Senior US military officials report that only a few days into the invasion of Ukraine, the morale of Russian troops is flagging significantly.
Putin’s troops have been plagued with logistical challenges, including shortages of food and fuel. This is somewhat surprising given how long they were staged before entering the former Soviet Republic. What did they do with all that time?
To understand what underlies this lack of morale, we must look at what shapes combat motivation; the willingness to fight and die for a cause.
In this case, the answer is simple:
Many Russian soldiers don’t want to be in Ukraine
A quick social media search reveals numerous videos showing hungry soldiers forced to beg or forage for food. Some complain of not knowing where they are or why they are fighting. More than a few soldiers have expressed the belief that they were only on a training exercise.
** This Russian soldier is moved by the generosity of Ukrainian strangers. He is purportedly making a call home to inform his mother he is safe.
After considering the above, there is a critical point that we should understand.
Not All Russian Soldiers Are Created Equal
A fundamental inequity is built into the Russian military machine. Some troops serve voluntarily (contract soldiers), and the rest are conscripts. Russia has had a conscript army since 1918. Today, approximately 400,000 young men between the ages of 18 and 22 are drafted each year to serve in the regular army, the Ministry of Internal Affairs forces, border troops, and other branches of the Russian armed forces.
During the existence of the Soviet Union, conscription was seen as a way of life and was not questioned. Since the fall of the old Soviet state, it has been a hot topic because conscripts are most decidedly viewed by their own military as second-class citizens when compared with their contract counterparts. This is also reflected in the way conscript soldiers are treated within the force and the menial support tasks they are assigned to.
The social and economic inequalities between those two groups are undermining morale and the willingness to fight. They create inefficiencies that limit the Russian’s potential combat power.
Contract soldiers make up approximately 70% of the Russian armed forces. They serve three-year contracts, are significantly better trained than their conscript counterparts, and are relatively well paid at an average of about $1,100 USD per month.
Conscripts, on the other hand, serve their country for one year. They are short-timers from day one. These troops are poorly trained (with maybe 16 weeks of military training during their entire time in the armed forces) and are said to be regularly mistreated by their contract officers. It is not uncommon for corrupt contract officers to siphon money away from conscript pay.
That really stings when you discover that the average conscript makes roughly the equivalent of $25 US dollars a month. You read that right, twenty-five bucks.
I’d be pissed off too, but the pay differential is not nearly the worst of it. When I mentioned that Russian conscripts are mistreated, that was a gross downplaying of what really happens. In the Russian military, the hazing of conscripts is an age-old practice carried over from the Soviet era.
They have a name for this ongoing mistreatment: Dedovshchina
Dedovshchina can range from activities such as being forced to do an unrealistic number of pushups (and being beaten when you can’t) to extremely vicious forms of psychological and even sexual abuse. Some conscripts suffer for the rest of their lives due to this trauma.
Suicide during training is not uncommon. In the 2010s, the Russian Defense Ministry stopped publishing reports of violent deaths in their Armed Forces. During the last year where data was available, 2009, there were 30 such cases reported per month on average.
The government has stopped counting, but The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, a human rights organization, has not. They receive, on average, between 15-20 complaints of thefts, beatings, and extreme bullying every day. This number is thought to be low because most cases are not reported due to fear of reprisals.
Not surprisingly, many former Russian military personnel cite Dedovshchina as a significant source of poor morale in the ranks.
Beans, Bullets and Bad Attitudes
Consider this: Russian logistical and transportation units (the ones that handle the distribution of food, ammunition, and fuel) are primarily staffed by conscripts.
What motivation do these troops have in providing desperately-needed supplies to their much, much higher paid and better-treated comrades? It’s a recipe for disaster, and the world is watching it play out in real-time.
The ensuring apathy and dissension among the ranks have had a noticeable effect on front-line elements. Even maneuver units and airborne troops are roughly one-third comprised of conscripts.
As a result, low morale has crept from support troops to front-line fighters, and it’s a serious problem.
To add insult to injury, the Kremlin denies the use of conscripts in their war effort. By Presidential decree, conscripts are not legally allowed to operate outside of Russian borders.
But they are.
To be fair, on the eve of the war, the Russian government changed thousands of conscripts to contract status to bypass their own decree.
Did I Say War?
I did, but the Kremlin won’t call their actions in Ukraine a war. They refuse to use the term, instead referring to the invasion as a “special operation.” This convenient bit of fiction allows conscripts to be used as well.
Somehow that sounds less deadly than war, but it’s not. “A rose by any other name.”
So, What Will Be the Outcome of This Low Morale?
Low morale creates particular vulnerabilities. Conscripts historically tend to have the highest casualty rates in any army. Soldiers who don’t want to fight tend to go AWOL or neglect their duties.
This can force commanders to simplify operations, and the effects of these simplified operations may not have the tactical impact intended initially.
So the war drags on, and morale gets worse yet. It’s a self-destructive downward spiral for military units, typically ending in defeat and exiting the country you initially invaded with your head hung low.
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