Kyiv, Ukraine – Irina Muzychiuk may not always agree with the decisions her commanders make on the battlefield.
But the former literature professor, who volunteered to fight pro-Moscow separatists in 2014 and now serves in the sunny steppes of southern Ukraine, remains focused on the main goal: the defeat of Russia.
“I consider self-sacrifice and motivation to be the main advantage of our army,” he told Al Jazeera. “The fact that everyone understands that this is, first of all, a fight for our homeland, our home, for the future of their children,” he told Al Jazeera via a messaging app.
Moscow is understood to have the “second best military” in the world, after that of the United States, and boasts of victories in the second Chechen conflict, the 2008 war with Georgia, and saving the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. .
And when Moscow invaded Ukraine in February, many Western observers and governments expected a swift Russian victory.
But as the war with Ukraine rages on, the Kremlin’s presumptuous plans to seize Kyiv and replace President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government with pro-Kremlin stooges have not come to fruition.
The motivation, along with the increased supply of Western-made weapons, is in fact seen as Ukraine’s main advantage.
Experts, however, point to a centuries-old clash of civilizations-like confrontation, as well as the demographics of the warring sides, as other factors contributing to Ukraine’s resilience.
Cossacks against serfs?
“For our freedom, we will put our soul and our body. And it will show that we are brothers of Cossack descent.”
These lines from the Ukrainian national anthem help to understand how proud Ukrainians are of the Cossacks, a caste of medieval frontier warriors somewhat similar to the cowboys of the Wild West.
Living in quasi-democratic communities in what is now central Ukraine, the Cossacks chose their leaders, perfected cavalry tactics, and repelled attempts by Poland, Ottoman Turkey, and Russia to conquer them.
They were devout Orthodox Christians.
In 1654, they made a pact with Moscow, the only independent Orthodox state at the time, which paved the way for the eventual subjugation of the Ukraine.
The Cossacks spearheaded the Russian conquest of Siberia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, making “their way to dominance in Eurasia,” according to the late British historian Arnold Toynbee.
But they were elite cavalrymen, while the tsarist infantry consisted of peasants, slave-like serfs who were forcibly recruited and often used as cannon fodder.
Some observers say Russia and separatist leaders are now using their foot soldiers in Ukraine in a similar way.
Captured Russian servicemen and men recruited from separatist areas have said many were tricked into signing contracts to fight in Ukraine.
Since Moscow never officially declared war on Ukraine, the military may refuse to fight, and hundreds have done so despite pressure and threats.
But among those who ended up on the front lines, some report low morale, poor nutrition, and gross miscalculations by their superiors that lead to heavy losses.
“It’s a horrible feeling to realize what a mistake we’ve made to find ourselves here,” Maksim Chernik, a Russian intelligence officer captured outside Kyiv, said at a news conference on March 9.
Many Ukrainians see how stark is the difference between the “Cossack” mentality of their armed forces and the “servant” mentality of their enemies.
“It is individualism against facelessness, initiative against strict command, brotherhood against servility, self-reliance against robbery, courage against despair,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
They also believe that the war is part of Moscow’s centuries-old strategy to annihilate and “Russify” Ukraine, its language and culture.
“They are very consistent in their strategy. They want Ukraine to be part of the Russian empire,” Roman Nabojniak, a coffee shop owner who volunteered to fight Russian-backed separatists in 2014 and re-enlisted on the first day of the war, told this reporter in July. this year.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian men and women from all walks of life volunteered to join the army or paramilitary “territorial defense” units, often paying for their weapons and equipment.
“I don’t know if in Europe in recent decades there has ever been an army whose distinction from the civilian population is so blurred,” said Maksim Butkevych, founder and director of the human rights group No Borders.
He volunteered to join the army in early March and was soon made head of a squad of other volunteers, mostly men in their 30s and 40s, whose decision to enlist was calculated.
He said that the war made Ukrainians forget about regional differences and political disputes.
“With this invasion, they united Ukraine like never before,” Butkevich told Al Jazeera on May 24.
A month later, his parents learned that he had been captured in the Luhansk region.
Meanwhile, the Russian forces largely consist of men in their early 20s who come from “depressive” regions with high unemployment and low incomes. They often have little education.
A BBC report confirming the deaths of at least 4,515 Russian servicemen in Ukraine in early July showed that only 10 they were from Moscow, a city of 12 million.
Combined with the strict top-down command system, the educational factor is crucial when it comes to making decisions in combat, says a defense analyst.
“Initiative, flexible thinking and a decent level of education among the Ukrainian military stand in contrast to the authoritarian nature of the Russian military which suppresses any initiative and flexible thinking and is based on the cultural catastrophe of the Russian provinces”, Pavel Luzin, an expert based in Russia. with the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
Mercenaries and convicts
Moscow reportedly employs hundreds of battle-tested mercenaries with the notorious Wagner company that fought in Ukraine’s Donbas in 2014 and in Syria and was instrumental in taking control of the southeastern Luhansk region, where the former defender of human rights Butkevych was taken prisoner.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “chef” and owner of Wagner’s private army, is said to have recruited hundreds of inmates in Russian prisons, promising them hefty salaries and amnesty.
Another addition to the crowd of demoralized Russian military is “kadyrovtsy,” forces of pro-Kremlin Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. For decades they have been accused of extrajudicial executions, kidnappings and torture in Chechnya.
“The Russian military is a tool of despotic power that has a gulf between them and the public,” Luzin said.
“The Russian government does not trust [the army and the public] and therefore counterbalances them with mercenaries, kadyrovtsy and other thugs”.