Foreign Policy Essay
Ukrainian and Russian Will to Fight: An Early-War Assessment
Editor’s Note: Russia has a large army and clear superiority in firepower, but is experiencing many setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine. Russia's experience is far from unusual: Military success depends on much more than just material factors. Ben Connable of the Atlantic Council, who has worked extensively on armies' wills to fight, evaluates both militaries to explain why, so far at least, the Ukrainian military is exceeding expectations while the Russian military has faced many problems.
Since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, Ukrainians have surprised the world by standing up to the Russian forces and at least forestalling the seizure of major cities. In northern Ukraine, home to the strategically important cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, Russian troops appear to be underperforming. They have moved sluggishly toward their objectives and in a few cases surrendered to lightly armed Ukrainian troops. As Russia masses its forces around Kyiv, will the momentum shift in the favor of the invaders? Will the Ukrainians continue to fight hard in the face of the full brunt of Russian combat power? Will Russian troops have the stomach for weeks of brutal street fighting? How might a postinvasion insurgency play out for both sides?
Answers to all of these questions hinge on the will to fight. According to the U.S. military, war is fundamentally a contest of two opposing, independent wills. Almost all battles and wars end not in total annihilation, but when one side flees or surrenders. Technology and physical power are used to kill enemy troops and smash their equipment in an effort to compel their capitulation. Strong-willed troops like the Chechens who swamped a Russian invasion in 1994 often fight aggressively, causing many casualties and prolonging wars. Even if they do not break and run, weak-willed troops reduce the combat potential of the most powerful technologies and the best military planning.
Assessing will to fight is difficult, but it is possible. From 2016 through 2021, I co-led teams at Rand Corp. building and testing models to assess will to fight. We defined military will to fight as the disposition and decision to fight, act or persevere when needed. Our assessment model centered on 38 factors that might influence will to fight during a given war. (All of these factors are described in detail in “Will to Fight” and applied to several examples in “Iraqi Army Will to Fight.”)
The military model developed in that research can be applied to the Ukrainian and Russian forces fighting in and around Kyiv and Kharkiv. This assessment reflects my informed subjective opinion based on publicly available information; a more methodical, evidence-driven approach would be ideal but also less timely. I was reasonably able to apply 17 of the will-to-fight factors to the Ukrainian military forces and 19 to the Russian units fighting in the vicinity of Kyiv and Kharkiv. I rated each factor on a 1-9 ratio scale, with 1 representing a severe drain on will to fight and 9 representing strong reinforcement of will to fight. In the next sections I present the ratings in charts and describe what appear to be the most influential factors on Ukrainian and Russian dispositions and decisions to fight, act or persevere in their contest of opposing wills.
Ukrainian Will to Fight
Ukraine has benefited from a number of positive factors sustaining its will to fight in the first week of the conflict. From the available information, I was able to code 17 factors that appear to be influencing Ukrainian will to fight in and around Kyiv and Kharkiv, with implications for broader Ukrainian will to fight in other parts of the country and, over time, for a prospective insurgency (Figure 1). Together, these factors help explain the strength of the Ukrainian response so far but also indicate issues that might shift over time. This quick-turn analysis also has some limits, as not all the will-to-fight factors are coded here. Other factors from the model that might influence Ukrainian will to fight include ideology; economics; troop quality; unit cohesion, expectation, control, esprit de corps, support, and leadership; organizational control, esprit, integrity, training, support, and leadership; doctrine; weather, climate, and terrain; and fatigue. In particular, nonobserved factors such as unit cohesion or esprit de corps may have significant influence.
Figure 1. Ukrainian will to fight in northern Ukraine, early March 2022.
Among the factors identified in Figure 1, the most significant ones affecting Ukrainian forces’ will to fight appear to be their desperation as they engage in an existential conflict, their cohesive national identity, the level of support for the war effort from the broader public and the Ukrainian government’s persuasive appeals to both domestic and international audiences.
Desperation. Ukrainians are fighting an existential battle to prevent the Russians from dismantling their democracy, destroying their homes and killing their families. Retreat or surrender in Kyiv, in particular, has a clear consequence: strategic defeat.
Identity. Ukrainians have quickly rallied around their shared national identity. The Ukrainian flag has become a powerful symbol of resistance and mobilization both in Ukraine and across the Ukrainian diaspora that provides significant moral support.
Societal support. At least thousands of civilians have volunteered to fight, and thousands more are donating blood, providing food and supplies, and conducting remarkable demonstrations of civil protest in the face of Russian armored columns.
Messaging. Ukrainians are dominating the information war, winning global support, undermining Russian strategy and directly attacking Russian societal support for the war through a strong social media and direct messaging campaign.
Russian Will to Fight
The factors affecting the Russian military’s will to fight near Kyiv and Kharkhiv tell a very different story. None of the coded factors significantly strengthens the Russian will to fight, and overall they suggest many impediments to the Russian war effort (Figure 2). All of these factors have serious implications for broader Russian will to fight in other parts of the country and, over time, for a prospective insurgency. As with the previous analysis, though, some factors could not be readily assessed. These include desperation; revenge; economics; individual competence; unit cohesion, control, esprit de corps and leadership; organizational control, esprit, integrity, and support; state integrity; societal integrity; weather, climate, and terrain; fatigue; and adversary reputation.
Figure 2. Russian will-to-fight in northern Ukraine, early March 2022.
Again, nonobserved factors such as organizational support or weather may have significant influence. But so far, the most important factors for Russian forces’ will to fight appear to be the disconnect between their expectations for the conflict and reality, the seeming limits of public support for the war, and the Russian government’s ham-handed justification. Despite these checks on the Russian forces’ will to fight, Russia’s military leadership is generally respected, which will bolster some troops’ will to fight.
Expectation. Russians expected an easy fight, and some even reportedly expected to be welcomed by Ukrainians. Instead, Ukrainians are fighting to the death and clearly do not want Russian troops on their soil. Some Russian prisoners claim they did not expect to invade. Spoiled expectations can be difficult to overcome.
Organizational leadership. Though other factors undermine will to fight, Russian soldiers can generally count on strong leadership from the Russian Ministry of Defense and from the Russian Ground Forces officer corps. Strong leaders at all levels have traditionally kept even disillusioned Russian soldiers in the fight.
Societal support. Early protests against the war may spread or be quashed. It is too early to tell if they have significantly undermined Russian troops’ will to fight. Russian mothers are generally well organized and may have the strongest influence on, particularly, press-ganged conscript troops on short-term contracts fighting in Ukraine.
Messaging. Russian messaging appears to be inept, while Ukrainian messaging is prolific and effective. Security services cannot prevent Russian troops from being exposed to Ukrainian or global anti-Russian messaging in the field. Some of these messages may backfire, but others will encourage Russian troops to question the war.
Watching for Shifts in the Contest of Wills
Military forces’ will to fight is not static—it changes over time with the factors that motivate it. As the conflict unfolds, both Ukrainian and Russian forces’ wills may shift. It would be a logical fallacy to extrapolate from one week of strong performance to assume that Ukrainian forces’ will to fight can be sustained indefinitely. Constant bombardment, fatigue, loss of experienced fighters and leaders, Russian tactical successes, and the inevitable wavering of international interest in the war may drain at least some Ukrainian will over the coming weeks and months. However, given the existential nature of the Russian invasion and the demonstrated power of Ukrainian national identity, there is a good chance that the Ukrainians can sustain much of their will to fight through the invasion and into a long-term insurgency.
While the Russians fighting in the north look shaky at the moment, they do not appear to be on the verge of collapse. Historically, Russia’s forces have fought on even as many of its troops waver, are killed or surrender. Tactical success on the battlefield can help the Russians regain momentum and shunt aside many of the factors that may undermine the will to fight of individual soldiers. If they can encircle, capture and pacify Kyiv, the Russians will have effectively won the war. But unless Putin orders a withdrawal, they will then probably still have a long, ugly counterinsurgency operation in front of them. Over time, economic factors in Russia and fatigue on the battlefield will start to take on greater importance. Wars are expensive, and it is not clear that Russia can sustain such a large-scale operation for the months or years it may take to occupy and control Ukraine. This is likely to be a long-term contest of wills.