‘90 percent morale, 10 percent force’: Ukraine’s not-so-secret weapon – Grid News

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‘90 percent morale, 10 percent force’: Ukraine’s not-so-secret weapon

A month has passed since Russia invaded Ukraine, triggering widespread destruction and a humanitarian crisis. A raft of economic sanctions, mounting casualties and multiplying reports of flagging morale on the Russian side have done little to dent Moscow’s aggression — which has been met with a fierce and resilient Ukrainian defense.

Behind that resilience is a “huge and strong motivation” to fight back, not just among the Ukrainian military, but also ordinary civilians, according to Oleksandr Bogomolov, who heads Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, a government think tank that advises the president and the country’s national security council on strategic and security matters. Bogomolov believes that Russian forces, by contrast, increasingly resemble “a gang,” not a professional army, and are suffering as a result.

Bogomolov spoke to Grid on Thursday from an undisclosed location in Ukraine, as President Joe Biden arrived in Europe for a special NATO summit on the war. Bogomolov called on the U.S. and its European allies to maintain their pressure on Russia over the “long term,” to deal with a threat that he believes reaches beyond Ukraine itself. He also said he believes Ukraine holds an enormous advantage in terms of its determination to resist an enemy whose morale grows “lower and lower” as the conflict continues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Grid: We are now a month into Russia’s invasion of your country. Where do things stand now, as Moscow refuses to retreat? What’s your assessment of the situation on the ground in Ukraine?

Oleksandr Bogomolov: Look, the plan, from the Russian side, was to do a blitzkrieg. They wanted to, really, complete everything in two to three days, entering the country from several directions simultaneously. But as we know, that is not how it has happened. They’ve failed on multiple fronts. We now have this situation where they are really going after certain areas. If you look at Mariupol, it has been turned into a disaster zone. They — the Russians — are operating the same way as we saw in Syria. It is an ongoing humanitarian disaster. Ukrainian authorities have managed to evacuate some people, but it is a large population; this was a city of approximately 400,000 people, and therefore it is a quite difficult operation. In other parts also there are serious attacks, and then in other parts they have not managed to move forward as they had tried to.

Generally, the situation is that there is a stalemate, in some senses, but in other areas, like I said in Mariupol, there is great ongoing destruction.

In other directions, for example in the vicinity of Kyiv, there is this stalemate. There are attacks ongoing and counterattacks by Ukrainian forces. Russian forces tried to encircle Kyiv, but they failed. The initial Russian contingent there was probably around 15,000 troops, but it is lower now. This force is still there and is still threatening the city. And remember they are also using rockets and heavy artillery, directing attacks to major cities.

G: How do you see this playing out as we enter month two? Ukraine’s resistance has surprised many outsiders, but Russia continues to attack and continues to threaten major cities such as Kyiv.

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OB: We have several advantages, both militarily and socially, over the Russian invaders. Here I often cite Napoleon, who said victory in a war is 90 percent morale and only 10 percent force. And that’s really what we have as our advantage. Because we don’t just have the armed forces, but an ongoing and increasingly strong territorial — that is, civilian — defense. This was only really developed recently, where civilians signed contracts with the ministry of defense and are led by trained military professionals. Often among them there are also retired military professionals. So these guys are really semiprofessional. There’s also something else: We have self-mobilized units of local people. These guys are also very motivated. They are very strong. They are sometimes fighting in coordination with military people, sometimes they are on their own, trying to protect their houses, for example.

Russians are different, and in fact their forces are a mirror reflection of the economic, social and political situation inside Russia, which was so far carefully disguised by Russian propaganda inside and outside the country. Because Russia has been really weakened by authoritarian rule. There is a lack of initiative and lack of morale. They lied to the world, and they also lied to themselves. And you can see it in their troops. These troops do not really understand why they are inside Ukraine. Many of these troops are just lost, you know. Once you’re in a war, you need to have a unity of purpose in the chain of command. Right now, the chain of command is supposedly there, you know, but they don’t share the same idea about what they are doing. And that makes the soldiers on the ground, and particularly the conscripts, who are not battle-hardened, feel abandoned and hopeless. … This is not an army. Their morale is lower and lower, and they increasingly look like a gang.

This is why we have every reason to hold on [to our country]. We have a very huge and strong motivation.

G: I’d like to talk with you a little about the ongoing negotiations with Russia — your president said the other day that, while talks with Russia continue, they have been confrontational. But of course he also said that they are moving forward. From Ukraine’s point of view, where might we see some compromises to end the war — would Ukraine, for instance, cede Crimea, and what about the regions in the Donbas, Donetsk and Luhansk, what about their status?

OB: There is of course this ongoing process of talking, and the only fruit we have seen from that so far are the humanitarian corridors — which, in fact, has also not been honored, really, because they break their promises, and they are famous for that. The Ukrainian government is of course interested in continuing to negotiate, but if you are asking me, I am really very skeptical in terms of what can happen. Because Russia has been very recalcitrant, and because of the concentration of decision-making in Russia. In Russia, it is almost only Putin who decides what happens. And he is ready to sacrifice tens of thousands for the sake of victory.

This is why when the world outside asks about what Ukraine will compromise on, the problem is that even if we did compromise, it won’t end the threat. Russia is not a reliable party anymore for anyone. Even if there was a compromise, even if they — Moscow — agree, it would just mean they go back, remobilize their resources, and come back.

If you look at what the security guarantees from the West are, they are mostly limited to economic sanctions, which are important. But no NATO boots on the ground, not even the no-fly zone, and even with the really strategic weaponry — like for instance the aircraft — the discussions stalled. So it is really, really, very hard for Ukraine. Russia is unreliable; the West is reliable to a large extent but not to the extent that may ensure Ukraine’s security.

G: So then, from your point of view, how does this end?

OB: We are left with the option to fight. Look, nobody says so, but this is a war where Ukraine is fighting with its forces on the ground, and the economic part is being taken up by NATO and the United States. The threat is not just to Ukraine. The ideology in the Kremlin, its mindset — it’s all about this idea of being a superpower. Which is paradoxical, because economically it is the size of Spain. Now it has involved itself in a massive overreach. So whatever comes up [in the negotiations], it will remain an imminent threat.

G: What about the aspiration in Ukraine to join NATO, how might the public react …


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OB: I’ll stop you. Here the answer is very simple. I’m absolutely sure the Ukrainian people would be absolutely enraged [if we gave up that aspiration]. Maybe before the invasion there might have been some space for compromise, maybe then some Western guarantees, security guarantees, outside NATO, might have been enough, I don’t know. But not now, especially now, after this massive invasion.

G: So then, as we speak, Biden is in Europe, there to attend a NATO summit on Ukraine. What’s your message for him?

OB: The message is to really think long term. Russia has right now run itself up a wall, there is no comeback. In two years, they will have presidential elections. This is the nearest opportunity for Russia to change. Whatever means should be used — political, diplomatic, et cetera — to remove the threat from this Russian administration. Also the economic sanctions, they shouldn’t be released. Because while this presidential administration, while this rather, in fact, narrow elite, which includes the military, the business elite and the circle of President Putin himself — while it is still there, still consolidated, we are faced with an ongoing and very dangerous situation. We need to measure our steps, but we also need to be very focused.

G: And to Vladimir Putin — what would you say to him?

OB: I have nothing to say to him.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

  • Kseniia Lisnycha
    Kseniia Lisnycha

    Freelance Reporter

    Kseniia Lisnycha is a freelance journalist based in Ukraine.

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Ukraine