BERLIN – Ilya, a 21-year-old from Chechnya, serves in the Russian army. In February this year, he was sent to what he thought were training exercises in annexed Crimea. But on the evening of 24 February, he said he was ordered north, across the de facto border with Ukraine, participating in the ultimately doomed attempt to take Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city.
Ilya – who was wounded by shrapnel and evacuated to Russia around a week into the invasion – is scathing about the tactics and morale of the army in those initial stages. “My comrades and I were like cannon fodder,” he told me. “When the Ukrainians were dropping bombs on us, our officers immediately ran to their shelters and told us to hold our positions outside.” He and his comrades-in-arms felt abandoned by their commanders, who first failed to inform them that they were about to invade Ukraine, and then didn’t provide them with adequate supplies of food and ammunition once they had been deployed.
Persistently poor planning and supply logistics have hampered the Russian war effort since it began in late February. They have been a major factor behind increasingly poor morale; anecdotal reports suggest ever-greater numbers of Russian troops are refusing to serve and carry out orders.
“Mid-grade officers at various levels, even up to the battalion level… have either refused to obey orders or [are] not obeying them with the same measure of alacrity that you would expect an officer to obey,” a senior official from the US defence department recently told reporters.
In a rare moment of candour on Russian state TV this month, Mikhail Khodaryonok, a retired colonel, admitted that the war was going catastrophically for Moscow. “The situation for us will clearly get worse,” he said, contrasting high morale in the Ukrainian armed forces with Russian soldiers’ reluctance to fight.
“The level of professionalism in any army is determined not by the recruiting of contract soldiers but by the level of training of troops and their morale and readiness to spill blood for the motherland… ultimately, victory on the battlefield is determined by the high morale of troops,” Khodaryonok told his interlocutors.
Comprehensive data on poor Russian morale is difficult to come by, given the constraints on reporting on such a sensitive and high-stakes issue for Russia. Still, reports of low motivation and ill discipline abound.
Western intelligence has claimed that some Russian soldiers are deliberately killing their own officers. In March, Yuri Medvedev, the commanding officer of the 37th Motor Rifle Brigade, was run over by an armoured vehicle and later died of his injuries. “The brigade commander was killed by his own troops, we believe, as a consequence of the scale of losses that have been taken by his brigade,” a Western official briefed media.
Some experts, including Mark Galeotti, who studies the Russian security services, are sceptical, believing the well-publicised incident was more likely an accident. But factors including a notoriously brutal hazing culture of new recruits known as dedovshchina (“rule of the grandfathers”) may be pushing soldiers towards what Galeotti called “lateral fragging”. (The term “fragging” emerged during the Vietnam War, referring to the throwing of fragmentation grenades into sleeping areas to kill particularly hated fellow soldiers.)
“In wartime, when the bullets are flying, it’s hard to know where a bullet is coming from,” Galeotti told me, citing persistent rumours that Russian troops are killing unpopular officers in battle.
Discipline is poorly maintained in the Russian army, in part because it lacks a core of seasoned non-commissioned officers (NCOs), charged with ensuring the welfare of soldiers in a professional army, Galeotti said. “NCOs should be the backbone of a proper professional military. But the Russian military has officers who are clearly overburdened with no real training in the management side of things. And they are often frankly a bit scared of their soldiers,” said Galeotti.
Reports of Russian soldiers refusing to fight in Ukraine are also mounting. One consequence of the Kremlin refusing to declare war on Kyiv – the regime insists that its invasion is a “special military operation”, a distinct legal status – is that its options for forcing servicemen to the front are more limited. Without a formal declaration of war, the state cannot press serving soldiers or reservists into battle without their consent. The consequences for refusing to serve are more limited while Russia is formally at peace.
In March, 12 members of the Russian national guard deployed in Crimea defied orders to cross the de facto border into Ukraine, their lawyer said. That same month, 80 soldiers who had been sent to fight in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine reportedly refused to fight, eventually being sent back to Crimea.
The Kremlin’s refusal to admit how badly its campaign in Ukraine is going may also be resulting in fewer prosecutions for soldiers who refuse to obey orders. Maxim Grebenyuk, a lawyer defending soldiers who refuse to serve, told the independent Russian-language media outlet Meduza that although charges could legally be brought against soldiers whose refusal to follow orders leads to military setbacks, that would involve admissions of failure that would be publicised in the media. As such, “there has not yet been a single criminal case [for refusing to follow orders],” he said.
As the war drags on and Russia’s difficulties on the battlefield mount, the Kremlin finds itself in a dilemma: it is fighting a large, conventional land war with a peacetime army and is consequently finding itself increasingly bogged down. That may ultimately make it even more difficult to recruit men to die in the Ukrainian meat grinder.
Ilya is unsure about returning to Ukraine. He only partially believes in the justness of Russia’s fight. But he still feels a duty towards his comrades still stationed there.
“When I walk around the streets of my city, I can’t deal with the fact that people here are living normal lives while just 400 kilometres away my comrades are dying. I feel like I have to [go back],” Ilya said. “Nobody knows the real cause [of the war] except for the president and the generals of our army. My people are dying there and that’s enough.”