Russian army faces morale problems as Putin’s Ukraine invasion drags on

New polling data from Moscow indicates that Russian public support for the country’s invasion of Ukraine is growing. However, with the war now in its sixth month, there is little sign of similar enthusiasm within the ranks of Vladimir Putin’s invading army. Instead, much of the available evidence points to mounting demoralization among the Russian troops currently fighting in Ukraine.

The latest monthly opinion overview from Russia’s only internationally respected independent pollster, the Levada Center, has identified a slight rise in the number of Russians who back their country’s war against Ukraine. Published on August 1 and based on research conducted in late July, the poll found that 76% of Russians currently support the war effort in Ukraine. This represents a one percent increase compared to the figure for June 2022.

While a single percentage point obviously does not represent a major shift in public opinion, the consistently high levels of support registered over the past five months coupled with the slight upward trend in this latest poll do suggest that Russian backing for the war remains both solid and strong.

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The results of this new Levada Center survey will come as a wake-up call for all those who hoped Vladimir Putin would face a domestic backlash as the costs of the Ukraine invasion became increasingly apparent to the Russian public. On the contrary, it appears that the vast majority of Russians have acclimatized to the new wartime reality despite the worsening economic climate in their own country and mounting revelations of war crimes being committed in their name across the border in Ukraine.  

There has been much debate over the true level of pro-war sentiment in Russia since the invasion began on February 24, with critics arguing that opinion polls cannot be regarded as trustworthy measures of the public mood in authoritarian societies such as Putin’s Russia. It is also important to note that the Kremlin introduced draconian measures at the start of the war that effectively banned any public criticism of the invasion and imposed long prison sentences for displays of opposition.

At the same time, it must also be said that this tough stance has rarely been tested. There has been virtually no sign of an anti-war movement emerging inside Russia since a brief wave of small-scale anti-war protests which fizzled out in the early weeks of the conflict. Despite widespread initial reports of horror and alarm within the Russian establishment over Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, the country’s political, business and cultural elites have since largely mobilized in support of the Kremlin. There have been very few resignations, with the relatively few who have preferred to leave the country generally choosing to remain silent.

If Russian society as a whole seems to have accepted the war, the same cannot be said for the country’s military. Reports of demoralization among Putin’s invasion force have become a common feature of the invasion over the past five months as Russian casualties have continued to mount at an alarming rate.

While the exact number of Russians killed or wounded in Ukraine remains a closely guarded secret, US officials believe the figure is already above 75,000 and rising. Other calculations are slightly lower, but all serious sources outside of Russia itself acknowledge that Russian losses now number in the tens of thousands.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s increasingly desperate recruitment efforts hint at the scale of the manpower crisis facing the Kremlin. Across Russia, potential army recruits are being enticed with mouth-watering salaries five or six times higher than the national average along with the promise of short-term contracts. In May, the Kremlin scrapped age limits on newly enlisted men in an apparent bid to fill gaps created by heavy losses in Ukraine. More recently, recruiters have begun scouring Russian prisons and offering convicts the chance to sign up in exchange for an amnesty.

Russia’s current troop shortages are in large part due to Vladimir Putin’s reluctance to officially declare war on Ukraine. Instead, he has branded the invasion a “Special Military Operation.” As a consequence, Russian contract soldiers are not legally obliged to fight in Ukraine and can theoretically resign from the army at any moment. Thousands are believed to have already done so, leading to increasingly desperate measures as the Russian authorities seek to prevent more soldiers from quitting.  

Reports this week claimed that hundreds of Russian soldiers have been illegally imprisoned by their own commanders in the east Ukrainian conflict zone after refusing to take any further part in the war. In one written testimony republished by the UK’s Guardian newspaper, a Russian soldier claimed he was jailed after deciding to stop fighting “as a result of what I believe were the tactical and strategic mistakes of my commanders and their total disregard for human life.”

Low morale among Russian troops represents a serious challenge for the Kremlin as both Russia and Ukraine prepare for what many now fear will be a long war. Ukraine has also suffered heavy casualties during the first five months of hostilities but Ukrainian troops are supremely motivated by the knowledge that they are fighting for their homeland against a foreign aggressor. Unlike their Russian enemies, they have nowhere else to go.

Motivation is likely to become a key factor in the months ahead. This is one category where the Ukrainian military enjoys an unquestionable and overwhelming advantage. While ordinary Russians cheer the invasion from their sofas, demoralization within the ranks of Putin’s army could become a major problem for the Kremlin as the brutal war unleashed by the Russian dictator drags on with no end in sight.  

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: The Ukrainian Armed Forces estimated August 1 that more than 41,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the invasion. (Handout / Latin America News Agency via Reuters Connect)