Is Russian morale collapsing on the Ukraine front?

Is Russian morale collapsing on the Ukraine front?
AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

Vladimir Putin’s purge makes it pretty clear how bad morale is on the home front, as Jazz wrote in his last post, but Pentagon analysts believe it’s even worse on the front lines. Media outlets with intel sources have also seen anecdotal evidence of Russian troops losing confidence in their mission and leadership.

But is it bad enough to keep the Russian quantitative advantage from prevailing? That’s the tough question, and so far no one’s yet able to answer it:

The United States has anecdotal signs of flagging Russian troop morale in some units in Ukraine as the war enters its fourth week, a senior U.S. defense official said on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We certainly have picked up anecdotal indications that morale is not high in some units,” the official told reporters, also using the word “flagging” to describe it, without citing evidence. Reuters could not independently confirm the account.

“Some of that is, we believe, a function of poor leadership, lack of information that the troops are getting about their mission and objectives, and I think disillusionment from being resisted (by Ukrainians) as fiercely as they have been,” the official said.

Russia’s military structure remains similar to that of its more competent Soviet predecessor, where discipline gets enforced rather brutally. One of the POWs that gave a media briefing described having to advance in front of rear units tasked with catching and/or shooting deserters. In that reality, morale might matter less or at the very least be more attenuated to survival by moving forward against the enemy. In fact, that’s precisely the point of such structures in a conscript army, especially one ordered into what would clearly be an unpopular war once it’s launched.

But there’s more than one way to skin that cat. The New York Post rounds up some reports today that Russian soldiers and perhaps even officers have begun shooting each other in an attempt to get evacuated from the combat zone. One Belarusian media outlet published intercepts of conversations in which soldiers describe this tactic, taking care to use captured Ukrainian arms to accomplish it:

In a conversation between soldiers intercepted by Belarusian media outlet NEXTA, one Russian said, “They’ve been shooting at us for 14 days. We’re scared. We’re stealing food, breaking into houses. We’re killing civilians,” The US Sun reported.

“Russian officers shoot themselves in the legs to go home. There are corpses everywhere,” he continued.

Another soldier was heard saying that his comrades are “looking for Ukrainian ammunition in order to shoot themselves in the legs and go to hospital.”

A soldier who called his mother back home is heard in an intercepted audio saying the disillusioned troops were using 7.62 mm bullets fired by their enemies rather than 5.62 rounds fired by their own AK-47 assault rifles, the Mirror reported.

This may be part of the same anecdotal string of information that the Pentagon used to reach its conclusions on morale. Even in intel work, anecdote doesn’t necessarily equal data, but its juxtaposition to clear and unexpected Russian difficulties is hard to dismiss. The Russian invasion seems to have largely if not entirely stalled, and its leadership has proven incompetent at even basic tactics like flank protection for convoys and the coordination between armor and mechanized infantry.

Plus, the appearance of Russian generals at the front sends a very large signal of frustration at the very least, and perhaps desperation:

Russia is believed to be sending its generals to the front line of its war in Ukraine in a bid to bolster low morale among troops. …

“We think that one of the reasons why a number generals appear to be killed is because things are going badly they have to go closer to the front to guide their troops… to provide more supervision,” one Western official said.

“Therefore, they’re going further forward and therefore becoming vulnerable to enemy action.”

Answering a question about the role of the Russian Air Force and its vulnerability to Ukrainian countermeasures, he added: “I think we are seeing a reasonable amounts of evidence of very, very low morale amongst the Russian forces which may well be playing into the … necessity of senior officers to go to the front.”

Russia lost four generals in three weeks, out of an estimated 20 in Ukraine. That’s not only a huge strategic loss for Russia, it’s an amazingly high casualty rate for command officers. In comparison, the US lost only one general to combat in the War on Terror that began in 2001, Major General Harold Greene, who died in an assassination in 2014. Greene was the first American general to become a combat KIA in over 40 years; the previous combat loss was Brig. Gen. Richard Tallman in 1972, mortally wounded in a helicopter attack in An Loc.  (One other, Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, was killed in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.)

Losing one general in modern warfare is an unusual experience. The US lost less than twenty flag officers in World War II, according to Robert Rush’s count. We lost only two in Korea in three years, and thirteen over a five-year period in Vietnam (one from a heart attack). Losing four in three weeks either means that Russian generals take unnecessary and stupidly suicidal risks, or that the circumstances leave them no other choice but to risk exposing themselves to fire to get their troops in order. That’s more than an anecdotal incident to indicate massive morale problems.

But again, that leads us back to the same question. Quantity is a quality of its own in combat, and the Russians still have a massive quantitative advantage against the Ukrainians. The sheer weight of their force, backed up by dire consequences for desertion, could still be enough to overwhelm the outmatched-if-magnificent Ukrainian home defense forces. The Russians may not even have to move much, as they have clearly shifted to a terrible scorched-earth strategy of simply demolishing whatever is left of Ukraine rather than capturing its cities. Putin can, unfortunately, opt for a genocidal war, and his troops may be stuck for a while in the middle of it, which makes morale perhaps less of an issue.

In other words, don’t count on front-line morale alone to doom the Russians in this war. The home-front morale might be a bigger problem for Putin, and given his recent actions to impose Soviet-era discipline on Russians, may already be eclipsing his problems in Ukraine.

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Beege Welborn 4:41 PM on September 28, 2023