Kyiv, Ukraine – Irina Muzychiuk may not always agree with the decisions her commanding officers make on the battlefield.
However, the former literature teacher, who volunteered to fight pro-Moscow separatists in 2014 and now serves in the scorching steppes of southern Ukraine, remains focused on the main goal – defeat. of Russia.
She told Al Jazeera: “I consider sacrifice and motivation to be the main advantages of our military. She told Al Jazeera via a messaging app: “The element that everyone understands is first and foremost the fight for our homeland, our homeland, for the future of their children.
Moscow is understood to have “the second strongest army in the world”, after the United States, and has won the Second Chechen conflict, the 2008 war with Georgia and the salvation of 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 continued, the Kremlin’s pretentious plan to capture Kyiv and replace President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government with pro-Kremlin puppets failed to materialise.
The impetus, coupled with the increasing supply of Western-made weapons, is actually seen as Ukraine’s main advantage.
However, experts point to a centuries-long confrontation, between civilizations, as well as the demographics of the warring parties – as other factors contributing to Ukraine’s resilience.
Cossacks versus serfs?
“For our freedom, we will put our souls and bodies. And will show that we are brothers of the Cossack line.”
These lines in 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 semi-democratic communities in what is now central Ukraine, the Cossacks elected their leaders, perfected cavalry tactics, and repelled Polish, Ottoman, and Turkish efforts United States and Russia to conquer them.
They are very devout Orthodox Christians.
In 1654, they made a treaty with Moscow – the only independent Orthodox state at the time – that paved the way for the eventual submission of Ukraine.
The Cossacks led the Russian conquest of Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, gaining “the path to Eurasian domination”, according to the late British historian Arnold Toynbee.
But they were elite cavalrymen, while the czarist infantry consisted of peasants, serfs like slaves conscripted and often used as fodder.
Some observers argue that now Russia and separatist leaders use their foot soldiers in Ukraine in a similar way.
Captured Russian soldiers and conscripts from breakaway regions say many were tricked into signing contracts to fight in Ukraine.
Since Moscow has never officially declared war on Ukraine, servicemen can refuse to fight – and hundreds have defied pressure and intimidation.
But among those who did end up on the front lines, some reported low morale, poor food, and serious miscalculations by their superiors that resulted in heavy losses.
Maksim Chernik, a Russian intelligence officer arrested outside Kyiv, told a news conference on March 9: “It is a terrible feeling to realize the mistake we made by finding ourselves here. .
Many Ukrainians see a stark difference between the “Cossack” mentality of their armed forces and the “serf” mentality of their enemies.
Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera: “It is individualism against one-sidedness, initiative against strict command, brotherhood against treachery, self-sacrifice. strength against theft, courage against despair.
They also believe that the war is part of Moscow’s centuries-old strategy to destroy and “russify” Ukraine, its language and culture.
“They are very consistent in their strategy. They want Ukraine to be part of the Russian empire,” said Roman Nabojniak, a cafe owner who volunteered to fight Russian-backed separatists in 2014 and re-enlisted on the first day of the war this year. , told this reporter in July.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian men and women from all walks of life volunteered to participate Join the army or “territorial defense” paramilitary units, often paying for their weapons and equipment.
Maksim Butkevych, founder and head of human rights group Without Borders, said: “I don’t know if in Europe in recent decades there has ever been an army where discrimination from civilians was erase it like that?”
He volunteered to join the army in early March and was soon appointed as the leader of a team of other volunteers, mostly men in their 30s and 40s, who calculated the decision to enlist.
He said the war had made Ukrainians forget about regional differences and political controversies.
“With this invasion, they have united Ukraine like never before,” Butkevich told Al Jazeera on May 24.
A month later, his parents discovered that he had been arrested in the Luhansk region.
Meanwhile, the Russian force consists mainly of men in their 20s from “depressed” regions with high unemployment and low incomes. Usually, they are poorly educated.
A BBC report confirming the deaths of at least 4,515 Russian servicemen in Ukraine in early July shows only 10 from Moscow, a city of 12 million people.
Combined with a strict top-down command system, education is crucial when making combat decisions, a defense analyst said.
“The initiative, flexible thinking and well-educated Ukrainian servicemen contrast with the authoritarian nature of the Russian military which prevents any initiative and flexible thinking based on disaster. culture of the Russian provinces,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia expert with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank, told Al Jazeera.
Mercenaries and criminals
Moscow is said to have used hundreds of mercenaries tested with the notorious Wagner company, who fought in Ukraine’s Donbas in 2014 and Syria and were instrumental in the war. take over the southeastern region of Luhanskwhere former rights athlete 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 prisoners in Russian prisons, promising them good salary and amnesty.
Another addition to the demoralized Russian military force is the “kadyrovtsy”, the force of pro-Kremlin strongman Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. For decades, they have been accused of extrajudicial executions, kidnapping and torture in Chechnya.
“Russian soldiers are an instrument of totalitarian power with a chasm between themselves and the public,” Luzin said.
“The Russian government does not trust” [the army and the public] and thus counterbalanced them with mercenaries, kadyrovtsy and other lowly. “