In January 2022, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC published an assessment on ‘Russia’s Possible Invasion of Ukraine’. It argued that the ‘true calculation of military success can only be taken after a clash of arms begins. In addition, there are several intangibles—such as weather, urban combat, command and control, logistics, and morale—that may play a significant role in the initial stages of a war’.[1]

Fifteen or so days into the conflict, morale has been highlighted as a key factor that is dictating the nature and pace of military progress on the battlefield. Press reports from the conflict suggest low morale in some invading Russian units and high morale amongst many Ukrainian civilians and soldiers who are resisting the occupiers.

The purpose of this article is to:

1. explore the nature and extent of morale within Russian and Ukrainian military forces since the Russian invasion started on 24 February 2022; and,  

2. consider the implications these reported levels of morale may have on the conflict over the next few weeks.

This assessment reflects my subjective opinion based on the publicly available sources at the time. It is put together with some haste and the observations at the end of this article may be proved wrong in light of future events.


The first challenge is to define what morale is and how it is measured. This task is difficult but possible.[2]

Dr Jonathan Fennell defined morale as the willingness of ‘an individual or group to engage in an action required by an authority or institution’.[3] In other words, it is the ‘military will to fight as the disposition and decision to fight, act or persevere when needed’.[4] Military leaders have measured morale by such metrics as the level of disciplinary cases, sickness rates, unwillingness of soldiers to fight, desertion or surrendering.


Media reports to date (13 March 2022) suggest Russian morale in some units is low as demonstrated by a series of incidents. Russian military personnel stuck in the military column north of Kyiv, that have not moved for days, have been reportedly sleeping in the woods not in their vehicles, fearing attack from artillery or aircraft.[5] Russian units are also allegedly surrendering, sabotaging their vehicles and many are bewildered as to what they are doing in Ukraine.[6]

Conversely, Ukrainian morale is reportedly high. There is the famous incident of Ukrainian sailors on Snake Island defying a Russian warship’s order to surrender with the line: “Russian battleship, go fuck yourself!”

Much of the civilian population is resolute in their opposition to the invader. A Ukrainian woman put sunflower seeds in a Russian soldier’s jacket pocket telling him sunflowers would grow on his grave when he’s dead.[7]

Many soldiers echo the words of Ukrainian Colonel Viacheslav Vlasenko who is quoted as having said: ‘Every Ukrainian is ready to die with arms in hands…Ukraine will never become a part of Russia. If we have to prove it to the Kremlin that Ukraine has the right for freedom and independence, we are ready for it.”[8]

In many ways, such reports on the morale of the respective sides are not surprising. Assessments on the Russian army have long suggested that its conscripts have poor morale which is blamed on bullying and hazing in the army.[9] Ukrainian forces have been shown to have high morale as demonstrated in their fighting since 2014 against Russian backed separatists in the Donbass region. Analyst Dr Jokull Johannesson, from the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway, suggested that the Ukrainian will to fight had been a force multiplier and ‘balancing factor’ in Ukraine’s fight in the east and had enabled it ‘success against [a] greatly superior enemy’.[10]


Professor Ben Connable, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and academic at the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University in the USA, wrote that there were a number of factors that explained the high morale of the Ukrainian forces and low morale of Russian forces.

Ukrainian morale is sustained by the realisation that defeat means the end of Ukraine as a country and many Ukranians have a strong sense of national identity that is shared widely across Ukrainian society.[11] On the converse, he argued Russian morale has been damaged by meeting a hostile Ukrainian population when they expected to be greeted as liberators.[12]


The morale of military forces is dynamic and never static – it could change over time along with the factors that shape and motivate it.

It would be a fallacy to extrapolate from two weeks or so of fighting that Ukrainian forces’ will to fight can be sustained indefinitely and that Russian forces will never recover from their reported morale problems.[13]

However, there are some observations that may be put forward on how reported state of morale may shape the conflict over the next few weeks. These are speculative and should be treated as possibilities rather than certainties.

  • Some Russian units may suffer from morale problems but not all. Even though Russian conscripts have been seen to have poor morale, it is important to note that conscripts only make up around a quarter of the current Russian army.[14] The share of conscripts in the armed forces has fallen steadily, from 307,000 in 2016 to 260,500 in 2018. Meanwhile, the number of long service (contract) soldiers doubled between 2012 and 2019.[15] The majority of Russian soldiers are professional long-service regulars that are probably motivated by strong unit cohesion, a professional ethos and a belief in their task. Morale problems may slow the army down but it will probably not prevent it from defeating the Ukrainian army in this conventional phase of the conflict, surrounding the majority of Ukrainian cities and laying siege to them. However, how this army performs in the expected insurgent phase of the conflict is difficult to call.
  • Time will be a major factor in shaping the morale of both sides. The longer the Ukrainian army and citizens fight the Russians, the greater its confidence and will to fight, as well as experience and institutional knowledge of how to fight this enemy, will probably grow. In addition, the longer the war continues, the greater may be the level of international support and the greater the chance of increased arms transfers to help turn the tide on the battlefield.[16] This in turn may make Russia more desperate to draw the conflict to a close and it may use chemical, or other weapons of mass destruction, to try and achieve an end to the conflict.
  • Russian attempts to break Ukrainian morale with harsh and brutal security tactics probably won’t work. It has been suggested that Russian occupiers are planning to carry out public executions in conquered Ukrainian cities in an effort to break civilian resistance. It is also believed that a Russian occupation would use ‘violent crowd control and repressive detention of protest organisers in order to break Ukrainian morale’.[17] History suggests that such tactics don’t often work. Brutal Nazi suppression of its occupied territories in the Second World War, especially in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, had little impact in preventing armed partisan resistance and, if anything, encouraged and sustained it.
  • Low morale in Russian forces may increase the number of Ukrainian civilian casualties. Much of the future combat in the campaign will probably be urban fighting for the control of Ukraine’s major cities. This fighting is hard work and requires motivated soldiers. If Russian commanders believe their ground forces are unreliable they may replace manpower with firepower. This may lead to the greater use of aerial bombardment, drones and artillery which may in turn lead to higher civilian casualties and collateral damage.[18] The use of bombardment by Russian forces will also reduce potential Russian military casualties and may help preserve the morale of their personnel.
  • Russia may rely increasingly on mercenaries and auxiliaries to replace its ground forces if their morale is deemed shaky. Russia has reportedly dispatched the Kadyrovtsy, a force of pro-Moscow Chechen allies who are feared and disliked by regular Russian soldiers. These Chechen forces are reputed to have little regard for civilian casualties.[19] Again, the use of such auxiliary forces would help reduce Russian combat casualties and help preserve the morale in their units.
  • Russian military morale may be severely at risk if the war turns into a long attritional insurgency. It is probable that the nature of the struggle will move from the current conventional style war of manoeuvre to an irregular asymmetric conflict where Russian occupation forces are hit by guerrilla attacks by Ukrainian insurgents that hide in the civilian population. As many military powers have found fighting insurgencies, it can be very draining on soldiers’ will to fight. The Russians have bitter experience of this type of war from their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
  • Both the Ukrainians and Russians may turn to repressive tactics to enforce morale in their militaries. The Red Army during the Second World War was notorious for the use of repressive tactics to force its men to fight. These were often effective and it is not impossible to imagine both sides resorting to some repressive tactics to enforce the will to fight among its armed forces.
  • Ukrainian morale may suffer a major setback in the event of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky being captured or killed by the Russians. Zelensky has been pivotal in helping the Ukrainians win the information war and has become an important figure head of Ukrainian resistance. It is reported that the Russians are sending in hit teams to kill him and he has already survived a number of assassination attempts.[20]
  • The will of Ukrainian defenders of besieged cities will only hold out as long as the food and water. People’s physiological need for nutrition and physical sustenance will overcome their psychological ability to resist. Starvation and food problems were major reasons for the collapse in the morale of the German and Russian armies in the later stages of the Great War. 
  • Russian military morale may be affected if the political and economic situation in Russia deteriorates. If the families and homes of Russian soldiers are hit by wide spread economic dislocation, unemployment and hardship as a result of Western sanctions and rationing and other measures are introduced, this could have a detrimental impact on the will of Russian combatants to fight. During the Great War, the British military found that many soldiers often worried about the economic situation of the families they had left behind as they were the main bread winner. This often led to desertions and disciplinary problems amongst troops. To manage these issues, the British government brought in a variety of welfare payments to support the families and dependents of soldiers at the front.

[1] Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia’s Possible Invasion of Ukraine, CSIS Briefs, 13 January 2022, Accessed 10.3.2022.

[2],Accessed 10.3.2022.

[3] Dr Jonathan Fennell, ‘Re-evaluating Combat Cohesion: The British Second Army in The Northwest Europe Campaign of the Second World War’ in Anthony King (ed.), Frontline: Combat and Cohesion in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p.139.

[4] Https://, Accessed 10.3.2022.

[5] Accessed 10.3.2022.

[6] Accessed 10.3.2022.

[7] Accessed 10.3.2022.

[8] Accessed 10.3.2022.

[9] Martin Russell, Russia’s armed forces, Defence capabilities and policy, European Parliamentary Research Service (March 2021), p.3.

[10] Jokull Johannesson,’The Critical Role of Morale in Ukraine’s Fight against the Russian Invasion’. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 8 (2020), pp.252-260. Accessed 10.3.22.

[11] Https://, Accessed 10.3.2022.

[12] Https://, Accessed 10.3.2022.

[13], Accessed 10.3.2022.

[14] Martin Russell, Russia’s armed forces, Defence capabilities and policy, European Parliamentary Research Service (March 2021), p.3.

[15] Martin Russell,  Russia’s armed forces, Defence capabilities and policy,  European Parliamentary Research Service (March 2021), p.3.

[16] Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia’s Possible Invasion of Ukraine, CSIS Briefs, 13 January 2022, Accessed 10.3.2022.

[17] Accessed 10.3.2022.

[18] Accessed 10.3.2022.

[19] Accessed 10.3.2022.

[20] Accessed 10 March 2022.