How Putin’s “zampolits” and the Russian Orthodox Church are spearheading a new agitprop campaign to boost troops’ morale.
Russia is never as strong as it appears, but neither is it as weak as it seems. Prior to the war, many observers overestimated Russia’s military. Now, another extreme has emerged: underestimating Russian combat effectiveness.
Western euphoria about Ukraine’s success at fending off Russian forces has led leaders to underestimate Russia’s capacity to mobilize manpower and domestic support as well as Moscow’s ability to bolster troops’ morale—one of the essentials for battlefield performance in Russian military thinking.
Although the initial psychological state of Russian troops was poor, things are changing. As part of its wartime adaptation, the Kremlin embarked on a colossal agitation campaign to boost morale, and this could impact the course of the war.
Russia has an established tradition of using propaganda for war mobilization in the front and in the rear. In 1918, the Kremlin created the institution of political officers, also known as commissars, to safeguard the Bolshevik regime and channel ideology to the military. It was dismantled after the Soviet Union’s collapse, only to be resurrected by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in 2018, the organization’s 100th anniversary.
The Main Military-Political Directorate of Russia’s defense ministry consists of deputy commanders for political work (zampolits), military priests, and psychologists and is charged with maintaining the loyal minds, motivated hearts, and stable psychology of Russian servicemen and citizens. Zampolits exist in every unit consisting of more than 100 servicemen.
Like their predecessors, these new commissars provide so-called moral-psychological-political maintenance to the troops through agitation and propaganda (known as agitprop). In contrast to its forerunner, the Main Military-Political Directorate claims broader responsibilities: It seeks to articulate a national ideology as well as running the ecosystem of national patriotic education and the biggest Russian youth movement. It exemplifies the penetration of politics into the military and militarization of Russian society.
In the words of the chairman of the defense committee of the Russian parliament, the goal of military-political work is to mold a reliable warrior: loyal to the state and bearer of traditional values—statehood, spirituality, and patriotism. The official tasks of military-political work include agitprop, protecting servicemen from negative informational influence, assessing the morale and psychological-political state of the troops, religious-patriotic work, and preventing deviant behavior. The anticipated end result is motivation and unconditional support of national security policy.
In theory, zampolits translate ideological loyalty and emotional stability into unit cohesion, combat effectiveness, and accomplishment of the mission. This reflects Russian military culture’s emphasis on morale and psychological factors over material-technological ones. Iron does not fight, goes the proverb. In Russian strategic ethos, battles are won by the will, spirit, and endurance of the servicemen—not by machines or technology.
Given this tradition, on the eve of the invasion, I expected a splash in “morale-psychological-political” work as an indication of a transition to war. In Russian doctrine, this (next to intelligence and logistical preparations) is a prerequisite. If the war had gone by the book, in the months leading up to the invasion, zampolits should have been increasingly honing the psychological-political fortitude of forces. By Feb. 24, every soldier would have known what he was fighting for, which combat hardships to expect, and how to overcome them.
In reality, none of the above happened, resulting in extremely low morale in the first weeks of the war. Some soldiers were shocked that they were fighting in an actual war and were disoriented about their whereabouts as well as confused about the war’s goals. A majority of junior and mid-level commanders learned about the mission the day they crossed the border. They were told they would be greeted as peacekeepers liberating a brotherly nation from a group of Nazi radicals holding it hostage. The reality could not have been further from that. The Ukrainian military resisted massively, fiercely, and skillfully; civilians made clear that Russians were detested occupiers. For the psychologically unprepared soldiers, this was hard to come to terms with.
It raises one of the most perplexing questions about Putin’s war in Ukraine: Why, despite an established tradition and a formal doctrine, was Russia’s military-political effort absent in the run-up to the invasion?
The first reason was flawed assumptions; the Kremlin overestimated its military power and underestimated Ukraine’s. It saw no need for major propagandistic work among the troops for a blitz raid that would lead to effortless regime change. Expecting rapid capitulation and the Russian soldiers to be greeted as liberators, Putin did not prepare the public, the elite, or the military.
Political officers need a message from the leadership to channel to the masses. The Kremlin did not provide anything prior to the invasion. It probably assumed that nothing more was needed. In mid-2021, the General Staff ordered zampolits to channel to the troops Putin’s article on Russian-Ukrainian history. Beyond that, no major effort was made among soldiers. Apparently, Putin also took for granted the effectiveness of Russian subversive influence in Ukrainian society during the previous decade.
Second, the Kremlin kept everyone in the dark. In part, this cult of secrecy pertains to Putin’s style in national security. He and his entourage are intelligence officers running clandestine activities, not senior commanders planning military campaigns. Moreover, the Kremlin channeled its propagandistic energy in the opposite—misleading—direction. In the months leading up to the invasion, Washington publicized intelligence it had on Russia’s intentions.
The goal was to turn global sentiment against the Kremlin and deter it. Russian propaganda went all out in an effort to refute the allegations that Moscow was preparing for war. The campaign against Western reporting apparently convinced many in the Russian military and public. It should come as no surprise that zampolits convincingly channeled this message to the country’s servicemen, leaving them unprepared for the planned invasion.