Morale: Russian Friendly Fire


December 15, 2023: Russia has suffered heavy personnel losses in Ukraine. The dead now amount to at least 320,000 men and Russia is having a difficult time trying to mobilize another 300,000 to 400,000 men for the army. This is needed to prevent front line units from wasting because of casualties, desertion, and illness. Russia has had to establish additional military hospitals to cope with the larger number of wounded and sick. The exact number of dead and wounded in Ukraine is a military secret but the growing number of dead, wounded and missing soldiers are noticed by their families and family members discuss their losses on encrypted Internet apps. This data often finds its way to Ukrainian and other foreign journalists. Russia is reluctant to increase the number of mobilized civilians because that is increasingly unpopular because of the growing number of combat losses. Russia also lacks basic equipment for new recruits. Corruption in the Defense Ministry led to the purchase of substandard uniforms and other items of basic equipment for new troops. This is a major problem during winter because there is not enough warm clothing, and much is poorly made and not sufficient to keep troops warm.

What is more obvious, at least to Ukrainians, is that Russian combat units are not receiving enough replacements to make up for combat losses. Captured Russian soldiers confirm the growing lack of replacements, and the extremely long periods Russian units stay in the combat zone without any relief by fresh units. To maintain morale and combat capabilities it is customary for both sides to withdraw infantry units from the fighting for some rest, home leave, retraining and integrating new recruits into the unit. Without this downtime, which can last a few weeks to more than a month, combat units will decline in effectiveness. This happens despite increasing combat experience because too much time in the active combat zone leads to mental exhaustion and declining morale. These problems get worse the longer the troops are in combat and lead to sharply reducing combat effectiveness. The troops refer to the latter as combat fatigue or burnout. Most troops begin to suffer from combat fatigue after various periods, with generally an irrecoverable breakdown after 200-300 days total in combat. Taking troops out of a combat zone for rest and then putting them back into a less active combat area for a period (rotation) is the only way to deal with this. The United States developed other methods to keep career combat non-commissioned officers (NCOs) effective after the 200-300 day limits during the war on terror, involving more frequent and longer periods of time off, and with special treatment when off duty.

Both Russian and Ukrainian troops are suffering from combat fatigue, but it is worse for the Russians, Ukrainian troops get rotation from combat and better medical care. Ukrainian officers and sergeants take better care of the troops assigned to their units. Another major factor is that Ukraine is a democracy and commanders are held responsible for the treatment of their troops. Ukrainian troops are defending their homeland from Russian invaders. For centuries Russian have tried to dominate and control Ukraine. In part because of NATO support, the Ukrainians are putting up a more formidable resistance than any time in the past. Many Russian soldiers are unclear of why they have invaded Ukraine. All the Russian troops know is that they are treated badly by their leaders, with combat personnel rarely being rotated from combat, and those who do get rotated suffer from corruption among their officers who cannot pass up opportunities to enrich themselves at the expense of the troops. This is what Russian officers commonly do. The degree of such corruption varies from country to country and Russia was always one of the worst examples. During World War II there was a lot less corruption because Russian troops were defending the motherland from foreign invaders. That’s why Russian propaganda inside Russia depicts the fighting in Ukraine as a defensive war against NATO. Pro-NATO Ukrainians are hostile to Russian claims that Ukraine is part Russia and not an independent country. Ukrainians will fight to defend Ukrainian independence.

Many Russians agree with the claims that Ukraine is part of Russia and consider Ukrainians who disagree as traitors. NATO countries are accused of encouraging these treasonous beliefs among Ukrainians. Before the Russian invasions most Ukrainians did not want to join NATO because Ukraine already had treaties with Russia that recognized and guaranteed independence. Violating that agreement by invading turned Russia into an untrustworthy and dangerous neighbor. Now Ukrainians want to join NATO but have to defeat the Russians first. The enormous military aid from NATO countries confirms to Ukrainians that NATO membership is preferable to trusting the Russians. Older Ukrainians who lived in Ukraine during the Cold War agree that the Russians cannot be trusted, and that the Russian invasion is another example of that.

The War in Ukraine has had an impact on other wars that Russia is involved in. For example, Russian influence in Libya has diminished since Russia invaded Ukraine and failed to achieve a quick victory. Libyans note that Russians in Ukraine are now stuck in a morass of its own making. The Russians are losing ground and the situation in Ukraine takes priority over what Russia had going on in Libya. There are still enough Russian troops in Libya to prevent Turkey, Libyans, or Egyptians from taking control of whatever they want. In this case the Russians have a lot of local support. Libyans see the Russians as a foreign occupier that doesn’t want to be there while the Turks are former imperial occupiers that have ambitious plans for a continued presence in Libya.

In Russian cities the impact on civilians is more obvious. Prices of retail goods are way up, and many popular Western goods are no longer available. Higher interest rates and inflation have reduced living standards while the war in Ukraine takes more money away from civilian needs. The official government attitude is that everything is normal and open criticism of government policies is a crime. Government spending on the war, while Russian casualties increase and a Ukrainian counter offensive is succeeding against weakened, by low morale, high losses and less government support, Russian forces.

Earlier in 2023 Ukraine celebrated 32 years of independence from Russia. This prompted Russia to launch several missile attacks on Ukrainian cities, causing civilian casualties. At the same time the United States announced that Ukrainian pilots would begin training to fly the F-16. Maintainers were also being trained. These training courses won’t be completed until early 2024. In early 2023 two Ukrainian fighter pilots visited the United States to determine how long it would take the Ukrainian pilots with experience flying Russian designed fighters to transition to F-16s. The answer was four or five months, depending on how well the pilots understood English. Most Ukrainian pilots have some knowledge of English because that is the universal language for commercial and many military pilots. Ukraine expects to receive 61 F-16s from NATO countries that are switching to F-35s and retiring their F-16s. Operational F-16s need more than one pilot per aircraft. That means Ukraine will need to train at least a hundred pilots and even more aircraft maintainers and ground support personnel. Ukraine plans to use these F-16s to operate four fighter squadrons.

In Ukraine Russia has taken over a million total casualties including dead, missing, prisoners, deserters, and frostbite victims. Ukrainian casualties are about 200,000 of whom 50,000 are killed, missing, and captured. Russia believed their larger population (140 million versus 40 million Ukrainians) and larger armed forces would guarantee a quick victory. That didn’t happen and Russia decided to pursue a long-war victory where their larger population and manufacturing capability would be decisive. This was another miscalculation as the Russians have taken proportionately more casualties, as a percentage of national population, in every month of the war. After the first year of fighting Ukraine changed its tactics in order to limit Ukrainian casualties as much as possible. This was particularly the case with the current Ukrainian counteroffensive. Westerners expected progress to be rapid. That means more losses to the attackers. Instead, it uses its superiority in weapons, training and leadership so the Ukrainians are defeating the Russians in many smaller battles, where the Ukrainians make sure they have the advantage before attacking. This takes advantage of the poor morale, leadership and training most Russian troops have.

Russia has some better quality airborne and special operations troops available, but these must be used sparingly and carefully. While Russia can conscript or mobilize civilians into the military and send them into combat quickly with minimal training, these troops take heavy casualties. The elite units are volunteers who take a lot longer to train and losses are not easy to replace because it takes up to a year of training. During the first year of fighting Russia used the elite troops recklessly and lost a lot of them. Commanders of these elite units complained that this reckless approach was wasteful and counterproductive in the long run. It took a while for the senior political leaders and the generals who advised them to realize that this was true. Russia considers combat casualty data a state secret and has threatened families of soldiers killed in or missing in Ukraine with prosecution if they continue to demand information about these losses.

Ukrainian leaders realized that losses in population were more serious than combat losses. So far about a quarter of the Ukrainian population has left voluntarily most of them settling down in Poland and making themselves economically useful. Most of these refugees plan to return to Ukraine once it is safe, physically, and economically, to do so. The Russians have kidnapped between two and four million Ukrainian civilians, many of them children, and moved them deep into Russia as part of Russia’s traditional ethnic cleansing policy towards troublesome minorities. About a third of the 44 million Ukrainians in 2021 have left or been kidnapped since the war began.

Millions of Russians too have fled Russia since the war began, mostly of military age, and most of those went to nearby Central Asian nations (the “Stans”) and made themselves economically useful. The “Stans” were initially unsure if all these Russian political refugees were a good thing, but changed their minds when they saw that the Russians were causing unexpected economic growth.

Russia eventually outlawed military age men from leaving the country. Russia needed more troops, and junior officers as well. The problem was that the need for more troops in Ukraine meant too many were being sent into combat with little training and led by equally inexperienced officers. Russia had a long-range plan to overcome that, and the Ukrainians had their own plan to make life more difficult for the Russian military.

Who is winning is mainly about money and access to lots of modern weapons. The Ukrainians have a big edge here, having received nearly a hundred billion dollars in aid from NATO countries so far. The Ukrainians are resourceful and have developed weapons and military equipment that makes the NATO weapons even more effective. Russia has far less cash for new weapons and cannot match the resourcefulness of the Ukrainians. That’s why Ukraine is able to design and build long range robotic weapons to attack Russian commercial vessels and warships in the Black Sea as well as Russian cities and military targets the Russians thought were too far away to reach. The growing number of attacks on Moscow and Russian military bases far from the Ukrainian border is not good for Russian military or civilian morale.




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