ONE of the more intangible concepts of warfare is morale – that is, the will to fight. While it is hard if not impossible to measure, its presence or absence is abundantly clear. Generally soldiers ‘fight for the man on our left and fight for the man on our right’, as the 2002 film Four Feathers (brilliantly) put it. This falls apart if you don’t trust your neighbour.
The Ukrainians’ stunningly rapid advance from Kharkiv to Izium to the Russian border seems to have broken the invading army’s morale; Vlad’s invaders are panicking and running, rather than standing and fighting. Notwithstanding the undoubted capability of the Ukrainians (and of course their motivation) advancing that far that fast seldom happens on the battlefield, particularly one that has been occupied for six months, which should have been ample time to prepare strong defensive positions.
Panic is something that all commanders fear – it’s very hard to stop once it starts and is highly infectious. Soldiers who won’t stand and fight are a liability. At Waterloo the Duke of Wellington was aware that much of his army had the potential to be a bit flaky. He therefore ensured that his proven battalions were spread widely to give an example to the novices. He also positioned cavalry behind some of the infantry to deter them from running away. The troops who did panic that day were the French Imperial Guard, probably the most experienced force on the battlefield. At the end of the day they advanced to win the battle, only to encounter the massed ranks of allied infantry (predominantly British Redcoats) who slammed volley after volley into them, and then charged. The Imperial Guard broke, the rest of the French Army saw that and also broke. The allies pursued the French Army to Paris and Napoleon ended up in St Helena.
Ukraine has recaptured less than 10 per cent of its territory. The big question is whether subsequent operations, including the current one at Kherson, can replicate the triumph of Kharkiv. Forecasting battlefield outcomes is a mug’s game, but there are some reasons why it is premature to assume that the rest of the invading force will collapse as dramatically.
The first is the balance of forces. It seems that the Russians thinned out their forces in Kharkiv to defend Kherson, giving the Ukrainians a tougher nut to crack. The second is logistics. While the Ukrainian inventory of Russian tanks is increasing, the availability of Western weaponry is finite and as yet manufacturing rates are less than Ukrainian consumption rates. Even if the West continues to dip into its own forces’ stockpiles, something the easternmost Nato countries are understandably reluctant to do, there will come a time when smart ammunition supplies at the front line dry up. The balance between arming Ukraine to kill Russians now and maintain our stockpiles in case we need to kill Russians at another place and another time is tricky. Third is fatigue – attacking is hard work, even when you win. The Ukrainians will at some stage need to rotate units, replace casualties, repair and service vehicles.
Finally, of course, there are the Russians. While they’ve had a kicking, they’re far from annihilated. Already we’re seeing savage Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. Were an increasingly pressured Putin to decide that the Special Military Operation has become a war it would free further forces. Of course, they might not be up to much – Russia seems incapable of rectifying the failings in its army – but as Stalin said, ‘Quantity has a quality all of its own.’ If or when Ukraine’s western weaponry runs out of ammunition that is even more the case.
This war is, sadly, a long way from a conclusion. It may well be that the outcome is decided away from the battlefield – be it in a frozen western Europe or Putin falling (from a window). In the meantime all the West can do is keep calm and pass the ammunition. It’s not much of a policy, but it’s the only one we have.