To Detest Death: Russian Soldiers Lack Commitment to the War

As Putin’s war has passed the one-year mark, one thing has become clear: Russia is not concerned about its heavy casualty rate. Thanks to Ukraine’s resilience, Russia hasn’t managed to conquer large swaths of land. After the first months of fast-paced changes, the war has turned into a meat grinder that is awfully reminiscent of World War I. Although Russia tries to mend its lowering troop count with new conscriptions, its troubles aren’t at an end. In the last couple of months, the war has moved into a stationary phase with deadlocked armies in trenches. Both sides have dug in, waiting for the other to approach. In this battle of attrition, Russia seems to be losing. Russia, the offensive force, has expanded a resounding 0,04% in the last month with costly raids on Ukrainian positions. Russia’s tactic of sending wave after wave of soldiers to well-defended positions has resulted in an estimated 180 to 200 thousand Russian soldiers wounded or dead. Although this number is difficult to fact-check, in September 2022 Russia started mobilizing an estimated 300 thousand Russians, while they also aim to add 400 thousand new recruits to the ranks in April 2023. The Russian Army also offers three times the national income average to persuade Russians to join the army, but the question remains whether they are actually receiving their promised money. Although the mobilization waves aren’t new to Russia, mandatorily drafting around 200 thousand young Russians,  they raise questions about Russia’s casualty rate for Putin’s “special military operation”. These new recruits are not expected to expand Russia’s military gains in Ukraine as much as Putin would like. According to the Institute for the Study of War, “the net effect on Russia’s actual combat capability” for these waves of mobilization will be “small and diminishing.” The newly mobilized troops would normally receive either refreshment training, if they have previous military experience, or receive a one-to-two-month basic training that is followed by three-to-six months of advanced training. But the war in Ukraine has sped things up, placing conscripts with barely any training in combat units actively fighting in Ukraine. These untrained troops are actively disrupting Russia’s fighting capability due to their lack of commitment. Although Putin likes to claim that Russia is fighting against Nazism, the question remains if this flawed attempt at justification actually motivates soldiers. A widely renowned article by Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz published in 1948 answered the question: Why did the Germans fight so hard during World War II? The answer: group integrity. Political convictions or love for their fatherland, although widely attributed as the main cause of motivation for the Nazis, weren’t the driving factor. Soldiers, after months of close proximity with other soldiers, create a social cohesion so strong that they aren’t afraid to kill to protect their new mates, their new family. The same applies to Russian or Ukrainian soldiers. Janowitz states that a member of a squad can keep on fighting if he “had the necessary weapons”, if the squad “possessed leadership with which he could identify himself”, and if he “gave affection to and received affection from” his fellow soldiers. Russia is ignoring these three baselines for effective soldiers completely. First, conscripts have not been given the time to assimilate into the existing squads, preventing bonding. Second, conscripts have had trouble acquiring equipment, being forced to buy their own. According to Janowitz, uniforms are necessary for mutual identification as a group, creating a barrier between identifying as a soldier instead of a civilian. Third, Russian leadership has been notoriously bad during the war, even causing mutinies that result in the death of officers. The combination of these failures makes it easier for drafted individuals to long for their civilian life, becoming prone to surrendering or outright desertion. Another problem that Russia faces, or any other army across the globe, is the human lack of willingness to kill another human. According to military historian S.L.A. Marshall, “the average and healthy individual … has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.” Data from previous wars back Marshall’s claim. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman’s book On Killing states that a significant number of U.S. soldiers during World War II did not fire their weapons. The estimated firing rate is between 15-20%, these numbers are also applicable to non-U.S. soldiers. Keep in mind that the average U.S. soldier went through months of training before being sent to war, yet firing rates were surprisingly low. After new training techniques were implemented in the U.S. army, called programming or conditioning, firing rates rose to about 90%. But this training takes time, something that Russia has been neglecting by rushing badly-trained troops to the frontlines. These problems also haunt the Ukrainian Armed Forces, losing thousands of soldiers in this slaughter and trying to replace them with freshly trained conscripts or volunteers. Although these soldiers may be averse to killing, they have home court advantages. Actively not killing Russian soldiers results in the loss of Ukrainian life, ground, and pride. Ukrainian soldiers know that if they fail, civilians might get murdered or raped. The human contempt for killing might be overcome by these considerations. Another factor to weigh in is the way Ukrainians are being trained by experienced Western militaries. Several EU countries have been training Ukrainians and will continue doing so. It is expected that these troops receive top-notch training, albeit a little bit rushed, creating troops capable of neglecting the basic human aversion against killing and thus, hopefully, outperforming newly recruited Russians. In the best case, these well-trained troops will slowly turn the tide in favor of Ukraine, hopefully during the expected Spring offensive. Russia has been trying to somewhat circumvent the human aversion to killing, that exists in the minds of badly-trained troops, by increasing the distance between the target and the killer. According to Lt. Col. Grossman’s On Killing, distance helps prevent soldiers from thinking that they are killing another human being. The combination of mechanical distance and physical distance helps create a sense of security for the killers, depersonalizing killing by preventing soldiers from knowing the end results of their shots. No wonder Russia relied so heavily on artillery fire, and so has Ukraine. Another method of getting soldiers to kill, is by not letting them shoot. Russia, for the last couple of months, has been using soldiers as literal cannon fodder, sending in unarmed diggers as bait, in the hopes of attracting Ukrainian fire. If the unarmed Russians are lucky, their own professional soldiers will take out the Ukrainian position. These unarmed recruits are forced by so-called “anti-retreat” units to stumble or crawl forward, into Ukrainian gunfire range. If the Russian soldier decided to turn around or flee, he would most likely be shot as a deserter. Not all of these walking targets are conscripts, some are convicts who have been promised freedom in exchange for serving the Russian Army. These bizarre tactics show how hard Putin needs this war to save face, by blatantly disregarding the security of his own troops or human life in general. But until Putin steps down, voluntarily or not, this war will keep on grinding.


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