In the face of Russian attacks, what motivates Ukrainian troops?

Soldiers battling the invasion have more to fight for than their Russian rivals, so morale is higher among some.

Young Ukrainians in central Kyiv next to a war-time poster
Young Ukrainians in central Kyiv walk by a wartime poster [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Kyiv, Ukraine – Irina Muzychiuk may not always agree with the decisions her commanding officers make on the battlefield.

But the former literature teacher, who volunteered to fight pro-Moscow separatists in 2014 and now serves in the sun-parched steppes of southern Ukraine, remains focused on the main goal – Russia’s defeat.

“I consider self-sacrifice and motivation our military’s main advantage,” she told Al Jazeera. “The factor that everyone understands that this is, first of all, a fight for our native land, our home, for the future of their children,” she told Al Jazeera via a messaging app.

Moscow is understood to have the world’s “second-best army”, after that of the United States, and has bragged of victories in the second Chechen conflict, the 2008 war with Georgia, and the salvation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

And when Moscow invaded Ukraine in February, many Western observers and governments expected a quick Russian victory.

But as the war with Ukraine grinds on, the Kremlin’s presumptuous plans to seize Kyiv and replace President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government with pro-Kremlin puppets have not been realised.

Motivation, along with the increasing supply of Western-made weapons, is indeed seen as Ukraine’s main advantage.

Experts, however, point to a centuries-old, clash-of-civilisations-like confrontation, as well as the demographics of the warring sides – as other factors contributing to Ukraine’s resilience.

Cossacks versus serfs?

“For our freedom, we will lay our soul and body. And will show that we are brothers of Cossack descent.”

These lines from the Ukrainian national anthem help understand how proud Ukrainians are of 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, Cossacks elected their leaders, perfected cavalry tactics and repelled attempts of Poland, Ottoman Turkey and Russia to conquer them.

They were devoutly Orthodox Christian.

In 1654, they made a pact with Moscow – the only independent Orthodox state at the time – that paved the way to the eventual subjugation of Ukraine.

Cossacks spearheaded Russia’s conquest of Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, winning “their way to the dominion of Eurasia”, according to the late British historian Arnold Toynbee.

But they were elite cavalrymen, while czarist infantry consisted of peasants, slave-like serfs who were forcibly drafted, and were often used as cannon fodder.

Roman Nabojniak Ukrainian volunteer soldier
Roman Nabojniak volunteered to fight Russians in 2014 and 2022 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Some observers say Russia and separatist leaders use their foot soldiers in Ukraine in a similar manner now.

Captured Russian servicemen and conscripted men from separatist areas have said many were duped into signing contracts to fight in Ukraine.

Since Moscow never officially declared war on Ukraine, servicemen are able to refuse to fight – and hundreds have despite pressure and threats.

But among those who ended up on the front line, some report low morale, bad food and grave miscalculations of their superiors that lead to heavy losses.

“It’s an awful feeling to realise the mistake we have made to find ourselves here,” Maksim Chernik, a Russian intelligence officer captured outside Kyiv, told a news conference on March 9.

Many Ukrainians see how stark is the difference between the “Cossack” mentality of their armed forces and the “serf” mentality of their enemies.

“It’s individualism against facelessness, initiative against strict command, brotherhood against subservience, self-reliance against theft, 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 cafeteria owner who volunteered to fight Russia-backed separatists in 2014 and re-enlisted on the first day of the war this year, told this reporter in July.

Maksym Butkevych
Maksym Butkevych was taken prisoner by pro-separatist forces in late June [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian men and women of all walks of life volunteered to join the army or “territorial defence” paramilitary units, often paying for their arms and equipment.

“I don’t know whether 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 head of the No Borders human rights group.

He volunteered to join the military in early March and was soon appointed head of a squad of other volunteers, mostly men in their 30s and 40s whose decision to enlist was calculated.

He said the war made Ukrainians forget about regional differences and political squabbles.

“With this invasion, they made Ukraine united like never before,” Butkevich told Al Jazeera on May 24.

A month later, his parents found out he had been captured in the Luhansk region.

Meanwhile, Russian forces largely consist of men in their early 20s who come from “depressive” regions with high unemployment and low income. Often, they are poorly educated.

A BBC report confirming the death of at least 4,515 Russian servicemen in Ukraine by early July showed that only 10 were from Moscow, a city of 12 million.

Combined with the strict top-down command system, the education factor is crucial when it comes to decision-making in combat, a defence analyst says.

“The initiative, flexible thinking and a decent level of education among Ukrainian servicemen contrast the authoritarian nature of the Russian army that suppresses any initiative and flexible thinking and is based on the cultural catastrophe of Russian provinces,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based expert 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 who fought in Ukraine’s Donbas in 2014 and Syria and were instrumental in the takeover of the southeastern Luhansk region, where former rights advocate Butkevych was taken prisoner.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “chef” and owner of the Wagner private army, is said to have recruited hundreds of inmates in Russian prisons, promising them hefty salaries and amnesty.

Another addition to the throngs of demoralised Russian servicemen is “kadyrovtsy”, forces of pro-Kremlin Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. They have for decades been accused of extrajudicial executions, abductions and torture in Chechnya.

“The Russian servicemen are a tool of despotic power that has an abyss between itself and the public,” Luzin said.

“The Russian government does not trust [the army and the public] and therefore counterweights them with mercenaries, kadyrovtsy and other lowlifes.”

Source: Al Jazeera