Opinion | One Reason Russia Is Struggling in Ukraine

Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo
·10 min read

It has been a week since Russia’s invasion and — defying expectations — Ukraine is still independent. It has managed so far to withstand the Russian assault, which included attacks on multiple fronts aimed at Ukraine’s major cities, including its capital, Kyiv. As the scale and intensity of Russia’s aggression grows, the question of whether Ukraine’s fall is inevitable is a real one, given the reality that it is up against the most powerful army in Europe, and that it is fighting that army alone.

Military strategists know that battles are not solely decided by the resources, capabilities, or size of an army. There is also a critical human factor: The will to fight. Do the soldiers have a clear sense of the war’s purpose? Do they believe in their commanders? In their government? Do they feel the support of public opinion back home? In short, do they have a moral justification for the use of violence that war inevitably entails, especially when that violence is against civilians?

There is no question that Ukrainians have the will to fight and have already put up a heroic resistance. The Ukrainian military has performed admirably, and civilians are joining the fight, with many Ukrainians even returning from abroad to defend the country. Ordinary unarmed Ukrainians confront Russian soldiers. They ask them why they’ve come. They get in their way, as they did in Melitopol, chanting “fascists!” and “occupants!” as a Russian convoy tried to advance. In response, Russian soldiers fired their guns into the air.

But it appears to be different on the Russian side. Indeed, what has been noteworthy about this war so far has been the confusion and ambivalence among Russian soldiers, especially in their encounters with Ukrainian civilians. A key factor in understanding how Ukraine is still standing, then, is military morale, and especially the morale of the Russian army. Do they understand what they are fighting for? How long will they be willing to follow orders?

When I was doing graduate work in European and Russian history, perhaps the central question we grappled with was: How can ordinary people commit great violence? This question flows through most books about Europe’s 20th century, especially those covering the Second World War. Perhaps the most powerful book to address this question was Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. In it, Browning showed that mass violence against civilians — in this case, the gruesome executions of Jewish men, women and children in a forest, one by one, with a bullet to the head — was carried out not by virulent antisemites and fervent Nazis, but by “ordinary men” who, until then, had lived normal civilian lives, just like the Jewish people they were now ordered to murder.

I tried to understand the broader historical context of horrific events like these, but mostly, I tried to grasp what made it possible for a human being to commit such atrocities. Browning’s book offered an explanation, or at least one explanation, for how ordinary people can take part in extraordinary evil.

Killing — Browning’s story showed — is hard. It is hard for all but a small percentage of people whose pathologies place them outside the norms we accept as a society. Killing is hard even in the military, under orders.

Browning’s argument relied on the famous Milgram experiments, conducted by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. Milgram wanted to understand obedience to authority: Under what conditions would people follow orders, even when those orders ran counter to their moral sense?

Milgram’s volunteers were given the role of “teacher” and told that the experiment was a study of whether pain improved memory. “Teachers” read a list of words, and every time the “learner” made a mistake, they were instructed to administer a painful electric shock. In reality, the “learner” was an actor, and the real subject was the unsuspecting “teacher.” Rather than testing memory, the experiment was testing how much pain one human being was willing to inflict on another under orders.

The results were shocking. It seemed that almost two thirds of the subjects were willing to obey orders and inflict pain on an innocent human being; that ordinary Americans in the 1960s were not unlike Browning’s “ordinary men.”

But these results did not tell the whole story. Obedience was not the only factor that decided the behavior of one human being toward another. Typically, when the “teachers” heard the learner’s pain in response to the electric shock they had administered, they expressed unease and balked at continuing the experiment. To convince them to continue, the scientist would often have to assure them that the pain they were inflicting served a greater good — in this case, Science.

For the subjects to remain willing participants in a process they found morally repugnant, their actions needed to be cast not just as morally justified, but as morally necessary.

The Jewish victims of Browning’s “ordinary men” had been systematically dehumanized by Nazi policy and ideology and cast as an existential threat to the survival of the German nation. Yet even in this context, most of the German soldiers struggled to overcome their revulsion. Killing was hard. They found killing Jewish civilians who spoke German, like them, especially difficult. For those who initially refused, the argument that ultimately convinced them to take part in mass murder was that their non-participation would place a heavier burden on their comrades. In short, orders were not enough; there needed to be a moral framework to get most soldiers to kill civilians.

Russian officials and media insist there is a moral cause for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and describe it as necessary for the survival of Russians and the Russian world. They proclaim that the “Kiev regime” — the democratically elected Ukrainian government — is made up of “drug addicts and Neo-Nazis.” They warn that Ukrainian soldiers use children, women, and the elderly as “human shields.” They talk about refugees from the Donbas and their harrowing tales of life in a “fascist” Ukraine, and warn of a genocide of Russian speakers. They say their goal with the war is the “denazification” of Ukraine (whose president, inconveniently for that narrative, is Jewish). In the summer of 2022, they are planning to hold the First “International Anti-Fascist Congress” that, in the words of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, is intended to “unite the efforts of the international community in the fight against the ideology of Nazism and neo-Nazism.”

Following Russia’s ideological narrative and its coverage of the war is like getting lost in a hall of mirrors. Reality is broken into parts, distorted, and reassembled into something grotesque and barely recognizable. Russian propaganda has taken language and concepts from the Soviet war against Nazi Germany and turned them on their head. The aggressor is alleging that Nazis are actually on the other side.

This fantasy holds at least part of the Russian public captive — especially those whose primary source of information is state media rather than social media. But what about Russian soldiers? What happens when they encounter reality on the ground in Ukraine?

Earlier this week a friend in Kyiv posted a photo she took of a billboard message addressed directly to Russian soldiers and imploring them to stop: “How will you be able to look your children in the eyes?” it asked. “Leave! Remain a human being.” By the end of the day, the city — still under Russian attack — was filled with more billboards with appeals and approbations: “Do not ruin your life for Putin. Go home with a clear conscience”; “Putin has lost. The whole world is with Ukraine! Leave without blood on your hands”; “Instead of flowers, bullets await you. Leave! Go back to your family!”; “Do not become a murderer. Leave! Remain a human being.”

What is perhaps most powerful about these messages is that they are written in a decidedly civilian voice. They appeal to the Russian soldier not as a military combatant or moral monster but as an ordinary person with a family and children, a human being with a conscience, someone like themselves. This goes beyond an appeal to a basic shared humanity; it is an appeal that relies on the intimate familiarity that Russians and Ukrainians have with one another.

Indeed, it is precisely this cultural proximity that seems to be having a powerful effect on Russian military morale. Russian soldiers have been told they are there to liberate Russian-speaking Ukrainians from a genocidal Nazi regime bent on eradicating their language, culture, and identity. Instead, they meet a grandpa who reprimands them for coming to Ukraine and tells them, “I’m also Russian.” When their tank runs out of gas on the road, they meet a Ukrainian driver who asks them if they need a tow back to Russia, and they all share a good laugh. They can speak the same language; they understand the same jokes.

Russia seems to have expected its “special military operation” to lead to Ukraine’s swift surrender. Perhaps Russia expected for the world to stand by as it seized control of Ukrainian territory, just as it held back in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Perhaps it even expected to stage its own iconic “Reichstag” moment, raising the Russian flag over a defeated Kyiv just as Soviet soldiers had done over a defeated Berlin in the last days of the war against Nazi Germany. This visual echo would have confirmed, for the Russian public back home, Russia’s official explanation for the invasion: the “denazification” of Ukraine.

If this were true, then the Russian army would be greeted as liberators as their tanks rolled through Ukrainian towns and villages. But no one is showering their tanks with flowers. To Russian soldiers, the conflict doesn’t look like genocide, and their mission doesn’t look like liberation.

Instead of a “Reichstag” moment, Russian soldiers are finding themselves part of other “moments” that, in the age of social media, quickly become iconic: The moment when Ukrainian sailors, in response to a Russian ship’s order to surrender, replied: “Russian battleship, go fuck yourself!” The moment when a Ukrainian woman put sunflower seeds in a Russian soldier’s pocket so that “at least sunflowers would grow when you all [die] here.” People around the world have seen Ukrainian farmers steal abandoned Russian tanks with their tractors. They’ve also seen a broad swath of Ukrainian civilians who — in perfect Russian, using profanity — questioned why Russian soldiers were invading their country, and told them, often impolitely, to go home.

What is becoming clear as the war in Ukraine unfolds is that the ideological ground Russia has laid for it is fragile. Russian soldiers have not been prepared for this conflict either militarily or morally. Videos of captured Russian soldiers show young men, often recent conscripts, who seem, more than anything, confused. In some cases, they say their commanders did not even tell them they were going to war. They thought they were being sent to do training exercises.

In short, evidence is growing that Russian morale seems low. The abandoned Russian military vehicles found by the Ukrainian army also point in the same direction. This is not to say that the Russian army has not already inflicted devastating damage in Ukraine, or that it will not inflict more. But as Russian soldiers find themselves face to face with Ukrainian civilians more and more, it does raise the question of how far they are willing to obey orders. Without a stronger sense of moral justification, Putin may soon find that despite his arsenal and tanks, the Russian army lacks the morale to do what it would take to win a war against Ukrainians.