Russian political and military leaders seem surprised at the extent to which Russian soldiers are refusing to fight in Ukraine. Perhaps someday these leaders will realize that this should not have been a surprise. While Russian leaders earlier made much of reforming the military and upgrading its equipment, they ignored fundamentals like willingness to fight. In modern war the infantry is a minority (10 to 25 percent of troops) but comprise over 80 percent of the casualties.
After more than a century of lies, deceit, poor leadership and heavy losses, the young Russian men who end up in the infantry, as well as their families, are refusing to be killed in another unnecessary war in Ukraine.
This attitude began to develop over a century ago when Russian troops and warships were defeated in the Russo-Japanese war. The fighting was about who would control Manchuria (northeastern China) and Korea. The Russian army and navy suffered heavy losses and lost to upstart Japan. The Russian defeat was real and it forced the Russian monarchy to make concessions. That did not include staying out of major wars Russia could not win. Russia got dragged into World War I in 1914, where heavy losses led Russia to admit defeat and leave the war in 1917. Fighting did not stop inside Russia as a civil war broke out over what would replace the monarchy; a democracy or a secular dictatorship. The democracy was more popular but the communists were more ruthless and better at using propaganda to promise what they had no intention of delivering.
The new communist government sought to eliminate features of the military that might lead to another revolution. NCOs, who were often rebel leaders, were eliminated and replaced by junior officers and political officers whose job was to prevent disloyalty and report any problems in that area. General conscription was re-introduced and a separate elite force of KGB troops was organized to ensure that the conscript soldiers remained loyal, or at least pretended to be. This worked during World War II, when Russia lost ten million soldiers in combat and nearly 20 million civilians to exposure, disease and widespread violence against civilians. Russia kept the extent of those losses a secret until the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The post-Soviet collapse Russian government began as a democracy but after a decade ended up as another dictatorship.
The new dictator was Vladimir Putin, a KGB officer before the Soviet Union collapsed. Putin wanted to restore the Russian empire. He seemed surprised when the Russian people did not share his enthusiasm for such efforts. This lack of enthusiasm for another major war became painfully obvious when Putin ordered a second invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Putin realized there might be problems if his troops did not win a quick victory. There was no victory, quick or otherwise. The Ukrainians fought back and forced the Russian troops trying to quickly take the Ukrainian capital to withdraw to Russia and redeploy to eastern Ukraine and Crimea, areas Russia had seized in 2014 but were stopped there by unexpected Ukrainian resistance. These setbacks hurt Russian troop morale and inspired more Ukrainians to volunteer for military service to preserve their national independence.
The defeated Russian forces reacted differently to their defeat and accused their government of sending them up against a formidable enemy that they were told did not resist. Many Russian troops were angry over the fact that they were not told they were invading Ukraine, leaving them to discover that when they came under heavy fire after crossing the border they were not told about. After a few months of fighting Putin acted surprised as many Russian soldiers refused to go to Ukraine and many of those in Ukraine refused to fight.
As word spread inside Russia about what was going on in Ukraine, parents of conscripts backed their sons who were trying to stay out of the army and most definitely out of Ukraine. Putin apparently did not appreciate the fact that he was facing over a century of earlier heavy losses and bad leadership that had killed millions of Russians, in addition to those killed by enemy troops. The Rodina (the Russian people) had not forgotten because it was the Rodina that died, not their leaders. The bill for over a century of such attitudes came due on Putin’s watch.
This situation was not unique to Russia. After World War I Britain, France and other European democracies had to deal with popular resistance to another bloodbath. France was quickly (by 1940) defeated in World War II, in part because of its overreliance on static defenses and a general lack of enthusiasm for another major war. The British kept fighting but the elected government realized that the voters would not tolerate heavy losses. Measures were taken to keep casualties down. That meant less use of infantry and much more use of tanks and other armored vehicles. During World War II most tanks destroyed or disabled by enemy action resulted in most of the tank crew surviving, although some might be wounded. Because of this and an emphasis on keeping infantry losses low Britain suffered the fewest losses for any nation that was involved in the war from the beginning (1939) to the end.
Other European nations that suffered heavy World War I losses, like Germany, also had to be careful about high casualties. By 1939 the German democracy had turned into a Nazi dictatorship that still had to present its war efforts as low-casualty operations. The impact of this was noted by American (which was still neutral) journalists in Germany during September 1939. On the day the war began with the invasion of Poland, the public attitude in Berlin and the rest of Germany was somber, with a sense of dread about what was to come. By 1940, after the low German casualties during the rapid conquests of Poland and France, German attitudes changed. This only lasted for about two years. The 1941 invasion of Russia, entry of the U.S. in war and huge casualties suffered in Russia and at home because of the growing use of U.S. and British bombers to attack civilians stalled the advances and caused heavy military and civilian casualties. Because of those losses German attitudes changed by late 1942. All nations that suffered heavy losses in World War II came out of the war less confident about the use of military force.
There was one exception; Russia. Dictator Josef Stalin had been responsible for the exceptionally high Russian losses during the war. This was because of his 1930s purges of suspected disloyal officers and troops in the military. Civilians suspected of disloyalty were also killed in large numbers, or sent to labor camps that few survived. Subordinates were unwilling to tell Stalin the truth about the degraded state of the military in 1940 because Stalin tended to execute anyone delivering bad news.
Russia was victorious in World War II despite, not because of Stalin. That was a state secret in Russia until early 1953 when Stalin died. Soon after that Stalin’s key functionaries were killed or arrested. There followed a “secret speech” to key communist officials that outlined the many mistakes Stalin had made during his two decades in power. This came as a shock to many of those who heard the admissions, which did not remain secret for long. Stalin’s official reputation went from hero to zero at least until Putin gained power. Russians could now discuss, or complain about the heavy losses during and before the war because of Stalin. Unlike most other dictators (including Hitler and the military government that ran Japan during the war), most absolute rulers stay in power by paying some attention to public sentiment. Stalin did not and was one of the few to die of old age. His methods did not survive his passing as the communist dictators who succeeded him realized that their large military could not be trusted in a major war.
Russian-occupied East European nations experienced uprisings from the 1950s through the 1980s that demonstrated why the Russian reluctance to fight was real. While most of these uprisings were quickly suppressed by local security forces and some additional Russian special operations troops, there were some exceptions. In 1956 the Hungarians rebelled and the local security forces could not handle it, nor could the initial Russian use of their troops and tanks. The Russians had to retreat and come back with a larger force to put down the uprising. The Russian troops were not particularly enthusiastic about fighting the Hungarians but sheer numbers overwhelmed Hungarian resistance.
In 1969 there was a six-month long border war with China. Despite the numbers involved (650,000 Russian and over 800,000 Chinese troops) there were only a few hundred casualties and Russia refrained from using its more numerous artillery, armored vehicles and warplanes to kill a lot of Chinese. After months of negotiations the confrontation ended with China getting most of what it wanted, mainly because the Americans refused a secret Russian request to join in or at least condone a Russian plan for a major nuclear attack on China. Without the nukes, Russia could not risk heavy infantry losses from prolonged fighting with China. At the same time China was appalled when they found out about the Russian plan to go nuclear. The Chinese were pleasantly surprised by the more measured attitude of the United States in refusing Russian requests to participate in a nuclear war, even against communist China. This led to China and the U.S. resuming diplomatic relations in a few years. Russia now had another potential invader; the angry Chinese. Russia also realized its military age population was not as willing as earlier generations to tolerate a major war, especially one that did not involve an invasion of Russia. During the next twenty years Russia received more reminders of the fragility of the morale in its combat forces. There was the very real problem in 1956 Hungary and a similar situation in Poland, where the uprising was avoided by a compromise. This meant some Russian troops were withdrawn from Poland and economic reforms tolerated. The Hungarians got a larger Russian garrison and a more oppressive local government.
By the 1980s Russian occupied Eastern Europe was once more suffering from growing unrest. At the same time (1980) Russia had a large invasion force in Afghanistan. Lack of ports, railroads and few roads in Afghanistan meant Russia could not support more than 150,000 troops there and that was not enough to win. The Afghans kept resisting and often taking and distributing videos of successful attacks on Russians. Even without the Internet, the still pictures reached Russia on a wide scale, though the videos were less widely distributed. In a now (2022) familiar pattern, conscripts and their parents gradually and soon openly protested the war and the number of Russians killed. By the time the last Russian troops left Afghanistan in early 1989, about 15,000 Russian troops had died. Most enemy casualties were caused by Russian special operations troops and airpower. That suddenly declined in 1986 as the Americans supplied the Afghan irregulars with their new (since 1981) Stinger MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense System), which was easy to learn to use and fatal to low flying Russian helicopters and other aircraft. With the end of their airpower and special forces (which moved by air) advantage Russia withdrew.
The 2014 attack on Ukraine was carried out by special forces troops and surprise. There was also a large Russian garrison because Russia had a long-term lease for its Crimean naval base at Sevastopol. The Russian special operations effort was less successful in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and in 2022 Putin ignored decades of experience (and some recent advice) and attempted a large-scale attack on Ukraine.
History was right and Putin was wrong, but so far Putin is seeking a way around that. The Ukrainians claim they have killed over 30,000 Russian troops in six months of fighting. Russia will not say exactly what its losses were, in part because so many of the dead were left behind when Russian troops were forced to retreat. At the same time, some of those retreating Russian troops deserted as soon as they were out of Ukraine. Those who deserted inside Ukraine were treated well by the Ukrainians, who helped them get in touch with their families. Much like Afghanistan, the Russians are unable to maintain as many troops as they want in Ukraine. The Russians only have about 200,000 troops in Ukraine, largely because of the heavy losses during the initial (first month) of fighting that ended in a disastrous retreat. The Russians were more successful in the south, where they made some gains in the first few weeks. But now those newly occupied territories, as well as the ones occupied since 2014, are a source of growing unrest and violence against the Russians.
Ukrainians in the areas taken in 2014 have been waiting for an offensive to liberate them. Now they have it and are responding more violently than the Russians ever expected. Many Russians and some foreigners are paying closer attention to Vladimir Putin and speculating on who, or which faction, might replace him.