It commands less attention than a perfectly executed battle plan, and it is much harder to quantify than a numerical edge in shells, tanks or fighter planes.
Scholars and military analysts say low morale in the Russian ranks is one of the biggest reasons why Moscow has failed to achieve many of its key strategic objectives in Ukraine despite its far larger army and massive advantage in virtually all other quantifiable metrics.
From their disastrous effort to capture Kyiv to their humiliating retreat from Kherson, Russian forces appear to have been at a massive psychological disadvantage. Ukrainian soldiers believe deeply in their cause and have been buoyed by successes, but Russian troops by nearly all accounts appear to doubt the competence of their leaders. In some cases, they simply don’t share President Vladimir Putin’s belief that it is necessary to put their lives on the line in Ukraine.
The result has been a massive gulf in motivation, energy level, initiative and confidence. That gap has appeared on the battlefield in several ways, specialists say, because troops with low morale simply don’t perform well.
“They will do the bare minimum,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, now director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If you as a leader declare that we’re going to do a mission or raid, they will go the absolute minimum amount of distance they have to to avoid getting in trouble. They won’t push further. They won’t exploit opportunities they see. In some cases when morale gets horrible, they won’t even do that.
“Maybe the conscripted [Russian] soldier, maybe he or she believes that they’re in Ukraine to fight the danger of Ukrainians,” Gen. Spoehr said in an interview. “But anybody past the age of reason … knows better. They know that Ukraine was not posing a danger to Russia. That impacts what they do. They’ll do those actions that will cause them to stay out of prison, but no more.”
The influx of hundreds of thousands of conscripts in recent weeks called up by the Putin government has only accentuated the morale problems. Despite strict government controls, families of the drafted recruits have posted videos of their difficulties in the field, with minimal training, absent leaders and no clear sense of their duties as they try to hold off Ukrainian forces advancing in the east and south.
Throughout history, high morale in the ranks — the combination of believing your cause is just, that your military can win, and that your commanders are competent and concerned about an individual soldier’s well-being — has proved to be a decisive factor. As the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, historians and psychologists highlighted the game-changing effect morale could have on the outcomes of battles.
“Morale wins wars, solves crises, is an indispensable condition of a vigorous national life and equally essential to the maximum achievement of the individual,” historian Arthur Upham Pope wrote in a 1941 piece for The Journal of Educational Sociology.
“In battle, morale gives victory,” he said. “The outnumbered, ill-equipped or even outmaneuvered may triumph if their morale is markedly superior.”
Pope cited battles in the Punic Wars, the French Revolution and a host of other conflicts in which outnumbered, outgunned armies defeated their foes largely because of higher morale, belief in their cause and superior leadership. In the Civil War, Confederate units racked up early wins over much larger Union forces partly because of their morale and motivation. That morale declined throughout the war, however, especially after a landmark Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg and the grinding battle of attrition adopted by commander Ulysses S. Grant.
More recently in Afghanistan, a Taliban insurgent force outlasted the U.S. military and overthrew the Western-backed Afghan government after a 20-year conflict, partly because of its unwavering commitment to drive Western forces out of the country and restore its harsh version of Islamic law.
The defensive force for the weak, corruption-riddled government in Kabul fought well at times but virtually dissolved after political leadership deserted the troops.
In Ukraine, evidence of Russian troops’ low morale has been building since the war began in late February. In September, a New York Times report revealed numerous intercepted phone calls from Russian troops to friends and family. In one message, a soldier declared that “Putin is a fool.”
Earlier this month, the Russian military blog Grayzone published a letter supposedly written by members of Russia’s 155th Marine Brigade who blasted military commanders after a disastrous attack on Ukrainian positions in the Donetsk province.
“As a result of the ‘carefully’ planned offensive by the ‘great generals,’ we lost about 300 people killed, wounded and missing in the course of four days. [And] half of our equipment,” the Russian troops wrote, according to English-language media accounts.
The Russian Defense Ministry publicly denied the claims that it had suffered massive losses in Donetsk, even though Western intelligence services and other observers seemed to confirm the soldiers’ accounts.
It’s little surprise that Russian troops would doubt the intelligence, competence and sympathy of their leaders. From the start, their claims have been divorced from reality, most notably Mr. Putin’s declaration that Russia needed to eliminate Nazis who were secretly running Ukraine.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has come under fierce criticism for Russia’s unrealistic battle plan, and Mr. Putin has cycled through a string of senior commanders looking for someone who can conduct the invasion campaign competently.
On the battlefield, the Russian troops’ anticipated advantages never materialized. The campaign to take Kyiv was doomed by Russian commanders’ failure to bring enough fuel for military vehicles. Russian military leaders initially didn’t deploy electronic warfare systems and other mechanisms to ward off Ukrainian drone strikes, which destroyed Russian armored columns.
Despite its presumed status as a premier cold-weather fighting force, recent reports suggest that the Russian military has failed to provide coats, hats, gloves and other mission-critical materials for its troops. That lack of basic supplies fuels doubts among soldiers that their leaders can provide for their basic needs.
“Forces lacking in winter weather clothing and accommodation are highly likely to suffer from non-freezing cold injuries,” the British Defense Ministry said in a recent analysis of the Russian war effort. “The weather itself is likely to see an increase in rainfall, wind speed and snowfall. Each of these will provide additional challenges to the already low morale of Russian forces” and create new logistical headaches for them.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, in one of its daily analyses of the fighting last week, highlighted the demoralized state of Russian forces in one strategic area.
“Multiple reports indicate that the morale and psychological state of Russian forces in the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts are exceedingly low,” the institute survey noted. “Significant losses on the battlefield, mobilization to the front lines without proper training, and poor supplies have led to cases of desertion.”
The survey cited a report in a Russian independent media outlet that said some 300 Russian soldiers were being detained in a basement in a part of Russian-occupied Ukraine for refusing orders to return to the front lines.
Setting aside the fact that many Russian soldiers may not believe in the mission itself, each of those shortcomings reveals systemic problems at the highest levels of the Russian military. If Russian troops can’t trust their commanders, successful missions become all but impossible.
“There’s no question but that the No. 1 corrosive factor in undermining morale is a lack of trust in leadership,” said Col. Timothy Mallard, director of ethical development and college chaplain at the U.S. Army War College.
“Such trust must be both vertical and horizontal at every level of war, beginning within a single unit and extending to the nation — a critical marker of a professional military force,” he told The Washington Times. “Soldiers must trust those who are charged to lead both them and their units in combat, and when they don’t, military effectiveness quickly erodes.”
The results of low morale, Col. Mallard said, include “poor coordination within or amongst units, poor execution of published plans or orders, and poor obedience to the chain of command.”
Furthermore, there is an obvious difference in the leadership styles of Mr. Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Mr. Zelenskyy has given daily video addresses throughout the war, stayed in Kyiv in the darkest early days of the fighting, and now regularly leaves the capital for morale-building visits with the troops. He most recently visited Kherson after the Russian retreat.
Mr. Putin, meanwhile, has been nowhere near the front lines.
“Men and women will do great things if they have some leader next to them, out in front of them, saying this is the way to go,” Gen. Spoehr said. “History is filled with examples of people who went above and beyond as long as their leader was there sharing it.”