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“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog,” was how former CIA Director John McGlaughlin referred to Ukraine’s successes in repelling Russian invaders in an interview with CNN during the early days of the war.
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At the time, there were clear, if surprising, reports of Russian failures, tactical missteps, logistical complication, supply problems and a clear “inability” to successfully close in on Kyiv. While there are many reasons why this somewhat unanticipated measure of Ukrainian success captured the world’s imagination, such as Ukraine’s tactical success ambushing advancing
Russian troops with anti-armor weapons, one clear reality was also simply that the invading Russians lacked the “will” to fight. This would make sense, as many of them were reportedly told they were on a training mission, yet the Russian morale problems were even larger than some expected. There were numerous anecdotal reports that Russian soldiers lacked food, supplies and any kind of coherent command and control. Also, just what exactly would Russian soldiers want to fight for?
The Pentagon says that now, months into the war, Russian morale is still a problem and may at least in part explain why Russian progress in Eastern Ukraine has been marginal.
“Ukrainian morale and will to fight is unquestioned and much higher, I think, than the average morale and will to fight on the Russian side. So I think that gives the Ukrainians a significant advantage. After all, more than 40 million Ukrainians are fighting -- the stakes are existential for them. They are fighting for the survival of their country,” Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters Aug 8th, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Kahl added clear specifics pointing to this ongoing Russian morale problem, saying the Russians have had as many as 4,000 armored vehicles destroyed and “probably taken 70 or 80,000 casualties in less than six months.”
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“Now, that is a combination of killed in action and wounded in action, and that number might be a little lower, a little higher, but I think that's kind of in the ballpark, which is pretty remarkable considering that the Russians have achieved none of Vladimir Putin's objectives at the beginning of the war,” Kahl said.
Ukraine’s will to fight and successful employment of decisive war tactics have also immeasurably contributed to this. Ukraine made great use of its anti-armor weapons, decentralized command and control and staged highly lethal, surprise hit-and-run-attacks on advancing Russian armored vehicles using anti-armor weapons such as the Javelin and AT-4.
“The Russians have probably lost 3- or 4,000 armored vehicles in Ukraine, which is a lot. Now, a lot of that is because of the anti armor systems like Javelin, like the AT-4s, which are in this package, but also, frankly, because of the creativity and ingenuity in the way the Ukrainians have used those systems, especially early, in the early phase of the conflict when the Russians were stymied in the thrust towards Kyiv,” Kahl said.
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Some of the many anecdotal reports have suggested that perhaps Russian soldiers are controlled by fear of consequences should they speak out. It is certainly possible that of them are quite likely to quietly or privately “disagree” with or at least question Putin’s war effort.
One must hope for some measure of humanity, when blind obedience to a dictator instructs or tries to force soldiers into murdering children. Do Russian soldiers firing 300 mile missiles from mobile launchers into civilian areas believe in their mission?
Will to fight seems to be one of those somewhat “ineffable” yet highly impactful variables likely to influence, if not determine outcome in war.
Part of this, Kirby explained, may simply be that many Russian soldiers had no idea what they would be ordered to do. Isn’t there a yearning for “purpose” woven into the soul of man? Surely there may be some kind of innate sense or human attribute aligned with an identifying, compassionate sensibility.
This apparent lack of resolve on the part of the invading Russian forces may be why the Russian military has resorted to massive, long-range attacks on civilian neighborhoods.
Do some Russian troops simply oppose the invasion? Are they being threatened and forced into fighting? Some anecdotal reports have suggested this possibility, and there is also the chance that some Russian conscripts simply do not want to kill Ukrainians.
Famous French Philosopher Jean Jaques Rousseau spoke at great length about what he called “natural pity,” a human characteristic borne of a deeply innate, instinctive altruistic tendency. Rousseau, in his discussion of what he called man’s fundamental disposition in a “state of nature,” used the term “noble savage” to describe this inclination woven into the essence of man. Rousseau's “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality” even extended this concept of natural “man” as an altruistic “noble savage” to include animals, saying many living creatures exhibit instinctive “natural pity.”
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All of this discussion takes place within the broader context of Rousseau’s discussion of human nature as it pertains to conceiving of an optimal civil society consistent with man’s nature. Rousseau’’s point, famous now for centuries, is also discussed within the conceptual framework that man is of course “self-interested,” yet also capable of exhibiting this organic “altruistic” sensibility.
Could this sentiment be emerging within some Russian soldiers aware that their actions are killing children? That is certainly the hope of many, yet there are definitely zealots and true believers among the ranks of the Russian military as well.
This support for the invasion may be being heavily influenced by a large-scale propaganda effort within Russia to distort the truth about events in Ukraine and marshal support for the Russian military invasion among the greater population. Multiple media reports on CNN show a “Z” symbol as indicative of support for the Russian invasion.
Media reports also say the free flow of information within Russia continues to be massively curtailed as the country’s government seeks to present a distorted picture of what is happening in Ukraine. This is part of why there is likely a large scale effort among many to get volumes of accurate information about Ukraine into Russia.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.