Unit morale and cohesion: Russia’s weakness and Ukraine’s strength

Vladimir Smirnov/TASS News Agency Host Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a plenary session at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 7, 2022.

The Bible tells us that, before going to war, “the officers shall … speak to the people and say, ‘What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, that he should not cause the heart of his brothers to melt.’ ”

Human nature has not changed much over the millennia; what was a concern of the ancients remains a major factor in modern warfare.

As a National Defense University study pointed out not many years after the Vietnam War came to an end, the North Vietnamese forces were able to endure “the most concentrated firepower ever directed against an army for seven continuous years” because it was “one of the most cohesive armies ever fielded. The attention paid within that army to organization, leadership, care of the soldier, and development of military cohesion … within the smallest units has not been equaled by other modern armies.”

Mobilization no substitute for morale

Morale and cohesion are critical to victory, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Vladimir Putin’s troops have yet to demonstrate much in the way of cohesion, while their morale has continued to deteriorate. Many have clearly failed the biblical test. Putin’s “partial mobilization” of 300,000 reservists and former soldiers is unlikely to change that reality.

Poor morale undermines unit cohesion at all levels but especially at the critical small-unit level. Unless they form their own separate units, the criminals, the Syrians and, according to some reports, the North Koreans who may be absorbed into Russia’s forces hardly will bolster that cohesion. Even if they operate as separate formations, their presence cannot be expected to bolster the morale of ordinary Russian troops, especially callow draftees.

Military analysts have noted that it would take some time, perhaps six months, for Russia to properly train most of the forces involved in Putin’s military call-up — the largest, in fact, since World War II. Given the total failure of Russia’s military training regimen for those personnel already dispatched to Ukraine, it is questionable whether the training of new recruits somehow will be more effective. Indeed, many of those drafted, to include anti-war demonstrators, will have little incentive to put their lives at risk.

Russia’s newly drafted but reluctant soldiers will only further undermine the dwindling morale of those already fighting in Ukraine. Even a few individuals who are unwilling to fight can undermine an entire unit, and a reluctant unit can lead to large-scale retreat. In fact, that has happened already, with Russian soldiers leaving their equipment behind and literally running for their lives.

Putin’s nuclear threat

The contrast with Ukrainian fighters could not be more stark. The Ukrainian military — whether regular army, special operations units, or territorial defense forces — have consistently, indeed increasingly, maintained both small-unit cohesion and a remarkable level of morale, despite being pounded incessantly, especially by Russian artillery. They have benefitted from American training, based in no small part on lessons learned from Vietnam and subsequent conflicts, as well as from training by other highly professional militaries, notably the British.

Moreover, they have benefitted from the virtuous cycle of positive morale that has led both to tactical and weapons innovation, whose success has in turn further reinforced morale.  

Putin may already recognize that his troop call-up is unlikely to make much difference on the ground in Ukraine. His threat to employ tactical nuclear weapons is likely a reflection of his growing panic that the conventional operations and tactics that succeeded in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea will not succeed in Ukraine. Although he may be seriously contemplating a nuclear attack, he should recognize that it will not go unanswered by the United States and its NATO allies.

Indeed, even if Putin is determined to proceed with what could only be a lunatic effort to save face and remain in power, it is not at all clear that his generals will follow his orders. It is they, not he, who would issue the direct order to their troops to unleash any sort of tactical nuclear operation against Ukraine. Yet they, likely far more than he, would recognize that doing so could create an existential risk to Russia itself.

President Biden has made it clear that he will not be cowed by Putin’s threats. Nor should be America’s allies. Washington and NATO’s support to Ukraine should proceed apace while the Ukrainian forces, their cohesion strong and their morale on the upswing, continue to regain their territory.

And if Putin cannot see that his invasion is collapsing, perhaps his military leaders will seek to save whatever sliver of reputation they still have and do all they can to convince him that whatever he may think, his “Special Military Operation” is an abject failure.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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