Problems with morale in the Ukrainian military? Not really

December 24, 2022

A few days ago, news broke out about Ukraine’s parliament bill 8271 that increases the penalties for military personnel who leave their positions without an order, desertion, or refusal to implement orders. There’s an online petition for Zelenskyy to veto this, but Zaluzhnyi and the High Command insist that the legislation is needed. The Ukrainian channels are all discussing the pros/cons, and the Russians are triumphant because they see this as a sign of serious problems with morale in ZSU, and evidence that the Ukrainians are cracking under pressure and the mobilized men have to be forced to fight.

What is going on?

Let’s begin by listing the proposed changes:

  • for refusal to follow orders: the maximum punishment increases from 3-7 years in jail to 5-8 years; length of arrests increases from 10 days to 15 days
  • for refusing to follow the lawful orders of one’s commander: length of arrest increases from 10 to 15 days, and the maximum fine will triple to roughly $450 (1,000 times the minimum income, which is 17 hryvnia)
  • for abandoning one’s military unit or place of assignment without leave of absence during combat or under martial law, the punishment will be prison between 5 to 10 years
  • miscellaneous changes that increase punishments for abusing authority, improper handling of arms and ammo, and drinking on military bases; there will be mandatory screening of reservists and draftees for alcohol and drug use, and authorized personnel can perform tests in public places and public transportation

One of the reasons for the legislation is that currently, different courts impose different sentences, and there should be a uniform code of justice to prevent arbitrary treatment of soldiers.

There are several other problems that the legislation is designed to deal with, and they all stem from experiences with the war.

Let’s grant that while the Ukrainians have proven themselves to be astonishing soldiers, they are not superhuman. Their mobilization has also brought in quite a few poorly trained and sometimes not well motivated people. While all the evidence we have points to an extremely high morale overall in ZSU, the fact remains that people under fire experience fear, stress, and — especially when not trained well — are prone to cracking under pressure. I have never experienced nearly continuous artillery bombardment, but I have read about it and it’s not unheard of for people to go insane. Add to this incessant infantry attacks, when the enemy soldiers sometimes gets into your positions for hand-to-hand combat, and one can imagine some of the horror of the situation for a soldier in that position.

As a result, there have been numerous instances of ZSU soldiers surrendering (especially earlier in the war), which is why the POW balance is still very much in Russia’s favor. (I have written why Russian POWs tend to be much less numerous — ZSU’s breakthroughs, as a rule, do not involve the overwhelming numbers necessary to encircle large units and force their surrender, and Russians are often subjected to vicious propaganda about the treatment that the Ukrainians would mete out if they get caught, so many do everything possible to avoid this, including sometimes fake surrenders that end in slaughter.)

There are also instances of entire units abandoning their defensive positions without even telling the units on their flanks, which has enabled the Russians to exploit minor breakthroughs and turn them into routs by compelling the other units — with now exposed flanks — to retreat as well. This happened several times during the summer Russian offensive, and contributed to the loss of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.

There have also been instances of mobilized man refusing to follow orders or deserting when drafted. One example from March is that about 1,000 men deserted from “North” Command in Luhansk. Its commander (General Krasilnikov) referred the matter to the civilian-military relations board of Luhansk oblast. As a result, most of the refuseniks returned to duty, and about 100 were sent to court, of whom 10 were found to have acted without good cause.

Finally, there have apparently been instances where some generals have sort of sabotaged orders from the General Staff, with the idea that they have a better local view and know best what needs to be done. By some accounts, “South” Command did this when it was given orders to advance on Kherson, and preferred to drag their feet while everyone was trying to figure out why ZSU were not attacking. I wrote about this at the time as I was quite puzzled why the Ukrainians are letting the Russians evacuate their forces from the right bank. Some sources speculated that there had been an informal agreement between the two armies to do that, but I very much dismissed it, and rightly so. What appears to have happened is that the commanders of the Kherson front thought they had a better strategy how to take the city without bloodshed, and so they delayed and dallied until most Russians were gone and the Ukrainians could simply move in and take possession of the city. While this really did spare a lot of Ukrainian lives, it freed the Russian units, which were then sent to Bakhmut, Belarus, and elsewhere, for ZSU to fight under much less favorable conditions.

And so, it looks like the High Command wants to minimize the occurrence of these problems. It needs to make sure that its soldiers hold the line when they are ordered to do so, and they need their local commanders not to freelance with daring attacks or half-hearted implementation of orders. The problem is that any territory lost through these sorts of actions needs to be retaken, usually at much greater cost.

This was basically Zaluzhnyi’s argument even though he did not put it so explicitly. (It could be related to the firings of several generals and the suicide of one that he mentioned in another interview.) He wants to avoid the chaos that had enabled the Russians to make some gains over the summer.

I have written several times about one of the main advantages of ZSU lies in the initiative of the officers, and so the worry is that the new legislation might dampen it by making “not following orders” a more serious offense. However, many officers have expressed approval of the legislation and have argued that this is not going to happen because they trust the High Command.

Zaluzhnyi’s public defense of the legislation is sure to take some (most?) of the heat off Zelenskyy, and the expectation is that he will sign this legislation before the end of the year.

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