Russian morale in Ukraine: A Russian problem?

In the early days of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, it was stated that Russian army units were suffering from major morale problems.[1] In 2023, numerous reports continued to suggest Russians lacked the will to fight.[2] On many parts of the front, it was recounted that Russian units still suffered from supply shortages, high casualties and logistical problems, contributing to their motivation problems. Commentators suggested low morale would affect the Russian war effort.[3] However, to date, there has been no major fracturing of the Russian will to fight. This short article considers how important morale is to the Russian war machine and whether poor levels of morale could be detrimental to the Russian war effort in Ukraine.

Russian understanding of morale

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 and centralised framework. Whereas the West’s idea of morale is deeply rooted in its cultural values and belief in the importance of individual freedoms and democratic principles, the Russian conception of the will to fight comes from the social norms of Russian society and revolves around three key themes: spirituality, communality and coercion.[4]

Russian military culture places a significant emphasis on ‘dukhovnost’ or spirituality, a concept that transcends the materialistic and emphasises the eternal. This spiritual aspect is seen as more crucial than technological prowess. It often carries a religious connotation, particularly with the Russian Orthodox faith, linking the soldier’s morale to broader ecclesiastical and nationalistic ideals. This spiritual focus is believed to provide soldiers with a sense of higher purpose and connection to historical and cultural traditions, reinforcing their morale in the face of adversity.[5]

The Russian military model stresses the importance of collective spirit over individual autonomy. This communal spirit is fostered through shared experiences, sacrifices and the emotional bonds that develop within military units. This aspect of morale is supported by common activities like singing and other group rituals, which are seen as vital for maintaining morale, especially in challenging situations. The notion is that a strong, emotionally connected community within the military can enhance resilience and effectiveness.[6]

Coercion is a fundamental aspect of military discipline and order in the Russian framework. It involves the expectation that orders are sacred and must be obeyed without hesitation, often under penalty of severe consequences. This hierarchical structure is designed to ensure unwavering loyalty and the efficient functioning of the military machine. Coercion, in this context, is not just about obedience but also about instilling a sense of duty and honour in following commands, which is deeply ingrained in the Russian military ethos.[7]

Russian efforts to bolster morale

Russian authorities have implemented a series of carrot and stick measures to maintain morale. On the one hand, discipline is rigorously enforced. In Ukraine, one Russian commander allegedly shot his troops to force them to fight.[8] Coercive measures have been increased; in September 2023, Russia increased the penalty for its soldiers voluntarily go into Ukrainian captivity to up to 10 years in prison. At the same time, conscripts or reservists who refuse to fight will also face up to 10 years imprisonment.[9]

The regime is also suppressing dissent at home against the war. Analysts have suggested that Putin’s “partial mobilisation” of the population in the autumn of 2023 sparked protests by civilians against the drafting of their sons, husbands and family. Protesters gathered in the regional capital Yakutsk in the Yakutia area of northeastern Siberia, and shouted “No to war!” and “No to genocide!” Such protests could undermine the Kremlin’s legitimacy for the war in the eyes of those soldiers serving on the front and are suppressed by the police and intelligence services.[10]

On the other side, the Russian government has taken measures to positively motivate its soldiers. Convicts from Russia’s prison system have been drafted into the line with the promise of amnesty and financial reward after combat service.[11]

It also encourages soldiers to serve by promising generous pay. The base salary for a soldier is about $2,500 a month, with payment of $39,000 for wounding and up to $65,000 in the case of death. Compared with a median Russian monthly salary of $545, this is good money, especially considering that approximately 15 million Russians live below the poverty line.[12]

Combined with this, Russian service personnel also get other perks to motivate them to serve. For those coming back from the front, the state promises fast-tracked entry into civil service jobs, health insurance, free public transportation, free university education and free food at school for their children.[13]

The Russian military authorities are deploying Russian Orthodox priests to the frontline to give moral and spiritual legitimacy and support to war effort. In November 2023, President Vladimir Putin spoke to the World Russian National Council, an organisation run by the Church, where he praised the clergy for its war engagement. It was reported at the same date that 30 clergymen had been killed in the conflict.[14]

The Russian government has also taken several measures to circumvent the potential problem of low morale.  Russian forces have deployed penal squads. These so called ‘Storm-Z’ units are around 150 strong and made up of convicts and are embedded within regular army units. They are sent to the most exposed parts of the front and often sustain heavy losses and are expendable; their morale is inconsequential.[15]

Minorities from Russia’s peripheral ethnic minorities have been selected over the urban populations in European Russia to serve as these groups seen are less likely to protest than their ethnically Russian compatriots.[16]

Are these measures working?

There is ample evidence to suggest that Russian soldiers are having morale problems. A phone call intercepted in December 2022 between a mother and her soldier son may be typical. He revealed that conditions on the frontline are rapidly deteriorating, there were “problems with equipment” for Russian troops. The soldier said that “people are leaving.”[17] Since then, desertions have been reported.[18] There have also been some surrenders to Ukrainian forces, especially among newly arrived conscripts.[19] According to sources in the Bryansk, Kursk and Belgorod regions of the Russian Federation, a record number of Russian soldiers were put on trial for desertion. In particular, in 2023, more than 5,000 court cases related to the voluntary abandonment of military units after the start of mobilisation in September 2022.[20] However, the information in the public domain is patchy and makes reaching solid conclusions hard.

However, the lack of apparent large-scale desertions, mutinies and surrenders suggests that morale may be holding for the majority of Russian soldiers, certainly for now.

Morale is an important factor in war and the Russian authorities recognise this fact. Their approach is shaped by their societal norms, cultural practices and social relations and is characterised by coercion, spiritual appeals and dominance of the collective over the individual. They also emphasis material incentives and benefits.

By Western standards, the average Russian soldier may have low morale; they lack initiative, digressionary effort, or enthusiasm to fight. Nevertheless, the important thing is that the majority of Russian combatants appear to be willing to fight or, at least, unwilling to mutiny or desert. Things may change in the future but for now, if the status quo remains, the current state of morale could prove decisive in the coming months.

[1] Morale falling among Russian troops in Ukraine, says British military chief ( Accessed 17 April 2024.

[2] Captured Russian soldiers tell of low morale, disarray and horrors of trench warfare | CNN In Southern Ukraine, Signs of Low Russian Morale Amid Retreat – The New York Times ( Accessed 17 April 2024.

[3] Russian army faces morale problems as Putin’s Ukraine invasion drags on – Atlantic Council accessed 14 April 2024.

[4] Why Russian Morale Probably Matters Less on the Battlefield – Prevail Partners ( ACCESSED 14 APRIL 2024.

[5] Pär Gustafsson Kurki, The Russian Understanding of Soldier Morale Essentials of key ideas from the 1990s to 2022 (Swedish Försvarsdepartementet/Ministry of Defence, 2023), pp.14-21.

[6] Pär Gustafsson Kurki, The Russian Understanding of Soldier Morale Essentials of key ideas from the 1990s to 2022 (Swedish Försvarsdepartementet/Ministry of Defence, 2023), pp.14-21.

[7] accessed 14 April 2024.

[8] Pär Gustafsson Kurki, The Russian Understanding of Soldier Morale Essentials of key ideas from the 1990s to 2022 (Swedish Försvarsdepartementet/Ministry of Defence, 2023), pp.14-21.

[9] accessed 14 April 2024.


[11] Russian prisoners rewarded amnesty and money if they join fight against Ukraine: report | National Post ACCESSED 14 APRIL 2024.

[12] Opinion | Why Do Russians Still Want to Fight? – The New York Times ( accessed 14 April 2024.

[13] Opinion | Why Do Russians Still Want to Fight? – The New York Times ( accessed 14 April 2024.

[14] ACCESSED 14 APRIL 2024.

[15] Accessed 18 April 2024.

[16] accessed 14 April 2024.

[17] ACCESSED 14 APRIL 2024.

[18] accessed 14 April 2024.

[19] accessed 14 April 2024.

[20] ACCESSED 14 APRIL 2024.