The Russia-Ukraine war is nearing the end of its second month and the rest of the world is feeling the impact, not just from the grim images of warfare but also from the impacts on oil and grain markets. The EU is strengthening as a geopolitical power, with Finland rushing toward NATO membership; this would double the length of the alliance’s border with Russia instantly.
A singular surprise is the duration of the conflict thus far. The Russian Army, with its supposedly state-of-the-art weaponry, has not been able to blitzkrieg its way into Kyiv. To the contrary, the images of a tank being captured with a tractor, an unarmed woman confronting Russian troops, and a 40-mile convoy stalled outside of Kyiv for weeks point to a hapless and poorly organized offensive.
On some fronts, the Russians are resorting to terror to exert force: the relentless shelling of civilians, the singling out of municipal leaders for detention and execution, and in the case of Bucha, the wholesale slaughter of noncombatants.
Yet Russian battle damage is nearly four times that of Ukraine’s in equipment losses (I am citing figures from the excellent site Oryx, which relies only on equipment losses for which there is confirmed imagery).
I assert this can be attributed to two basic factors: history and morale. The Russian (or Soviet) Army, while often huge in numbers, is not often a victor. When it is, it is at tremendous human cost. The second factor, morale, is a key driver for the first. Misery and despair do not deliver victory on the battlefield.
As Washington Post columnist Max Boot noted this week, the Russian Army is only victorious when heavily supported by Western allies, and its enemy becomes bogged down far behind Russian lines in the winter.
Spring is here.
The modern Russian military has been plagued by the culture of dedovshchina— or official hazing—since the 1960s when the Politburo decided to beef up the military’s numbers by allowing criminals to join the ranks. The criminals brought their brutal culture of “dedy,” “grandfathers” or “old-timers” to the military. The old-timers would brutalize the new conscripts until they themselves became old-timers.
Dedovshchina continued into the post-Soviet era and garnered worldwide attention as military suicide rates soared in the first part of the 21st century. Families sought to buy their sons’ way out of the military and only the poorest young men were conscripted. After a particularly brutal case where a young man had his legs amputated because of a vicious beating, some reforms took place around 2007-2008, including shortening the term of conscription from two years to one.
Meanwhile, the mission of the Russian Army is not a glorious one. And Vladimir Putin, after sending his soldiers to ghastly wars in Ukraine and Syria, signed an order in 2015 making the cause of death of any member of the military a classified state secret, forbidden to be promulgated in the media under pain of criminal prosecution.
It’s hard not to recall another Russian wartime dictator. Josef Stalin used his military forces brutally in the Second World War. Soldiers who hesitated at the front were shot from behind by their leaders. Captured Soviet POWs returned home after the war to be sent to the gulag as enemies of the state.
In 2022 there are reports of mobile crematoria among Russian units to dispose of Russian soldiers killed in action so that body counts can remain secret. NATO estimates between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed. Ukrainian forces have reported attempting to return 3,000 Russian corpses to their units and being refused.
This is monstrous to us as Americans. I think this must be monstrous to Russians.
The Ukrainian forces have the advantage of force of will and rightness of mission. They are fighting for their homeland. Their leadership values their valor and sacrifices and will notify their families if they are killed or wounded. This is basic. This is primal. This is a pivotal factor on the battlefield.
Without a mission of valor, without hope of basic human empathy from his leaders, the Russian soldier’s existence is grim at best. He has his immediate cohorts for comfort and community, but they are a voiceless cog in a dysfunctional machine. This is not a winning war plan without employing extreme measures of cruelty and destruction.
Ukraine and the world should brace themselves for worse to come.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. A Republican, she lives amicably with her Democratic husband north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.