Main Image Credit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during his address to the UK Parliament. Courtesy of the Presidential Office of Ukraine / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
‘Success is not final, and failure is not fatal – it is the courage to continue that counts’. In the first month of this war, the Ukrainian will to fight has lived up to the sentiment in these words attributed to Winston Churchill. It has been decisive, with leadership and morale being the central performance differentiator between the two sides. It has echoed beyond the borders of Ukraine, giving European leaders an example to follow and a reason to stiffen their resolve.
In UK military doctrine, fighting power is made up of three components: the physical, the conceptual and the moral. The physical relates to people and equipment; the conceptual relates to understanding how to operate in, and adapt to your chosen battlefield. The moral component concerns leadership, morale, ethos, and an ethical foundation on which to fight.
Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Western countries have provided military support to Ukraine, such as through the UK’s Operation Orbital. Technical military assistance focuses on the physical and conceptual components, by training soldiers in weapons systems, or teaching a brigade how to plan and execute the defence of a city. Critically, Ukraine’s military reform programme from 2016 under the ‘Strategic Defence Bulletin for Ukraine’ focused on the basics in recognition of the poor starting point of its armed forces at the time: command and control, planning, operations, medical and logistics, and professionalisation of the armed forces. Moreover, the Ukrainian military high command were clear with their Western advisers about what kept them up at night – the threat of a large-scale Russian invasion – and the capabilities they needed to resist. This gave them unity of effort in their military preparation, and a metaphorical rallying point for their civilian and reservist volunteers. By contrast, it is likely that many of the Russian soldiers currently in Ukraine do not know why they are there.
Why the Moral Component Matters
The moral component is less straightforward to understand. Put very simply, it is the will to fight – and all the things that can be done to sustain this will. It cannot be neatly packaged into a military training programme, nor can it be bought. It is probably analogous to the way Lord Moran (Churchill’s physician) talked about physical courage – you can either be in credit, or you can be in the red. If you’re backed into a corner and find yourself asking what the moral component is, you don’t have it. The Ukrainians have it in spades, and the way the Russians are prosecuting this war is adding to it.
Defeat in military terms can be accelerated using technologies and high-end capabilities, but as a point in time it is a profoundly human experience – you can almost point to the moment when the will to continue fighting collapses. People give up when they think they are beaten, which is usually before the point when they are militarily beaten. If the moral component is strong, it acts like a moral structure that holds everyone in place and gives them a reason to keep going. Its impact is contagious in a positive direction, just as panic is contagious in the other direction.
Leadership as a Catalyst for the Moral Component
From the Russian perspective, this war is poorly planned, poorly executed, and most importantly, poorly led, from the political to the tactical level of war. There have been multiple reports of Russian prisoners of war saying that they were not told about the scale and scope of the operation until the eleventh hour, most likely for operational security reasons and the desire to retain the element of surprise and initiative. This shows an alarming lack of trust in commanders and subordinates, which would have been the source of poor morale that has only deteriorated. Russian forces have sustained significant losses, reportedly including five generals in less than four weeks, with only modest gains after a month of high-intensity operations and significant military investment. This is a symptom of an overriding problem in the Russian system: much of it is built on lies, and this layered deception aimed at its own soldiers should not be a surprise. Soldiers need to prepare for the physical and emotional toll of war. Deliberately depriving them of this shows a complete disregard for human life.
One of the major risks for Ukraine is that President Zelensky becomes a single point of failure for the Ukrainian resistance, where his death or capture becomes fatal for the overall Ukrainian effort
In direct contrast, the leadership from President Volodymyr Zelensky and his cabinet has been exceptional. He has not got every decision right. His delay in declaring national mobilisation deprived potential fighters of valuable military training and prevented cities from preparing anything more than hasty defences. However, his leadership has been infectious, and has resonated far beyond the borders of the country he now defends. The ridicule directed at his previous career as a comedian now has a distinctly hollow ring to it – President Vladimir Putin probably regrets underestimating him, and he’s used these skills to great effect, with commanding performances in front of cameras to secure support, as well as opportunities to exert influence abroad such as being invited to directly address the UK Parliament and the US Congress.
His very clear messaging and communication, amplified by skilful social media use, has been instrumental in combatting Russian disinformation – such as his public turning down of offers of extraction from the US – and connecting with key international audiences. Just ahead of the war, Zelensky took the risky decision to attend the Munich Security Conference, which could have precipitated the invasion and presented a personal security risk. He did so to appeal directly to the world’s most senior securocrats. It was a masterstroke and set the conditions for Western support, which was subsequently secured by the Ukrainian military performance. The political and societal support that the Ukrainians have secured thus far is replenishing the physical component, both through direct military support from the West and the estimated 20,000 people who have volunteered to join the new International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine. With every individual and collective act of bravery, Ukraine is providing inspiration for others to replenish its ranks.
One of the major risks for Ukraine is that Zelensky becomes a single point of failure for the Ukrainian resistance, where his death or capture becomes fatal for the overall Ukrainian effort. It is therefore critical that he establishes a very clear succession plan and anoints a successor who can carry on the cause.
The Wider Impact on European Security
The Ukrainian military performance has acted as a catalyst for wider changes in Europe that will transform the European security order. While these changes may in some ways have been a natural response to Russian aggression, the Ukrainian spirit of resistance has formed an emotional connection with European governments and their electorates, and provided a reminder of the power of the West in standing up for freedom, democracy and sovereignty. There are three areas that can be identified where the Ukrainian will to fight has had an influence.
First, the sea changes in European policy were all made in quick succession over the initial weekend following the invasion. The timing is significant. Had the Ukrainians capitulated in two or three days, as most analysts predicted, it is likely that European capitals would have strongly condemned Russian action, like in 2014, but stopped short of sending military aid. The groundswell of public support and sustained political pressure forced European governments to act.
The Ukrainian spirit of resistance has formed an emotional connection with European governments and their electorates, and provided a reminder of the power of the West in standing up for freedom, democracy and sovereignty
Second, many European countries have announced increases in defence spending. Again, while this might have happened regardless of the Ukrainian performance, it likely influenced the decision, especially regarding the speed of change. Once Germany announced its additional investment of €100 billion in defence – only three days after the invasion and reversing over 30 years of policy – it had a ripple effect on other countries. This is significant as Russia is on the crest of a 14-year military transformation which cannot be sustained as sanctions bite and target strategic industries related to defence. Therefore, the balance of military might, especially in terms of technology, will strongly favour the Europeans in five to ten years, provided this new sense of purpose can be maintained.
Third, and closely related to the above point, the overall quality of Russian forces has been totally exposed by Ukraine. While there must be caution in assessing Russian performance just a month into the war, the conflict has already provided an overwhelming amount of data points for Western analysts to assess and integrate into their defence planning assumptions and doctrine development, such as NATO’s Concept for the Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area.
Ukrainians’ will to fight has been a decisive factor in the first month of the war. However, the odds are still very much stacked against them militarily, and the continued support of the West is crucial to the survival of the Ukrainian state. European capitals should be mindful of how the Ukrainian will to fight has already positively impacted their defence and security when assessing what long-term support they should provide.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Fellow for European Security
International Security Studies