In the realm of warfare, morale is often hailed as a crucial factor that can make or break an army's chances of victory. However, when exploring the Russian military, we discover that the significance of morale may differ significantly from what Western culture and ideologies suggest. Can we attribute Russia's battlefield outcomes solely to their troops' morale, or are there deeper cultural and organisational elements at play that diminish morale's impact on their achievements?

To understand the role of morale in the Russian military, we must first consider the unique culture and history that shapes their armed forces. Unlike Western militaries that highly value individual freedoms, human rights, and decentralised command, the Russian military operates within a more authoritarian framework. Orders are executed without question, and deviation is met with harsh punishment. In this environment, individual expression and decision-making are restricted, creating a situation where low morale might not play as substantial a role as it does in Western armies.

The Russian Orthodox Church reportedly have 60 military priests on the frontlines at all times, in order to improve the morale of Russian soldiers. Source: @WorldWarNow_

Does morale genuinely matter to Russian troops? Let's take a closer look.

One oft-touted explanation for the Russian lack of battlefield success is that conscripted or mobilised Russian forces lack the "fighting spirit" due to their perceived dearth of a personal stake in the conflict in Ukraine. However, such a perspective oversimplifies their more complex motivations. These soldiers fight for their lives, and refusal to fight results in severe consequences, such as execution for desertion or a significant period of incarceration in notoriously brutal jails. This grim reality leaves them with little choice but to carry out orders and fulfil their duties, irrespective of morale or personal desires.

Drawing from behavioural science, we can consider the concepts of cognitive dissonance, compliance, and coercion. The Russian military's hierarchical structure can be seen as employing a form of coercion, compelling soldiers to adhere to orders. Compliance with authority is a strong motivator, that can overshadow individual morale, and personal convictions. When people strongly identify with a belief, they are more likely to ignore evidence that challenges this "loyalty", ultimately leading to cognitive dissonance.

Consider the Battle of Bakhmut as a striking example of the Russian military’s ability to achieve success on the battlefield, despite reports of plummeting morale among front-line troops. Despite facing daunting 10:1 losses, enduring trench warfare conditions, and coping with a limited supply of food, water, and ammunition, the Russian military exhibited significant resilience. They adapted their tactics and continued to assert control over the war-torn city. This challenges the conventional emphasis on morale, as often perceived in Western culture, suggesting that other factors, such as their hierarchical structure, strict adherence to orders, and reliance on technological advantages, play more pivotal roles in enabling efficient functionality, even in the face of low morale.

Russian forces continue to suffer from a lack of unit rotations impacting morale. Source: @KyivIndependent

Another important, albeit simple, factor in incentivising Russian men to take to, and fight on the battlefield is money. Average salaries vary greatly depending on the region in which one lives in Russia however, the median monthly salary is approximately £590. In contrast, the Russian military have reportedly offered monthly salaries of up to £5,800 for new recruits. Not only are these salaries greater than the experienced soldiers and officers leading them but they are obviously far above those of the 20.3 million Russians living below the poverty line. Such a substantial salary can play a powerful role in motivating any person to take up arms and fight. Additionally, the Russian military offer other incentives for soldiers returning from the frontline: free university education and health insurance being two of the main benefits.

Furthermore, the Russian government has granted amnesty to criminals and crime suspects who agree to serve in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Previous to this amnesty, imprisoned personnel who fought for the Private Military Contractor, Wagner Group, were also given state freedom. This is ultimately the crux of the situation. Most people fight, not because they are forced to but out of a will to survive.

The West's emphasis on morale is deeply rooted in its cultural values and belief in the importance of individual freedoms and democratic principles. However, it is essential to recognise that different contexts call for distinct approaches. It is plausible that the Russian military's hierarchical, authoritarian structure thrives under conditions that might hinder Western armies.

In conclusion, the impact of morale on the Russian military's battlefield success appears to be significantly different from what is generally understood in the West. The Russian troops' compliance and adherence to orders in the face of low morale can be attributed to their unique cultural and organisational context. While the West's armed forces might indeed place significant emphasis on morale, to enable its independent, free-thinking soldiers to act out decentralised command, this emphasis doesn’t always translate to soldiers carrying out orders that ultimately trickle down from Putin and his generals – which we must bear in mind when conducting deep analysis or scenario generation. Only by understanding these differences can we gain a more comprehensive perspective on the dynamics that contribute to their achievements on the battlefield.