Why do Russian soldiers keep marching into slaughter?

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How much punishment can the Russians take?

That’s the question many Ukrainians are asking — and answering with a puzzled look and a shake of the head.

Ukraine officially estimates that over 300,000 Russians have died in battle, while others estimate that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Russians have been killed. And that’s not counting the wounded, generally assumed to be three times as many as the dead.

Whatever the exact number, everyone agrees that Russian losses have been enormous. And they’re not getting any smaller, as Russia continues to send poorly trained and poorly armed recruits in waves, opening them up to staggering losses — as in Bakhmut several months ago and in Avdiivka today. On both battlefields, the Ukrainians mowed the Russians down as fast as they came, and yet they kept coming.

But not all. According to Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga, commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, 17,000 Russians have deserted during the war. Since Russia has some 400,000 troops in Ukraine, that’s a drop in the bucket — a mere 4.25 percent — but it does give some grounds for hoping that the instinct for self-preservation is not completely absent in Russia. That instinct was certainly alive and well in the several hundred thousand, and perhaps as many as a million, Russians who fled abroad to escape mobilization last year.

But their comrades, who number in the millions, stay and willingly go to their deaths. Why?

Some, of course, are motivated by patriotism and their likely sincere adulation of Russia’s illegitimately elected president, Vladimir Putin. It’s hard to imagine how one could be enamored of the bloated old man who fidgets incessantly and hems and haws his way absentmindedly through speeches, but so be it. Others are doubtless under the nefarious spell of official Russian propaganda and its depiction of Russia as the victim of Ukrainian and Western aggression. Muscovites and Petersburgers know better, but many Russians living in the boondocks clearly do not.

Unsurprisingly, the Russian General Staff overwhelmingly focuses its recruitment efforts on several impoverished non–ethnic Russian regions, on the racist rationale that the nationalities concerned presumably value high salaries more than life. A number of protests in such places as Dagestan and Buryatia suggest that some natives are aware of being singled out for death, but the numbers of protestors appear to be small.

Most Russians presumably serve in the armed forces because they believe they have to. If you’re called up and fail to report, a whole slew of painful sanctions awaits you. Unwilling to place themselves under the immediate risk of definitely being jailed, they choose the more distant risk of possibly being killed. Perhaps the gods will smile on them. Perhaps the war will end.

There’s another less reassuring explanation for the Russian willingness to take a beating: they may be used to being terrorized by their leaders and consider blind obedience to unjust oppression to be perfectly normal. Supporters of this view generally point to Russian history, much of which reads like a never-ending story of elite crime and popular punishment.

In a word, the argument boils down to political culture. Thus, Russians obey Putin because they’ve always obeyed the tsar, and Russians die for Putin because they’ve always died for the tsar.

Except that they haven’t, not always.

Millions of Russian soldiers abandoned the trenches in World War I and fled home to their villages, where they pillaged noble estates, seized land and practiced revolution while Vladimir Lenin was still sipping coffee in Zurich. Millions of Russians also willingly surrendered in World War II after Adolf Hitler attacked his erstwhile collaborator and ally, Joseph Stalin, on June 22, 1941. Several hundred thousand then joined the collaborationist Russian Liberation Army headed by General Andrey Vlasov.

So, large numbers of Russians evidently are capable of saving their lives when circumstances warrant self-preservation. What might induce them to act in this rational manner today?

Several factors come to mind. First, high Russian battlefield losses. Second, low prospects of a breakthrough and victory. Third, the continued mass mobilization of soldiers. Fourth, Putin’s visible decay — or death. And fifth, political disarray within the regime.

The good news is that all these factors are already present, even if latently. They may not have penetrated into the minds of Russian soldiers, but the objective reality should, sooner or later, catch up with their subjective misrepresentations. A change in consciousness could easily happen in the coming fall and winter months, when the misery of subzero temperatures, sleet, rain and mud may bring home the futility of fighting.

And that could bring about the best news: mass desertions and a collapse of the front, followed by the end of the war.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

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