowing. He’s got 60 to 70 percent of his entire army committed to the battlefield in Ukraine right now. He doesn’t have gigantic reserves with thousands and thousands of tanks he can throw at Ukraine like there’s no tomorrow.
There is a tomorrow, and it’s not Putin’s. Russian morale is flagging. They’re losing, and if the look on Putin’s face on Monday at the Victory Parade told us anything at all, it told us he knows it.
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