On Monday, a senior official from the U.S. Defense Department said Russia’s military continues to struggle with low morale, and Russian officers are now refusing to obey orders.
In a background briefing at the Pentagon, the senior official said anecdotal reports of poor morale among Russian troops and indications that some military officers are disobeying orders to move are likely key factors in Russia’s lack of success in its current campaign against Ukraine.
Cautioning that reports were anecdotal, the defense official said Russian leadership appeared to lack “sound command and control” on the battlefield.
“These are typically like, you know, mid-grade officers, you know, at various levels, even up to the battalion level where…some of these officers have either refused to obey orders or not obeying them with the same measure of alacrity that you would expect an officer to obey,” added the senior DoD official.
Shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, poor morale exacerbated by fuel and food shortages led some Russian units to surrender without a fight when confronted by unexpectedly stiff Ukrainian opposition.
According to a Pentagon press briefing on March 1, intelligence indicated some Russian troops were even sabotaging their own vehicles to keep from going into combat.
Colonel Yury Medvedev, commander of the 37th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, was reportedly killed when one of his soldiers ran over him with a tank late in March. According to Western intelligence officials and Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbaliuk, the soldier was disgruntled over the significant losses to the unit.
President Vladimir Putin dispatched Russia’s highest-ranking military officer and Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, to Ukraine in early May to change the course of Russia’s beleaguered offensive and boost troops’ dwindling willingness to fight.
However, shortly after General Gerasimov arrived, the Ukrainian military attacked a key Russian command center near the eastern city of Izyum, reportedly killing roughly 200 senior-level Russian troops, including Major General Andrei Simonov.
Unconfirmed reports have suggested that Gerasimov was wounded in the strike. However, citing a senior Ukrainian official, the New York Times reported Gerasimov was already returning to Russia when Ukrainian rockets hit the command post.
Gerasimov was notably missing at Russia’s big Victory Day parade on May 9. In past years, Gerasimov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu were typically at Putin’s side for the large-scale celebrations of the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany in WW2.
The incident with Gerasimov almost being taken out in a Ukrainian missile strike and subsequent disappearance, have likely had the opposite intended affect on Russian troop morale.
Phone calls intercepted by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) provide additional, behind-the-scenes insight into the abysmal morale problems as Russia struggles to continue its invasion.
In one recording, a Russian troop tells a fellow soldier that his regiment only has one tank left after nine others had been destroyed by Ukraine. The soldier urges his comrade to sabotage the lone remaining tank to prevent having to continue fighting.
“Fucking disassemble it and sell it for scrap metal. You’ll be safer, damn it.”
In another call, a Russian soldier describes how troops sabotage their own equipment and refuse to follow orders.
“Our guys pour sand into the fuel system, into the tanks, not to go on the offensive! I do not follow stupid orders. I just refuse,” the soldier tells his friend. “He wanted to send me against the bloody tanks, piece of shit! I just told him to go fuck himself, and that’s it.”
Intercepted phone calls also reveal Russian soldiers suffering from mental breakdowns and combat fatigue.
“Yesterday, we were calming down one Ensign. [I] had to take the gun away from him. He says, ‘I’m fucking done!’ He’s shaking, damn it,” a soldier tells his wife. “We took his fucking gun away. Guys found him today, [and] gave him back the gun. Everything is fine. Fuck, the poor guy lost his mind.”
“Many more probably go nuts, don’t they,” ask the soldier’s wife.
“I was freaking out at first, but now, nothing can be done. It’s not in my power. You can refuse an order, but if you get the fuck out of here, damn it, they will open a criminal case against you. Desertion, damn it, you’re screwed.”
Expletive laden conversations offer glimpses of Russian soldiers’ morale issues and their dissatisfaction with insufficient supplies, poor leadership, and orders to commit war crimes can also be found in
“Our Colonel came, the one we had earlier, fuck. We ask him, ‘what the fuck should we do? We have no weapons, nothing,” a soldier complained. “He says ‘fucking shoot all the civilians.’ For fucks sake! How the fuck!”
“Holy shit,” replied a soldier on the other end of the phone.
“Our command, the commanders, they received provisions, like cigarettes and food, damn it. You know what they did?” the soldier added. “All our leadership fucking fled! They dumped us all and fucked off. We don’t even know where they are.”
The other soldier urges his colleague to just shoot his unit’s commanders if they ever find them. “”Just shoot them, for fucks sake, and that’s it.”
The Debrief cannot independently verify the authenticity of the recordings provided by SBU. However, conversations were consistent with other on-the-ground reports.
Just recently, Russian troops from the far east republic of Buryatia did get into a shootout with fellow Russian fighters of the Chechen Republic.
The gunbattle, reportedly involving upwards of 100 soldiers, erupted near the village of Kyselivka, in the Chornobaivka territory of the Russian-occupied Kherson region after the Buryat soldiers refused to continue fighting.
[Read more: Russian Soldiers Get in a Shootout With Each Other]
Troops refusing orders to move forward have evidently become such an issue that, according to Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, GUR, Chechen soldiers of Russia’s 141st Special Motorized Regiment operating in rear detachments have been tasked with shooting any Russian soldiers who try to retreat.
Confirming the claims, in another call intercepted by SBU, a Chechen soldier tells his wife not to worry because he’s operating behind the front lines in an “anti-retreat squad.”
“Our task is to chase back [to battle] those lousy soldiers when they start to scatter around after artillery strikes,” the Chechen soldier tells his wife.
Recorded calls reveal that some Russian troops have a relatively low opinion of the Chechen soldiers.
In one conversation, a Russian soldier mocks the Chechen fighters for filming videos of themselves and only being concerned with looting. In another call, a soldier tells his friend about how Chechen soldiers stole his gun.
“They came, as they said, to pray: ‘Let us in, bro, we’re friends, doing reconnaissance.’ I let them in, damn it. While he was praying, he swiped my PM [Makarov pistol]! They jumped in a car and fucking left.”
Assuredly not helping morale problems, the soldier complains about being made to dig trenches as punishment for losing his weapon and worries that he’ll be killed if he doesn’t find it. “And if I don’t find it, I’ll be killed! And they will write me off because ‘I’m missing,’ disappeared after a reconnaissance mission against the ‘Ukrops’ [Ukrainian defenders].”
“And this fucking Kadyrov unit, they’re just retarded, and that’s it,” a soldier tells his mother.
In a reportedly intercepted text message shared by SBU, a Russian regimental commander fighting near Izium described how he tried shooting some of his “completely demoralized” soldiers after failing to “get them up morally or physically.”
When asked to describe the current status of Russia’s military campaign to seize the Donbas region, a senior Pentagon official replied, “I would not characterize it as successful, not at all. They really haven’t achieved any significant progress on the lines of access that they had anticipated achieving in the Northern Donbas.”
“They are being resisted very effectively by the Ukrainians. Incremental and somewhat anemic is how I would describe it so far.”
Tim McMillan is a retired law enforcement executive, investigative reporter and co-founder of The Debrief. His writing covers defense, national security, and the Intelligence Community. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @LtTimMcMillan. Tim can also be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or through encrypted email: LtTimMcMillan@protonmail.com