When the Russians invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Ukrainian armed forces had nearly a quarter million personnel on active duty. Since then, Ukraine has added over half a million more personnel (volunteers and conscripts) and, unlike Russia, most of the new personnel did not go into combat units but were instead assigned to support units. These troops were often armed, because they frequently operated in a combat zone getting needed supplies of fuel, food and ammo to the combat units. The troops were also kept supplied with adequate cold-weather uniforms and other items that maintain health and morale. This included medical care and rapid movement of severe casualties to hospitals. The lightly wounded were treated and allowed to rejoin their unit. This is a common reaction of combat troops and Ukraine supplies the medical care that can determine which wounds are not debilitating and allow soldiers to quickly return to their units. Many combat injuries consist of concussions or flesh wounds that can be diagnosed and treated quickly.
Unlike the Russians, Ukraine support troops used forklifts to move ammunition and other supplies onto and off trucks. The Russians still do it by hand, which often means that it doesn’t get done if there are not enough troops to do it. The invading Russians forces had few or none of the support services Ukraine provides for its own troops. This has provided Ukrainian troops with a major advantage. Unlike Russian troops in Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers suffer less from malnutrition, cold weather, and untreated wounds.
During the first few months of the war the Ukrainians had to improvise but they did so with the intention of keeping their casualties lower than what the Russians were suffering, and seeing to it that new or existing troops got the training and logistical support they needed to be most effective. Russia went in the opposite direction, providing less training and logistical support for new troops sent to Ukraine to replace their heavy losses. The Russian reinforcements suffered heavy losses from this lack of supplies, medical care and leadership. Many of these Russian troops surrendered or deserted at the first opportunity. Russian efforts to remedy this are disrupted by prompt and precise Ukrainian attacks on their supplies. Ukrainian troops survive longer in combat and suffer fewer casualties, which means the average Ukrainian combat soldier is more experienced, trained, led and supported than their Russian counterparts. Ukrainian forces are prepared for a winter campaign and Russian forces are not.
Unable or unwilling to train and support their troops as well as the Ukrainians have, the best Russia can do is offer to negotiate. The Ukrainians won’t do this unless the Russians agree to immediately start removing their forces from all Ukrainian territory they occupy. That’s fine with most of the Russian soldiers in Ukraine, but not with the Russian leaders back home who staked their reputations and positions on the ability to defeat the Ukrainians. Details of the treatment of Russian troops in Ukraine gets back to military-age (currently 18 to 50 years old) men in Russia and their families with predictable results. Opinion polls show declining support for the war in Ukraine, but a large minority of Russians still support it. As the losses in Ukraine grow, the support for the war declines and criticism of the Russian government grows.
Russia never put as much emphasis on material support for the troops as Western nations did. The Russian approach was to apply overwhelming force initially to defeat the enemy. If that failed, as it increasingly did in the 20th century, so did Russian losses. Ukraine understood that and with NATO assistance, was able, especially after 2014, to adopt a Western style of military operations. Some western military leaders underestimated the impact of this on Ukrainian successes and lower casualties. While Western militaries accept these support policies for their own troops and the resulting lower combat casualties, they were surprised and initially incredulous at the rapidity with which Ukrainians adopted and benefitted from Western practices. The key here is Ukrainian motivation to defend their independence and freedom from Russian suppression and abuse. Ukrainians were not only motivated but also had the skills and determination to quickly learn how to use new weapons and techniques. Intangible factors like this are difficult to measure or simply create. This motivation was present when Ukraine managed to gain independence after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Even then the Russians insisted Ukraine was part of Russia. Ukrainians had more determination to break free of Russian control than Russia was able to handle in the 1990s. After 2000 the Russians began developing plans to regain control of Ukraine. Russia had some support for this inside Ukraine but it was not enough and, when Russia resorted to force between 2014 and 2022, they had less and less support inside Ukraine, where it was becoming clear that the worst thing that could happen to Ukrainians was to become part of Russia once more.
After World War II, Russian occupation from 1945 to 1990 made a deep impression on eastern Europeans. They understood that the Russians were aggressive and could not be trusted. Western Europe, which did not experience Russian occupation and allied with Russia to defeat the Germans, was more optimistic. The war in Ukraine has been something of a reality check for Western Europeans, although not as much on the United States and Canada. For NATO members like Poland, the Baltic States and Romania, which are closest to the problem, the Russian threat is very real and there are still many people in these countries who lived through it.