Ukrainian soldiers feel they are fighting for national liberation, while the Russians appear to lack camaraderie. This contrast is critical
The Ukrainian video shows several hundred Ukrainian troops, singing the country’s national anthem in the open air, ahead of last week’s successful Kharkiv offensive. The unprovoked attack by their larger neighbour Russia has unleashed a patriotic mobilisation that is having a transformational effect on the battlefield.
There is a stark contrast with the Russian defenders. Faced with a lightning Ukrainian attack that cut off the strategic city of Izium a week ago, some departed in haste, abandoning tanks and other munitions and engaging in looting generators, telephones, and computers they nominally withdrew from the frontline.
“Morale,” says Jack Watling, a land warfare expert at the Royal United Services Institute military thinktank, “is the most important factor for ground forces”.
On one side is an army – Ukraine’s – that considers itself to be fighting for the cause of national liberation. Having beaten off the Russians from Kyiv and pushed them back in Kharkiv, Ukraine increasingly believes it will one day win the war, helped by western intelligence, financing and above all artillery and other fresh munitions.
Set against them are the Russian invaders, a mixture of elite soldiers, recent recruits, and lightly armed and sometimes conscripted separatists who are often reluctant to fight outside their home provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, many of whom are exhausted having fought constantly, without rotation, for six-plus months.
While Ukraine has quietly trained large numbers of troops from its initial mobilisation, and replenished them with western-supplied weapons, Russia has done so far less and, the US says, is now buying weapons from North Korea. Winter is coming and how well each side is prepared will be critical.
“The Russians have poor morale, poor camaraderie, a lack of confidence in their command from the beginning. Most soldiers were not told a war was starting and many things they were told about Ukrainians were wrong,” Watling said. Since then there have been repeated examples of a reluctance by some Russian soldiers to fight, and difficulties Moscow is facing recruiting.
“It is not just about how soldiers feel about their prospects relative to the enemy, it’s also about the experiences they have recently had and how they are anticipating into the future.” Such a contrast between motivated and mercenary is likely to accentuate into next year and will play a critical factor as the war runs on, assuming western support for Ukraine continues. “I believe we are now on a trajectory for a Russian defeat in Ukraine next year,” Watling said.