Is the end near for Russian forces in Ukraine? Napoleon once observed that “the moral is to the physical as three to one.” Bonaparte always understood that victory is more than a matter of having enough cannons. This is as true as ever, and while much of the commentary on Ukraine’s counteroffensive has focused on the number of Western tanks supplied and the challenges posed by Russian minefields, success will be determined by the less tangible combination of psychological factors known as morale.
It may be elusive and difficult to measure, but morale decides battles, and a recent report from the Royal United Services Institute notes that “the poor training and discipline of Moscow’s forces could see the defense become uncoordinated and susceptible to collapse.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to take Kyiv in three days failed in large part because of Ukrainian determination to resist against the odds; basically, high morale. Low morale may be the Russian army’s Achilles’ heel. How determined will Russian troops be to defend captured territory in Ukraine?
Fiction Versus Reality
Hollywood tends to depict battles as continuing until the last fighter on one side falls, but real life is different. There are a few examples of heroic last stands, from the famed Three Hundred Spartans at Thermopylae to the Old Guard at Waterloo, but they are famous because they are so unusual. In practice, a unit will generally surrender or break and retreat long before it is physically destroyed.
Military science uses a rule of thumb that 25-33% casualties will be enough to finish a unit. One U.S. Army field manual drills down on this bean-counting approach to morale, stating that units with less than 15% casualties are field-capable and functional, a unit with 15-30% casualties is “capable with minor deficiencies,” but tipping over to 31% suddenly renders the unit “combat-incapable.”
In theory, then, it is just a matter of reaching that magic casualty percentage. But in practice, history shows many examples of armies that have fought on despite heavy casualties, as well as others that have crumbled almost on contact with the enemy. The Italian Army in WWII and the Argentine troops in the Falklands conflict both looked strong on paper but were quickly defeated by numerically inferior forces.
In the case of the Argentine army, while some professional units fought well, conscripts showed little willingness to fight. This was due to lack of cohesion. Officers were aloof from their inferiors, and the poorly trained conscripts had not bonded with their comrades. The Italian army in WWII also suffered from a lack of training, and from the incompetence of an officer corps in which promotion was based on patronage and political suitability rather than merit. A force needs both the vertical bonds of command and the horizontal bonds between soldiers to keep it together and fighting.
Many other factors feed into morale, including leadership, logistics support, environmental conditions, and the amount of artillery and air support available. Fundamental motivation counts for something too, and Ukrainian soldiers fighting for the survival of their country against a brutal invader have a morale advantage against Russians who are told they are ‘fighting NATO aggression” even though NATO is not involved.
Battle for Social Media
In morale, perception is more important than reality. A study of WWII combat performance by the Institute for Defense Analyses noted that attackers have sometimes been stalled by small opposing forces, not because there was heavy resistance but because the attacking force thought there was. Comparing units in Normandy in 1944, the study found several cases where resistance was described as heavy and advances came to a halt, yet casualty figures show they met little actual resistance. Other units with similar casualties pushed forward successfully because they did not believe the defenders could stop them.
Where once news reportage and campground rumors were everything, the new perception battleground is on social media, where both sides strive to create the impression that they are holding firm while the other side is forced back with heavy casualties. Deepfakes do not yet see prominent use. Instead, videos of previous actions are recycled and claimed to show current events. In some cases they are relabeled so that those being killed are identified as the enemy.
Russia has invested heavily in troll farms where operators, often pretending to be Ukrainians or Westerners, spend their days spreading pro-Russian propaganda online. However, they appear to be outmatched by NAFO, a growing volunteer group of self-styled “brain damaged cartoon dogs” who expose disinformation and mock those who spread it.
Troops on the frontline are always hungry for information, and the internet is their go-to source. We will not understand until after this war social media’s overall impact on morale, but if one side is deluged with credible images of their forces losing badly, it might tip the balance.
Morale Collapse in Ukraine?
If the RUSI report is correct, then morale in Russian forces may be approaching the level of attrition where units start to crack in Ukraine. When one unit retreats, the units on either side are left with an undefended flank and may also be forced to withdraw, a cascade that can lead to general retreat or complete rout. The Russian military has a long history of deploying blocking units, or barrier troops, behind the frontline with orders to shoot anyone attempting to flee, and some captured Russian troops say this tactic is now being used in Ukraine.
The Soviet Union made heavy use of barrier units in WWII, but Stalin disbanded them in 1944, suggesting they may not have had the desired effect.
The overall level of Russian casualties is unknown in Ukraine, as is the exact level of casualties in individual units. The critical number may not be the tidy 31% of war games, but as the war of attrition continues, so does the risk of morale collapse. The RUSI report suggests that Russian forces will continue to stand up well if they can maintain their present defensive lines. As soon as they are forced to reposition, though, Russian soldiers might simply keep retreating until they are no longer pursued.
About the Author of This Pieces, David Hambling
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, David Hambling is a London-based journalist, author and consultant specializing in defense technology with over 20 years’ experience. He writes for Aviation Week, Forbes, The Economist, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, WIRED and others. His books include “Weapons Grade: How Modern Warfare Gave Birth to Our High-tech World” (2005) and “Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world” (2015). He has been closely watching the continued evolution of small military drones.
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