Morale: What it Takes


July 5, 2023: A major reason why the Russian military effort in Ukraine failed was that the morale of most Russians was low while Ukrainians were more motivated to fight and do it more effectively. In some ways, this was a curious situation. Troops on both sides are ethnic Russian. While Ukrainians use their own version, or dialect of Russian, this does not prevent Russians and Ukrainians carrying on discussions with each other. The situation is similar in other cultures. English is widely spoken worldwide, but there are dozens of dialects and when people speaking different dialects meet, the conversation is conducted on a very basic level because a dialect means unique versions of common words, like money, crime, girl and boys.

Troops from both sides being able to talk to each other diminished the usual wartime efforts to portray enemy troops as some kind of alien monster. Russian troops in Ukraine were treated poorly by their leaders. Initially Russian soldiers were sent to Ukraine without knowing they were no longer in Russia and in a neighboring country where invaders were being fiercely and successfully resisted. Many junior Russian officers weren’t told the truth. When it became obvious to the surviving Russian troops what was going on, morale and willingness to fight declined sharply. Ukrainian troops were better off when it came to morale, although most were not happy about finding themselves armed and fighting Russians. The initial Ukrainian defenders were active duty troops belonging to the army or newly created national guard. These men, and some women, paid attention to their training and had better morale, cohesion and effectiveness in combat.

Most Russian troops had little training. The main exceptions were the few special operations or airborne units. The combination of low morale and little training resulted in soldiers who were reluctant to fight and prone to flee. The only reliable combat troops were the small number of special operations, airborne or mercenary (Wagner Group) personnel available.

The Ukrainian approach was different. An effort was made, and often carried out, to see that all Ukrainian combat troops were properly trained and equipped. It was difficult to take the time to train new troops when more fighters were desperately needed on the front lines. The Ukrainians made an effort, and often succeeded in overcoming this problem by doing most of the training during the winter or any other time where there was a lull in the fighting. A lot of training was done outside Ukraine, usually in NATO countries.

The United States-based training program handles up to 800 Ukrainian troops a month. Until recently the Americans were only training about 300 Ukrainian soldiers each month. Since February 2022 the U.S. has trained 3,100 Ukrainian soldiers. All this training concentrates in teaching Ukrainian troops to use weapons or equipment sent to Ukraine. For example, this program trained 610 Ukrainian artillerymen on how to use the HIMARS vehicle that carries and launches six GMLRS missiles. The fire control system of the HIMARS vehicle is somewhat complex. This HIMARS training enabled the Ukrainian crews to use the GMLRS missiles with devastating effect.

The new expanded program will train infantry units to handle more complex battlefield tactics. From 2015 to February 2022, American instructors trained 0ver 27,000 Ukrainian troops at a Ukrainian army base. After the invasion the American trainers withdrew and the training continued, on a smaller scale, in NATO bases in Germany.

Britain has used a thousand trainers to train nearly 10,000 Ukrainian troops in the last six months. Britain will train another 20,000 Ukrainian troops in Britain this year. Other nations have also contributed trainers to this effort. The Ukrainians appreciate this and it makes a definite difference on the battlefield. This is especially true because Russia’s training program was poor in peacetime and collapsed after the war started as its training staff was sent to the fighting front and destroyed by casualties. Now almost all new Russian troops sent to Ukraine have had little or no training. That means the Russians suffer exceptionally high casualties and the Ukrainians lose far fewer men.

The training program continues as Ukraine receives more complex weapons and equipment. This includes increasingly complex air defense systems like Patriot. More complex armored vehicles are on the way, including the M2 Bradley IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle), the successor to the M113 “battle taxi” that was a lot simpler to operate. The M2 weighs 27-30 tons and not only weighs twice as much as the M113, but has far more onboard equipment you must master to get the most out of what amounts to a mini-tank that weighs half as much as an M1 tank. In peacetime the training courses for M2 operators and maintainers last several months. In wartime the training can be reduced to a few weeks, especially if you select students who have experience operating or repairing similar commercial or military equipment. There are also documents about operation or repair that can be viewed on a cell phone.

Ukrainian troops have been quick learners and know that success learning this material is a matter of life or death. The NATO nations have been making notes of how well and quickly the Ukrainians absorb this training, and use it to improve NATO training methods. NATO has long been getting useful feedback from Ukrainian troops about how well the training and the equipment works.

Britain is sending Ukraine some tanks and several countries are sending IFVs. NATO and the Ukrainians develop shorter courses enabling troops familiar with one model of tank or IFV to transition to another similar vehicle. All this training gives Ukrainian forces a major advantage over the Russians, where most of the troops have little training or advanced tech and suffer from low morale and poor leadership. That sort of thing makes a big difference in combat but is often discounted during peacetime.

The better training and often superior weapons and equipment not only resulted in improved morale but also much more effective troops. This is why Ukrainian forces are now on the offensive and overcoming Russian efforts to halt the advance. While Russian leaders insist that Russia will never give up efforts to conquer Ukraine, few Russian troops are willing or able to make it work. The Ukrainians have the morale, weapons and incentives to force the Russians out.




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