One year ago today, Russia launched the latest and most shockingly brutal part of its years-long attack on Ukraine. The war began in 2014, so it would not be correct to say that today is the one-year anniversary of “the war,” but it is the one-year anniversary of this phase: a large-scale, massive invasion conducted with the intent of wiping Ukraine off the map and ethnically cleansing its population.
In September, long after it had become evident that the invasion was not the cakewalk for Russia that most of us had expected, I quoted Tolstoy on the issue of the “spirit of the army”:
What explains this shift? It’s a complex problem, and Mencken reminded us that for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. Still, don’t discount the “spirit of the army” — the fact that Ukraine has a strong reason to fight, and Russian troops have no reason at all to fight.
Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace:
By long years of military experience he knew, and with the wisdom of age understood, that it is impossible for one man to direct hundreds of thousands of others struggling with death, and he knew that the result of a battle is decided not by the orders of a commander in chief, nor the place where the troops are stationed, nor by the number of cannon or of slaughtered men, but by that intangible force called the spirit of the army, and he watched this force and guided it in as far as that was in his power.
Tolstoy elsewhere proposed an equation similar to that describing the relationships between momentum, mass, and velocity:
In military affairs the strength of an army is the product of its mass and some unknown x.
Military science, seeing in history innumerable instances of the fact that the size of any army does not coincide with its strength and that small detachments defeat larger ones, obscurely admits the existence of this unknown factor and tries to discover it—now in a geometric formation, now in the equipment employed, now, and most usually, in the genius of the commanders. But the assignment of these various meanings to the factor does not yield results which accord with the historic facts.
Yet it is only necessary to abandon the false view (adopted to gratify the “heroes”) of the efficacy of the directions issued in wartime by commanders, in order to find this unknown quantity.
That unknown quantity is the spirit of the army, that is to say, the greater or lesser readiness to fight and face danger felt by all the men composing an army, quite independently of whether they are, or are not, fighting under the command of a genius, in two—or three-line formation, with cudgels or with rifles that repeat thirty times a minute. Men who want to fight will always put themselves in the most advantageous conditions for fighting.
The spirit of an army is the factor which multiplied by the mass gives the resulting force.
Having some nice High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems never hurts either.
I recently saw some Trumpist dunderhead trying to explain how Russia kills with cold. They defeated Napoleon and Hitler with the cold, this idiot said. What was lost in that explanation is that, yes, Russia did defeat Napoleon and Hitler . . . but then, they were fighting a defensive battle for their very country. The folks doing that nowadays are the Ukrainians. Today, most Russians fighting Ukraine have no idea why they are fighting. The spirit of the army, at least early on, was a factor that decisively favored the home team: Ukraine.
But today, NPR reports some dispiriting evidence that all-important spirit may be flagging:
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A year ago, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and stunned the world. Most thought Kyiv would fall. Well, that didn’t happen. Ukraine’s forces have upended expectations. And through it all, U.S. military aid has played a key role. Now, the invasion has become a grinding war, and some U.S. lawmakers are raising questions about that support. So how does the year ahead look? We’re going to put that question to three NPR correspondents – Frank Langfitt in Kyiv, Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.
And, Frank, I’m going to let you kick us off since you are there. You’re on the ground, and I know you were recently out toward the front lines, in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, talking with soldiers. What are they saying? What’s the mood?
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, I got to say, Mary Louise, it was kind of pessimistic. They were saying that the Russians are building up huge numbers on the front lines. They’re using everything from convicts, which we’ve heard about, of course – the Wagner – the mercenary group – as well as new conscripts. They’re throwing them into the fight. And the Ukrainians that I talked to just didn’t feel like they had the numbers to match the Russians and also not getting the kind of quality of people into the army that they were getting if you go back to the first two months of the war. I was talking to a sergeant named Andriy. He oversees a company of more than 100 reconnaissance soldiers.
ANDRIY: (Non-English language spoken).
LANGFITT: So what he says here is the new people who are coming – the ones who are being mobilized – they’re not that motivated. And the core of our forces – the ones who have been with us since the beginning – they’re coming to an end. And, Mary Louise, what he means by that is they’ve been killed.
KELLY: Oh, it’s just awful to hear. Stay with those new people – with the new conscripts. I keep thinking of them. These are people who were civilians yesterday, and today they’re being sent to the front.
LANGFITT: Yeah, and I’ve met a number of them. And I watched them being trained, and it’s a tall order. Just like Andriy was saying, you know, in the beginning, there were all these highly, highly motivated people. Now, these are people who are sort of being conscripted. Some of them don’t get a lot of training – sometimes a few days, couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months if they’re lucky – before they’re sent to the front. And the ones that I saw seemed quite frightened. And Andriy says some of them – they won’t even shoot in battle because they don’t want to kill anybody.
This is not to say Russia has it in the bag. They are throwing men into the meat grinder by the thousands for, so far, very little gain. It’s not like the Russian army has developed greater skill or motivation. To the contrary.
But as the war drags on, the Ukrainian motivation is taking a hit.
Now, more than ever, sensible people — people whose values have not been warped by partisanship; people who understand the depth of Putin’s evil and the need to support Ukraine — need to do what little we can to shore up the spirit of the Ukrainian people. Call your Congressman and support sending aid to Ukraine. Donate to a charity that provides warmth to those in Ukraine left in the cold. Speak out against the selfish Republican fringe mentality that ignores principle, accepts and repeats Putinesque propaganda, and promotes a self-centered view of the world.
The long-promised weaponry these people need might give a lift to their spirits. Get it to them yesterday.
Glory to Ukraine!