How do countries win wars? Better strategy, superior firepower, and leaders’ resolve are obviously all key. However, there is one crucial aspect that is often overlooked/ argues Jacob Ware. Superior morale, whilst seemingly intangible, has been the principal driving force not only behind the Ukrainian success in repelling Russian invasion against all odds, but also a significant amount of war in modern history.
Dressed in green fatigues and surrounded by advisers and political leaders, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s message in a video released late on February 25 last year was unequivocal: we are not leaving.
In the early days of Russia’s latest brutal invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin propaganda aimed to break Ukrainian spirit. In one particularly notorious example of Russian disinformation, claims suggested Zelensky was set to flee Kyiv, for safer pastures to the west. Other efforts claimed Ukraine had surrendered. Ukrainians responded by standing shoulder to shoulder and facing the approaching tanks head on. Zelensky stayed, and became a global icon of resilience and resistance.
Other stories of Ukrainian valor spread like wildfire on western social media platforms. In the early hours of the war, a Ukrainian woman confronted Russian soldiers, offering them sunflowers. “Take these seeds and put them in your pockets, so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here,” she taunted. In the Black Sea, Ukrainian sailors responded to a Russian cruiser attacking Snake Island, defiantly declaring, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” Offered an American exfiltration, Zelensky responded, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his soldiers to cross the Ukrainian border last February, he fell victim to what international relations scholar Stephen Van Evera has called the cult of the offensive — politicians’ and military strategists’ insatiable belief in their own offensive capabilities and in the opposition’s defensive frailties. Troops were expected to enter Kyiv within hours, but found their vehicles too heavy to move on the Ukrainian roads. Some soldiers were even given parade dress, in preparation for a celebratory march through the streets of Kyiv, the invaders expecting to be welcomed as liberators. Seemingly little consideration or respect was given to actual Ukrainian defenses—despite eight years of hard war in the Donbas. Russian military blunders allowed Ukraine to seize the initiative, repelling attacks on major cities and constructing a near-mythical tale of its own resistance—and henceforth skyrocketing morale both in the military and among the citizenry, and, crucially, among nervous allies to the west.
When morale is high, militaries can more easily replenish their battalions and warships, and the general public is more willing to undertake the food and energy rationing required to help the war effort
The underestimation of enemy morale has historically played a central role in battlefield defeats. The United States knows this better than most, having failed to capture local “hearts and minds” during its many recent failed counterinsurgencies, including in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Russia, too, faltered in the latter country, unable to sever the Mujahideen’s links with the Afghan population. In World War I, German planners calculated incorrectly that French soldiers would capitulate under sustained fire at Verdun; French victory in the battle contributed to Allied victory. During the next World War, the British government sought to rally public support and buoy morale with exhortations such as “keep calm and carry on,” while employing strategic bombing and radio propaganda to wear down enthusiasm deep within Germany. Still, morale is an underappreciated factor among prognosticators. In 2018, scholars Ben Connable and Michael McNerney presciently cautioned military analysts against overstating Russia’s capabilities along NATO’s flank. “Many, and arguably most, threat analyses simply assume Russian forces have extraordinary will to fight,” they argued. “Few question Russia’s fighting spirit. There is no question that physical power is essential to military success. Russia’s modern army is increasingly formidable. But for all of Russia’s legitimate physical capabilities, its fundamental strengths and weaknesses lie in the minds of its soldiers and leaders.”
When morale is high, militaries can more easily replenish their battalions and warships, and the general public is more willing to undertake the food and energy rationing required to help the war effort. This winter, Ukrainians have struggled for heating and light, as Russia has strategically targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure in an effort to break their enemy public’s will. Low morale weakens a force’s strength and readiness, possibly leading to defections and even fratricidal violence, while stunting voluntary recruitment. Russia has attempted to build morale among its beleaguered soldiers on the front, including by dispatching opera singers and “creative brigades” to bring cheer through the bitter winter months. It is, however, unclear whether such measures will work. A British Defense Ministry intelligence update issued in December noted “very high casualty rates, poor leadership, pay problems, lack of equipment and ammunition, and lack of clarity about the war's objectives” as leading reasons behind Russia’s inability to raise spirits among its forces.
Indeed, since the very first day, Russia has failed to convince many of its soldiers of the merits of their sacrifice. As the aggressor, Russia understood it would immediately yield the moral high ground. Seeking to retain some semblance of justification, Russia repeatedly attempted to create a “false flag” incident that would validate their attack on Ukraine. Such efforts were foiled by U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence, as well as online sleuths. Robbed of any justification (whether legitimate or not), Russia ultimately chose to blame Nazis in Ukraine—despite Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky being Jewish. Many initially accepted the justification, only to find a very different reality on Ukrainian soil. One former commander of the notorious mercenary Wagner Group managed to defect to Norway, where he now intends to blow the whistle on Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
Failure of will has signaled the ending of almost every military conflict in world history
But perhaps the most substantial blow to Russian morale has simply been battlefield defeats. Through the first 11 months of this latest war in Ukraine, Ukrainians have shown themselves to be a formidable fighting force, capable both of withstanding assaults and also launching counterattacks, and of both engaging the enemy in conventional skirmishes and also deploying a range of irregular means to gain advantages. There is no end to the conflict in sight, but history might offer some indications. As an expansive RAND Corporation report co-authored by Connable and McNerney noted, “Failure of will has signaled the ending of almost every military conflict in world history.” The absolute priority for Ukraine and its supporters, then, is ensuring morale stays high—both in Ukraine and among the publics of its many allies, who must press their governments to continue providing military and financial support to Kyiv.
And, given what appears to be yet another historical failure to correctly predict the will to fight, future scholars of war must devote more time and resources to understanding that most intangible element of a military’s effectiveness—the willingness of its soldiers to fight—assessing how Russian planners so gravely misunderstood morale on both sides of the conflict, and how this factor might affect future major wars.