Will morale prove the decisive factor in the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Graphic footage emerged this week on social media depicting what appeared to be the final moments of a captive Ukrainian soldier being summarily executed by Russian forces. The brief video of this apparent war crime shows an unarmed Ukrainian POW, who was later identified as Chernihiv native Oleksandr Matsievsky, calmly repeating the patriotic slogan “Glory to Ukraine” before being gunned down by his captors in a hail of bullets.

These memorable last words resonated deeply with the Ukrainian public, who responded with a mixture of outrage over the criminal nature of the killing and admiration for the stunning courage of the victim. Within hours of the video’s appearance, Matsievsky was being commemorated across Ukrainian social media with hundreds of portraits and memes paying tribute to his defiant stand. Murals have already appeared on the streets of Ukrainian cities. There is even talk of a monument.

Matsievsky is the latest symbol of Ukraine’s unbreakable resolve in a war which has already produced plenty. From the famous “Russian warship, go f**k yourself” of the Snake Island garrison, to the seemingly superhuman tenacity of the Azovstal defenders, Ukraine has witnessed a large number of iconic moments over the past year capturing the spirit of resistance that has gripped the country since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

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This is not at all what Russia was expecting. When Putin gave the order to invade Ukraine, he had been led to believe the Ukrainian public would welcome his troops and had been assured that organized military resistance would collapse within a matter of days. Billions of dollars had been spent preparing the ground by bribing Ukrainian officials to change sides and back the invasion. The stage was supposedly set for a triumph that would extinguish Ukrainian statehood and confirm Putin’s place among Russia’s greatest rulers.

It is now clear that Putin’s complete misjudgment of Ukrainian morale was one of the most remarkable intelligence failures of the modern era. He appears to have fallen into the trap of many long-serving dictators and surrounded himself with loyalist yes-men intent on telling him what he wanted to hear.

This toxic trend was exacerbated by the enforced isolation of the Covid pandemic, which appears to have further fueled Putin’s Ukraine obsession and strengthened his conviction that the country must be subjugated at all costs. In the increasingly claustrophobic climate of the Putin Kremlin, it is hardly surprising that his intel chiefs chose to reinforce these prejudices and encourage his reckless imperial ambitions. If they had attempted to counsel caution, they would likely have been dismissed.

This sycophancy was to have disastrous consequences. Far from greeting Putin’s invading army with cakes and flowers, the Ukrainian nation rose up and united in defiance against Russian aggression. Tens of thousands flocked to enlist in the Ukrainian military and territorial defense units, while millions more mobilized to support the war effort through fundraising, donations, and the improvised production of essential items such as anti-tank obstacles and Molotov cocktails.

Within weeks of the invasion, a vast network of Ukrainian volunteers was supplying frontline soldiers with everything from food and medicines to drones and jeeps. Despite the horrors of the past year, this steely determination to defy Russia remains firmly intact throughout Ukrainian society. Whatever else today’s Ukraine may lack, morale is certainly not an issue. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The same cannot be said for the Russian army. In response to the catastrophic losses suffered during the first six months of the invasion, Putin announced Russia’s first mobilization since World War II in September 2022. The bulk of the estimated 300,000 men mobilized last year are now in Ukraine, where they are being thrown straight into battle despite being untrained and under-equipped.

Since late January, a steady stream of videos have begun appearing on social media featuring groups of mobilized Russian troops appealing to Putin or their own regional representatives. They typically complain of suicidal tactics and heavy casualties while protesting their role as frontline shock troops and calling for redeployment to rear areas. In some cases, mobilized men have announced that they will directly refuse to follow orders.

Growing signs of demoralization within the ranks of the Russian military could become a major issue for the Kremlin at a time when Putin faces no other obvious domestic challenges to his war policy.

At present, there is little sign of significant anti-war sentiment on the home front inside Russia. On the contrary, independent surveys indicate consistently high levels of public support for the invasion, while those who do object have largely chosen to keep quiet or flee the country. While many question the validity of polling data in a dictatorship, the complete absence of any meaningful efforts to protest the war points to a passive acceptance of the invasion at the very least.

The prospects of a Kremlin coup look to be similarly slim. While many within the Russian elite are said to have been appalled by the decision to invade Ukraine, they have since reconciled themselves to the new reality and are for the most part far too personally dependent on Putin to mount any serious challenge to the Kremlin.

This leaves the military as the one potential source of serious opposition to the war. If Russian commanders persist with their human wave tactics and mobilized troops continue to die in large numbers, the current tide of discontent may evolve into outright mutiny, with highly unpredictable consequences for Putin and his regime.

The importance of morale in warfare has long been recognized. Napoleon Bonaparte famously observed that three-quarters of military success is down to morale. This helps explain why the Ukrainian army has over-performed so spectacularly during the first year of the invasion, while Russia itself has struggled to live up to its prewar billing as the world’s second most powerful military.

Crucially, Ukrainians know exactly what they are fighting for. They are defending their homes and families against an enemy intent on committing genocide and wiping their country off the map. Understandably, they need no further motivation. In contrast, Russians have been told they are fighting against everything from NATO expansion and gay parades to Anglo-Saxon Satanists and Ukrainian Nazis.

While Ukrainian soldiers are focused on the clearly defined objective of liberating their country, Russia’s war aims appear to be far more ambiguous and are often subject to sudden revision. Once the cannon fodder approach of the Russian generals is factored in, it is no surprise that morale is becoming such an issue for Putin’s army.

Could collapsing morale decisively undermine the Russian invasion? We should have a better idea regarding the scale of the problem in the coming few months, as both Russia and Ukraine pursue major spring offensives that will test the resilience of their respective armies. At this stage, Putin is preparing for a long war and still hopes to outlast the West. He has a stable home base and sufficient resources to potentially continue the invasion for at least two more years. However, the situation could change dramatically if his demoralized army refuses to fight.

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.

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Image: Mural of a Ukrainian soldier who was shot dead by Russian invaders against the backdrop of the Ukrainian flag and the phrase in Ukrainian 'Heroiam Slava!' ('Glory to the Heroes!'). Odesa, southern Ukraine. (Future Publishing via Reuters Connect)