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Is poor morale among Russia troops undermining Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

Katherine Kjellström Elgin, a Washington-based defence analyst and an expert on Russia’s military, also warns of the need to take the claims of various sides “with a grain of salt”.

Yet, she says some patterns do appear to be emerging, especially in relation to the conscripts sent in to fight.

“The conscripts are less well trained because they’re only expected to serve for one year,” she says. “Most of those individuals are going to have something between four to six months of training, half of which was basic training, you just don't have a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience.”

Elgin, who recently co-authored a recent piece in Politico about conscripts, with Suzanne Freeman, a PhD student candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the Russian army has a long tradition of severe bullying, or dedovshchina, dating to the Soviet era, what also impacts morale.

“For quite some time, it was really terrible. We're talking about not insignificant number of suicides, rapes, people getting beaten. Just the worst of hazing that you can imagine,” says Elgin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank that focuses on defence policy.

“After 2008 they tried to address this in part by actually shortening the amount of time that conscripts served. But there are still reports of loss of hazing occurring.”

Elgin also raises the impact on the mental health of the young troops ordered to fire barrages of artillery into residential areas and apartment blocks.

“I imagine that unless you've been psychologically prepared for this, that might hit you pretty hard,” she says.

She says such assessments could be made for all militaries. And unless there is adequate preparation and training, and good leadership, the impact is likely to be greater.

“All of these things can impact the performance of individuals,” she says.

In the News

News Analysis: Biden, recognizing the power of Zelensky’s plea to Congress, beefs up defense aid for Ukraine

Eric Edelman, a former ambassador to Finland and Turkey who served as undersecretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, questioned the White House’s logic in determining that delivering MIG-29 jets could be deemed by Putin as escalatory when it continues to supply Javelin missiles and other weapons that are being used against Russian forces. The Biden administration rebuffed Poland’s efforts last week to transfer such jets to Ukraine.

“All of it is potentially escalatory,” Edelman said. “I wish they would stop worrying about what’s going to provoke Putin and start making Putin worry about what’s going to provoke the U.S. and NATO.”

In the News

A Maritime Strategy to Deal with China

The United States today suffers from a critical deficit in strategic thinking about the most consequential challenge of the current era: the rise of China and the threat it poses to U.S. interests in the western Pacific and beyond. Addressing that deficit is a matter of the utmost importance and urgency. The prospect of 21st-century great power war is terra incognita.

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Battle Force 2045: The U.S. Navy’s Bold Plan for a 500-Ship Fleet

On Tuesday, speaking at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper unveiled a U.S. Navy force design titled “Battle Force 2045.” Administration policy and the law of the land require the navy to construct a 355-ship fleet, up from just under 300 today. If properly funded and executed, Secretary Esper’s plan would produce a 355-ship fleet by 2035—but only as an interim step toward a 500-ship fleet in 2045.

In the News

Morning Defense—A 500-Ship Navy

“Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday outlined a plan to grow the Navy to 500 ships by 2045, a major expansion for the sea service that he says will be paid for by using savings from Pentagon reform efforts,” Seligman reports.