Morale: Putin Reinterprets The Ukraine War


February 6, 2023: On January 18th Vladimir Putin went to St Petersburg and gave several speeches for various groups, including Russian and foreign media. The speeches were all about admitting that Ukraine was a war, not a “special military operation” to liberate Ukraine from NATO control. Putin now says his war in Ukraine is a war and one that must be one to rescue Russia from Western efforts to destroy Russia as a country. While many Eastern Europeans considered that a fine idea, it was also seen as impractical and never seriously considered by any European government. To deal with that reality, Putin describes the Western effort as unpublished in the West and part of a very real conspiracy that Vladimir Putin recognized and is now exposing.

While Putin’s state-controlled mass media helped maintain the support of most Russians for the war, that approval did not apply to being in the army and sent to Ukraine. Putin has not yet declared a full mobilization of Russian military age men for this war because the opinion surveys continue to show opposition to serving in the army. The economy is already mobilized for war as much as Putin’s fragile and corrupt regime can accomplish, but is crippled by the heavy Western sanctions imposed after the invasion, especially in anything requiring advanced electronics. That covers most everything from radios to tank and artillery fire control systems. Putin calling his war in Ukraine what it really is but that has not changed anything.

By not initially calling Ukraine a war, Putin avoided embarrassing questions about Russian troops attacking Ukraine and then getting beaten by the Ukrainians in several critical battles. That wasn’t the reason at the time but was an unexpected benefit. Since it was not a war, Putin could not declare a general mobilization of the nation’s resources, including manpower. In the last eleven months it has been forced to mobilize as much of Russia’s resources as Putin can manage just to hang onto Ukrainian territory Russia still occupies.

One resource Putin had trouble mobilizing was new troops. He declared several partial mobilizations that were unsuccessful because so many Russian men did not want to fight in Ukraine. Putin tried to cope with that reluctance but was unsuccessful. A month ago, he increased the legal maximum number of its active-duty military personnel from 1,013,628 to 1,150,628 personnel. The million-man force was never achieved and Putin soon discovered that this increase was an empty gesture. For example, just before the invasion began the Russian military had 700,000 personnel on duty. The ground forces had about 400,000 men while the navy and air force each had about 150,000. About a third of air force personnel were paratroopers or air mobile infantry. The navy had about 12,000 marines, who guarded naval bases in peacetime. That means that heavy Russian losses since the invasion began, and failure to mobilize many replacements, reduced the army to about 250,000 personnel. Ukraine’s ground forces now outnumber the Russian army by about three to one, and Russia’s total ground forces by about two to one. Not just in Ukraine, but in all of Russia and Ukraine.

Russia’s airborne forces and marines also suffered heavy losses but more of them are still in service. Heavy combat losses reduced personnel strength so sharply because the Russian army has far fewer soldiers providing logistic and transportation services. These are provided by government or private contractors who assemble and move supplies close to the combat zone, where military trucks and drivers move the supplies to army-maintained collection points or the combat units. This works inside Russia where the state-controlled railroads are equipped for operation by civilians who are trained for such support. For a major war against Russia, civilian trucks and drivers are mobilized for military transportation. Such a mobilization would disrupt the entire economy but is seen as necessary t0 defend Russia. During World War II Russia received lots trucks, combat vehicles, ammunition food and other much needed items. This is why the Ukrainian invasion was not called a war but an “internal operation” in what Russia declared was Russian territory controlled by rebels who were receiving the military aid in quantities to what Russia received in World War II. This time the Russians are playing the invaders and not going as well as the Nazis.

Russia did not expect the Ukrainians’ massive resistance or their destruction of so many Russian trucks and supply collection points. This dramatically weakened Russian supply capabilities inside Ukraine, especially after Ukraine received guided GMLRS rockets that hit Russian supply depots using information supplied by Ukrainian and NATO aerial and satellite surveillance. Russian forces inside Ukraine are chronically short of ammunition, food, fuel and much else because of these Ukrainian tactics. Resorting to looting civilian supplies in occupied areas only partially replaces the supplies destroyed in transit or stored inside Ukraine.

Mobilizations of new conscripts and men who had served the one year of conscript service failed to replace all the losses, in part because the mobilized men knew that the war in Ukraine was not going well and most men sent there had little training, equipment or leadership. Most of the trained and experienced junior officers were killed or disabled during the first months of the war and replacements take months to train to minimal standards. Peacetime officer training takes years and now there is a shortage of trainers for troops and officers because most of the existing ones were sent to Ukraine as replacements for the catastrophic losses the Ukrainians were inflicting.

Ukraine had 250,000 active-duty troops in early 2022 and within months had half a million more in the form of volunteers and conscripts. Normally Ukrainian troops receive a lot more training than their Russian counterparts but in the first months of the war, untrained Ukrainians were used to halt the invasion. Since then, Ukrainian troops get more training and are led by experienced officers and NCOs in combat. Ukrainian troops don’t suffer from supply shortages and suffer relatively fewer casualties than the Russians.

Shortly after Putin’s “we are at war” speech the American military finally accepted Ukrainian estimates of Russian losses. While the Ukrainians believe Russia has lost 180,000 troops in Ukraine, the Americans will only acknowledge 100,000 as well enough documented to accept. The Ukrainians also point that their “troops lost” total does not mean only dead, but those no longer serving in the Russian military because they were captured or deserted. Ukraine considers the deserters a real plus for Ukrainian success because the deserters will often return home or get in touch and provide a more accurate account of what is really happening in Ukraine. The deserter version is far more glum than the official government reports. The high actual losses have led to an increase of active opposition to the war. This is especially true with young men likely to be conscripted soon.

Putin reinterpreting his war in Ukraine as something similar to the German invasion of 1941 is difficult to use as a legitimate reason for more Russians to join the military. This is not 1941 Soviet (communist) Russia. Soviet rule and the Soviet Union itself disappeared in 1991. Russian attitudes towards the military and the government changed, and so did the public’s means of obtaining information about the war. Before Putin gained power in 1999, the government had been compelled by popular opinion to reduce the conscription service to only one year and work towards eliminating conscription entirely, as most of Europe did after 1991. Eliminating conscription was another effort to carry out some fundamental reforms in the Russian army.

The most popular reform effort was directed towards eliminating often fatal interactions between and against new recruits. This hazing developed after World War II, when Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO Corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men, but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by senior ones. This led to very low morale and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage and desertions that made military life something to be feared, especially by conscripts.

Long recognized as a problem, no solution ever worked. Getting rid of conscripts was believed to be a good first step. Volunteers sign up to be in the military for more than two years, as opposed to one year for conscripts. The government was forced by popular opinion to actively work towards eliminating conscription. Several efforts and many resources were devoted to developing professional NCOs to keep things under control in the barracks. It was soon discovered that even among volunteers, the hazing tended to survive. While the new NCOs have had some success in suppressing the hazing, the generals don't want to take any chances and backed the attempt to bring back chaplains. That didn’t work either.

This explains the personnel shortages of the Russian army before the 2022 invasion. Conscription and military service became even more unpopular with most Russians after the Russian ground forces took heavy losses during the first months of the invasion. Ukraine, a former part of the Soviet Union, managed to eliminate the hazing because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014. That was a wakeup call for Ukrainians and, with the help of trainers and military advisors from NATO countries, the Ukrainian military underwent much-needed reforms from 2015 to 2021. This led to the Ukrainian ability to quickly defeat the 2022 Russian invasion and inflict the heaviest military losses Russia had experienced since World War II.

Russia’s pre-war ground forces have been effectively destroyed and the losses impossible to completely replace, both because so few Russians are willing to serve in the military and because junior officers take years to train. Unlike in World War Two, promoting a lot of soldiers to officer rank did not turn these men into trained and experienced officers. Every able-bodied man in the Soviet Union was conscripted in the Great Patriotic War, which produced a true cross-section of Soviet society including the able, intelligent and educated. The ones of those who survived long enough became capable combat-experienced veterans quite suitable for immediate promotion as junior and even field-grade officers. Such high-quality manpower is quite absent from the modern Russian army, which contains too many physically or mentally unfit men. And there is still the problem of the missing professional NCOs.




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