Infantry: The Russian Reckoning

Infantry: The Russian Reckoning. By Jim Dunnigan.

Russian political and military leaders seem surprised at the extent to which Russian soldiers are refusing to fight in Ukraine.  …

While Russian leaders earlier made much of reforming the military and upgrading its equipment, they ignored fundamentals like willingness to fight. In modern war the infantry is a minority (10 to 25 percent of troops) but comprise over 80 percent of the casualties.

After more than a century of lies, deceit, poor leadership and heavy losses, the young Russian men who end up in the infantry, as well as their families, are refusing to be killed in another unnecessary war in Ukraine. …

Russia got dragged into World War I in 1914, where heavy losses led Russia to admit defeat and leave the war in 1917. Fighting did not stop inside Russia as a civil war broke out over what would replace the monarchy; a democracy or a secular dictatorship. The democracy was more popular but the communists were more ruthless and better at using propaganda to promise what they had no intention of delivering.

The new communist government sought to eliminate features of the military that might lead to another revolution. NCOs, who were often rebel leaders, were eliminated and replaced by junior officers and political officers whose job was to prevent disloyalty and report any problems in that area. General conscription was re-introduced and a separate elite force of KGB troops was organized to ensure that the conscript soldiers remained loyal, or at least pretended to be. This worked during World War II, when Russia lost ten million soldiers in combat and nearly 20 million civilians to exposure, disease and widespread violence against civilians. Russia kept the extent of those losses a secret until the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The post-Soviet collapse Russian government began as a democracy but after a decade ended up as another dictatorship.

The new dictator was Vladimir Putin, a KGB officer before the Soviet Union collapsed. Putin wanted to restore the Russian empire. He seemed surprised when the Russian people did not share his enthusiasm for such efforts. This lack of enthusiasm for another major war became painfully obvious when Putin ordered a second invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Putin realized there might be problems if his troops did not win a quick victory. There was no victory, quick or otherwise. The Ukrainians fought back and forced the Russian troops trying to quickly take the Ukrainian capital to withdraw to Russia and redeploy to eastern Ukraine and Crimea …

The defeated Russian forces reacted differently to their defeat and accused their government of sending them up against a formidable enemy that they were told did not resist. Many Russian troops were angry over the fact that they were not told they were invading Ukraine, leaving them to discover that when they came under heavy fire after crossing the border they were not told about. After a few months of fighting Putin acted surprised as many Russian soldiers refused to go to Ukraine and many of those in Ukraine refused to fight.

As word spread inside Russia about what was going on in Ukraine, parents of conscripts backed their sons who were trying to stay out of the army and most definitely out of Ukraine. Putin apparently did not appreciate the fact that he was facing over a century of earlier heavy losses and bad leadership that had killed millions of Russians, in addition to those killed by enemy troops. The Rodina (the Russian people) had not forgotten because it was the Rodina that died, not their leaders. The bill for over a century of such attitudes came due on Putin’s watch.

This situation was not unique to Russia. After World War I Britain, France and other European democracies had to deal with popular resistance to another bloodbath. France was quickly (by 1940) defeated in World War II, in part because of its overreliance on static defenses and a general lack of enthusiasm for another major war. The British kept fighting but the elected government realized that the voters would not tolerate heavy losses. Measures were taken to keep casualties down. That meant less use of infantry and much more use of tanks and other armored vehicles. During World War II most tanks destroyed or disabled by enemy action resulted in most of the tank crew surviving, although some might be wounded. Because of this and an emphasis on keeping infantry losses low Britain suffered the fewest losses for any nation that was involved in the war from the beginning (1939) to the end. …

All nations that suffered heavy losses in World War II came out of the war less confident about the use of military force.

There was one exception; Russia. Dictator Josef Stalin had been responsible for the exceptionally high Russian losses during the war. This was because of his 1930s purges of suspected disloyal officers and troops in the military. Civilians suspected of disloyalty were also killed in large numbers, or sent to labor camps that few survived. Subordinates were unwilling to tell Stalin the truth about the degraded state of the military in 1940 because Stalin tended to execute anyone delivering bad news.

Russia was victorious in World War II despite, not because of Stalin. That was a state secret in Russia until early 1953 when Stalin died. Soon after that Stalin’s key functionaries were killed or arrested. There followed a “secret speech” to key communist officials that outlined the many mistakes Stalin had made during his two decades in power. This came as a shock to many of those who heard the admissions, which did not remain secret for long. Stalin’s official reputation went from hero to zero at least until Putin gained power. Russians could now discuss, or complain about the heavy losses during and before the war because of Stalin. Unlike most other dictators (including Hitler and the military government that ran Japan during the war), most absolute rulers stay in power by paying some attention to public sentiment. Stalin did not and was one of the few to die of old age.

The new Russia is not like the old Russia. Demographics are one thing, but a century of lies and callous treatment of infantry is ensuring that the Russians are simply running out of infantry in Ukraine. Nukes are no substitute.

Heavy casualties in an optional war are just not sustainable.