Mounting Demoralisation could become a major problem for Putin
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 10 Aug , 2022

Moscow indicates that Russian public support for the country’s invasion of Ukraine is growing. However, with the war now in its sixth month, there is little sign of similar enthusiasm within the ranks of Vladimir Putin’s invading army. Instead, much of the available evidence points to mounting demoralisation among the Russian troops currently fighting in Ukraine and a large number of them are in prison for refusing to fight.

The latest monthly opinion overview from Russia’s only internationally respected independent pollster, the Levada Centre, has identified a slight rise in the number of Russians who back their country’s war against Ukraine. Published on August 1 and based on research conducted in late July, the statistical data found that 76 per cent of Russians currently support the war effort in Ukraine. This represents a one percent increase compared to the figure for June 2022.

While a single percentage point obviously does not represent a major shift in public opinion, the consistently high levels of support registered over the past five months coupled with the slight upward trend in this latest poll do suggest that Russian backing for the war remains both solid and strong. Putin therefore is likely to continue the invasion till his borders with Ukraine are fully secured despite setback to his economy and resistance from his troops.

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The results of this new Levada Centre survey will come as a wake-up call for all those who hoped Vladimir Putin would face a domestic backlash as the costs of the Ukraine invasion became increasingly apparent to the Russian public. On the contrary, it appears that the vast majority of Russians have acclimatised to the new wartime reality despite the worsening economic climate in their own country and mounting revelations of war crimes being committed in their name across the border in Ukraine.  

There has been much debate over the true level of pro-war sentiment in Russia since the invasion began on February 24, with critics arguing that opinion polls cannot be regarded as trustworthy measures of the public mood in authoritarian societies such as Putin’s Russia. It is also important to note that the Kremlin introduced draconian measures at the start of the war that effectively banned any public criticism of the invasion and imposed long prison sentences for displays of opposition.

At the same time, it must also be said that this tough stance has not been authentically verified and tested. There has been virtually no sign of an anti-war movement emerging inside Russia since a brief wave of small-scale anti-war protests, which fizzled out, in the early weeks of the conflict. Despite widespread initial reports of horror and alarm within the Russian establishment over Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, the country’s political, business and cultural elites have since largely mobilised in support of the Kremlin. There have been very few resignations, with the relatively few who have preferred to leave the country generally choosing to remain silent.

If Russian society as a whole seems to have accepted the war, the same cannot be said for the country’s military. Reports of demoralisation among Putin’s invasion force have become a common feature of the invasion over the past five months as Russian casualties have continued to mount at an alarming rate.

While the exact number of Russians killed or wounded in Ukraine remains a closely guarded secret, US officials believe the figure is already above 75,000 and rising. Other calculations are slightly lower, but all serious sources outside of Russia itself acknowledge that Russian losses now number in the tens of thousands.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s increasingly desperate recruitment efforts hint at the scale of the manpower crisis facing the Kremlin. Across Russia, potential army recruits are being enticed with mouth-watering salaries five or six times higher than the national average along with the promise of short-term contracts. In May, the Kremlin scrapped age limit on newly enlisted men in an apparent bid to fill gaps created by heavy losses in Ukraine. More recently, recruiters have begun scouring Russian prisons and offering convicts the chance to sign up in exchange for an amnesty.

Russia’s current troop shortages are in large part due to Putin’s reluctance to officially declare war on Ukraine. Instead, he has branded the invasion as a “Special Military Operation.” As a consequence, Russian contract soldiers are not legally obliged to fight in Ukraine and can theoretically resign from the army at any moment. Thousands are believed to have already done so, leading to increasingly desperate measures as the Russian authorities seek to prevent more soldiers from quitting.  

Reports claimed that their own commanders in the east Ukrainian conflict zone have illegally imprisoned hundreds of Russian soldiers after refusing to take any further part in the war. In one written testimony republished by the Guardian, a Russian soldier claimed he was jailed after deciding to stop fighting “as a result of what I believe were the tactical and strategic mistakes of my commanders and their total disregard for human life.”

Low morale among Russian troops represents a serious challenge for the Kremlin as both Russia and Ukraine prepare for what many now fear will be a long war. Ukraine has also suffered heavy casualties during the first five months of hostilities but Ukrainian troops are supremely motivated by the knowledge that they are fighting for their homeland against a foreign aggressor. The Ukrainian reservists have been recalled and a large number have been recruited to save their country unlike their Russian enemies, they have nowhere else to go. The Ukrainian soldiers young and old including women are nationalists, brave, highly well trained, tough and fearless for the national integrity and sovereignty of their country like Indian soldiers who are for India first.

Motivation is likely to become a key factor in the months ahead. This is one category where the Ukrainian military enjoys an unquestionable and overwhelming advantage. While ordinary Russians cheer the invasion from their comfortable rooms, demoralisation within the ranks of Putin’s army could become a major problem for the Kremlin as the brutal war unleashed by Putin drags on with no end in sight.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col (Dr) PK Vasudeva

is author of World Trade Organisation: Implications for Indian Economy, Pearson Education and also a former Professor International Trade.

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