30 November 2023

Russian view of soldier morale may misrepresent reality

Russian military analysts’ concept of soldier morale revolves heavily around religious spirituality, which is used to legitimise the armed forces and Putin’s power. But this Russian self-image risks leading to miscalculation, according to a recent FOI report commissioned by the Swedish Ministry of Defence.

A male soldier lighting a cigarette in front of a battle tank.

What distinguishes the Russian view of soldier morale from the Western one is the explicit role of spirituality, belief in God and religion. Photo: Vladimir Suvorov/Reuters.

Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Russia’s full-scale invasion has surprised the world, while the Russian side has had far greater problems than many expected. When FOI’s Russia project discussed the situation in spring 2022, soldier morale began to emerge as an interesting concept to study.

“Since on paper the Russians had the upper hand in military technology, we started thinking about factors that prevented them from using it effectively. We were also hearing anecdotes about the Russian willingness to fight. When I started investigating the idea of soldier morale, I realised that the concept is very complex,” says Pär Gustafsson Kurki, senior researcher in FOI’s Defence Analysis Division.

In a report, The Russian Understanding of Soldier Morale: Essentials of Key Ideas from the 1990s to 2022, Gustafsson Kurki looks into how Russian military analysts themselves reason about, and use, the concept of soldier morale. Analysing multiple Russian texts on the topic he created a model to explain the Russian view of soldier morale.

Associating morale with the Orthodox Church is desired

The model consists of three parts: Russian spirituality, emotionality-based communality and coercion. Russian spirituality corresponds to the concept of duchovnost, which, according to some Russian military analysts, is a far more important quality in Russian soldiers than the possession of high-tech weapons. The concept of duchovnost, is also different from the concept of spirituality as its generally understood in Sweden.

“In Sweden, we distinguish between religiosity and spirituality, where for us the latter can be anything from New Age to an undefined ‘belief in something greater.’ In the military-analytical texts, the Russian view of spirituality is more strongly linked to religiosity and churchliness. When Russian military analysts write about duchovnost, they are more often referring to a Christian belief in God,” Gustafsson Kurki says.

“The texts refer to religion as the highest value that motivates soldiers to fight, and that spirituality and soldier morale are two sides of the same coin. There is an important ideological aspect to it,” he continues. “They are trying to legitimise the armed forces and Putin’s power by associating the Orthodox Church with themselves. Almost every other Russian thinks duchovnost is important. By connecting it to the armed forces, it becomes more difficult for any critics to speak out. That’s my hypothesis, anyway.”

Strong emphasis on the collective

The second part of the model deals with emotionality-based communality. In military-analytical texts, soldier morale is not considered an individual matter, but as something possessed by a military collective – that is, companies, battalions, or the entire army.

“The collective is emphasised over the individual. This is also expressed in how coercive power and the military order are seen, which is as a sacred instruction that must be fulfilled at all costs. Soldiers who receive orders must show a willingness to sacrifice and blindly obey the order, while officers are described as emanating willpower and initiative in a completely different way,” says Gustafsson Kurki.

Third, and the aspect of Russian thinking about soldier morale that most overlaps with Western thinking is coercive power. All military organisations are based on the state’s monopoly on violence and, by extension, its coercive power. Individuals may be ordered to do things that sometimes involve killing, or that result in their own deaths.

“Basically, it is the same phenomenon that exists in all defence and armed forces. What distinguishes the Russian view of soldier morale from the Western one is the explicit role of spirituality, belief in God and religion.”

The texts studied by Pär Gustafsson Kurki are philosophically oriented and half of the texts come from the Ministry of Defence’s own scientific journal.

“The writers often have military ranks, so what is expressed comes from the military establishment, from people loyal to the regime.”

Risk falling for their own propaganda

Pär Gustafsson Kurki conducted a short empirical study for the report to see if the alleged significance of duchovnost had practical implications. The Russian Armed Forces has invested in chaplains to some degree, but their number is modest in relation to the need, according to Pär Gustafsson Kurki.

“They still make a big deal out of the investments and bang the drum in the media, so it has more of an ideological point than a clear role in military efficiency. One sign of this is that Russia has previously managed to fight wars and achieve political goals without an elaborate system of chaplains, for example in the Second Chechen War.”

In practice, factors such as discipline, functioning logistics and access to supplies and ammunition have been more important for Russia’s military success than the alleged importance of spirituality, Gustafsson Kurki says. He believes that by emphasising duchovnost, there is a risk that the Russians will be deluded about their own capabilities.

“They risk falling for their own propaganda. A contributing factor in their continued fight in Ukraine may be that they believe they have a spiritual quality that makes them destined to win, despite already shooting off much of their best materiel in the war.”

Western analysts also need to be independent in their analysis of the Russian side’s claims, Pär Gustafsson Kurki points out. He perceives that many analysts have listened too much to Russia’s official claims, thereby overestimating the military capabilities of the Russian side.

Reforms unlikely

The original Swedish version of the report, titled Rysk syn på stridsmoral: Grundidéerna från 1990-talet till 2022, was launched last autumn. The recently released English version has an addendum on the past year’s developments in Ukraine. In the addendum, Pär Gustafsson Kurki highlights that the prevailing view of soldier morale reflects Russian society at large.

“If you wanted to reform how morale is viewed, you would also need to reform the rest of society. This is quite unlikely to happen, since the current regime is so invested in maintaining power. This model will probably be relevant for a long time to come.”