A month into the invasion of Ukraine, is the Russian army becoming demoralized?

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in connection with the shelling of the territory of Ukraine by Russia, after the start of the Russian military invasion. Photo by Aleksandr Gusev via Getty Images

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

As the war in Ukraine approaches one month since Russia, without provocation, launched its invasion, U.S. intelligence estimates suggest that there have been more than 7,000 Russian military deaths, according to the New York Times. That’s more casualties in less than one month of fighting than the U.S. sustained in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars over the course of two decades. 

The Ukrainians have suffered about half as many military losses, according to multiple sources, with an additional 902 civilian deaths—although that number is likely “considerably higher,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said

As casualties continue to mount, and with Ukrainian resistance proving more than formidable, observers of the war have pointed to an increasingly demoralized Russian army as one factor that may shape the trajectory of the conflict. 

Xander Meise, associate teaching professor in the legal skills in social context program, poses for a portrait. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“When you are trying to engage in a military campaign for an extended period of time, being able to maintain morale is very important to unit cohesion,” says Xander Meise, associate teaching professor of law at Northeastern, who has taught international human-rights law.

Unit cohesion is a fostered sense of commitment, peer trust, and mission accomplishment that accompanies any military operation. With roughly 25 percent of the Russian military consisting of conscripts (since the Soviet period, conscripts are thought to have lower morale), and amid reports that Russian generals are now being targeted and killed by Ukrainians, experts question how long Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military leaders can sustain the invasion. 

And the Ukrainian government has seized on the diminishing troop morale, Meise says. Using social media, Ukrainians have appealed to members of the Russian army and their families through various means, from ongoing efforts to connect Russian mothers with their captured sons, to enticing members of the Russian military into defecting for monetary compensation. Additionally, European Union officials had been reportedly weighing whether to offer Russian deserters asylum and refugee status, so long as they haven’t committed war crimes in Ukraine.

The Ukrainians, led by their social-media-savvy President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have successfully used messaging apps like Telegram to provide live, up-to-the-minute updates of the situation in the country to thousands of people, with mechanisms in place to prevent the spread of fake news. The app gives its users the ability to set up private channels to communicate information, giving authorities, journalists, and others control over the flow of information. 

Meise says these technologies, combined with Ukrainian government messaging strategies, have in some ways helped to shore up morale in the besieged country—even as millions flee the war and deaths continue to mount. 

“I think that, even in this relatively short period of time, there have been some very creative and impactful messaging by the Ukrainian military and government aimed not only at uniting its people, but to urge everyone to do what they can on an individual basis,” Meise says, “and morale, it seems to me, is very closely tied this messaging.”

It’s unclear what the Russian Federation’s desertion rates are, but some reporting suggests it’s increasing. Some troops are reportedly intentionally shooting themselves to avoid fighting. Meanwhile, people in the U.S. and other Western nations have traveled to Ukraine to provide aid and additional military support. 

For media inquiries, please contact Marirose Sartoretto at m.sartoretto@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.