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It’s hard for Russia to invade Ukraine when its soldiers don’t want to be there

Here’s what the research says about how poor soldier morale affects military strategy and effectiveness

Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by Ukrainian forces on the side of a road in the Luhansk region on Feb. 26. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stumbled out of the starting gate. Gambling on rapid marches to force a quick surrender in Kyiv, the Russian army appears shocked by Ukrainian resistance. While still grinding forward, Russian operations have been plagued by poor coordination, snarled logistics lines and a curious reluctance to deploy all elements of Russian military power, including air power. Now media reports suggest Russia is about to step up attacks on nonmilitary targets.

Why has Russia struggled? While analysts have mostly focused on hardware and doctrine, many of Russia’s problems can be traced to a single source: low morale.

Scholars have long argued that combat motivation — the willingness to fight and die — shapes military effectiveness. Russia’s military is riddled with social and economic inequalities that undermine morale. These inequalities create obstacles and inefficiencies that warp Russian operations, preventing the military from maximizing its combat power.

Many Russian soldiers don’t want to be in Ukraine

Evidence is mounting that many Russian soldiers are reluctant to fight.

Social media is littered with videos of lost and hungry soldiers looting, begging for food or ditching their tanks and trucks. Captured soldiers have expressed confusion about the war’s purpose and have surrendered once they discovered they were not on a training exercise. Hundreds of armored vehicles have been abandoned or captured by Ukrainian forces and, in at least one case, by a local farmer.

Many of Russian equipment losses have been because of abandonment and capture, not destruction. Indeed, dozens of videos of lines of stranded military equipment can be found on TikTok. Russian military authorities have threatened physical abuse or worse to enforce discipline in some units. And Reuters correspondent Phil Stewart tweeted this earlier Tuesday:

The Russian Army has built-in problems that undermine morale

Scholars offer four reasons soldiers fight hard on the battlefield: ideology, including nationalism and patriotism; material benefits such as money; for fellow soldiers; and fear, including of one’s own commanders.

Like many armies, Russia’s military is marked by prewar inequalities between soldiers that undercut combat motivation. Take, for example, the status and economic hierarchies between contract soldiers, who make up about 70 percent of the military, and conscripts. Contract soldiers serve for three-year contracts, are paid fairly well (about $1,100 a month) and are better-trained. As officers, they also enjoy numerous opportunities to engage in corruption, including siphoning off conscript pay.

Conscripts, in contrast, are poorly trained, receiving four months of basic training, and serve for only a year, during which they are often victimized by their own contract officers, who often violently haze young recruits. For their troubles, they are paid less than $25 a month. Small wonder that there’s a robust black market in seeking deferments to avoid conscription. Poor pay and the chasm between contract soldiers and conscripts combine to undermine unit cohesion.

Inequality’s corrosive effects are amplified by the Russian army’s design. Logistics and transportation units that handle fuel, ammunition and food shipments are heavily staffed by conscripts. Poor morale in these critical units has a snowball effect, crippling front-line units. What’s more, maneuver units and even elite airborne units are typically one-third conscripts, creating opportunities for a contagion of low morale.

Perhaps these cracks could be papered over if political authorities offered a compelling reason for the war. But Russian President Vladimir Putin made little effort to prepare soldiers to fight against fellow Slavs or explain why war was necessary. The Kremlin has refused to use the term “war,” referring instead to a “special operation,” a term that de-emphasizes the cost and sacrifices needed for victory.

The Kremlin even denies that conscripts are present, erasing their sacrifice. By presidential decree, conscripts are not legally allowed to operate outside Russian borders. On the eve of war, thousands of conscripts had their status forcibly changed to contract status to circumvent the decree, creating a new set of grievances against military authorities.

The Russian invasion has some logistical problems. That doesn’t mean it’s doomed.

Low morale may bring Russian brutality — and put civilians in the crosshairs

The problem of low morale has three implications for Russian force deployment.

First, low morale creates incentives to use indiscriminate violence. Concerned by the prospect of low morale and unsure whether enough of its soldiers have the skills to conduct modern combined arms operations, Russian commanders might turn to other forms of violence to restore battlefield momentum. In this scenario, sieges and aerial bombardment of cities reduce reliance on ground forces and their tangled logistics while increasing coercive leverage over Kyiv. For reluctant soldiers, such operations can seem to promise quicker returns while minimizing additional casualties that might further erode morale. The cost, of course, is borne by civilians unable to escape these cities.

Second, low morale can increase the brutality of war. Historically, divided armies such as Russia’s have drawn on auxiliaries to do the war’s dirty work. Russia dispatched a large detachment of pro-Moscow Chechen forces, known as the Kadyrovtsy, to Ukraine to bolster Russian forces. These forces, hated and feared by Russian soldiers, were meant to act as shock troops in tough urban battles. They also have little regard for civilian casualties. These units accelerate the slide into brutality by committing atrocities that can leave victimized populations demanding retribution. Safely surrendering becomes nearly impossible, leading even unmotivated soldiers (in this case, on the Ukrainian side) to fight harder to avoid death.

Third, low morale creates new vulnerabilities. Selective conscription armies such as Russia’s historically record the highest casualty rates of any type of army. Soldiers who might not want to fight may seek opportunities to flee or otherwise shirk their duties. Commanders, fearing widespread indiscipline, often simplify operations and tactics to help improve command and control.

Doing so, however, can lock armies into rigid and predictable operations that enemies exploit, increasing casualties and raising fears of a cascade of surrenders. Armies trapped in such circumstances often resort to increased violence against their own forces to enforce order, increasing casualties.

NATO can't send troops to Ukraine. Here's what it's likely to do instead.

The war is still in its early days

Judging wartime morale is difficult, and the war remains in its early phase. Morale might improve with Russian battlefield victories or once the remainder of Russian forces, including its air power, is committed to battle.

But inequalities tend to be durable within armies. Poor morale has already complicated Russian operations, dashing the chance of a quick victory. The specter of poor morale is likely to continue to haunt Russian commanders as the war unfolds.

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