Self-sacrifice as the greatest proof of the love for the motherland

The war in Ukraine is almost two months old. With the concentration of the battle in the east, the war seems to have entered a new phase. Its end is not in sight. Russia leads new troops and Western countries are arming Ukraine with increasingly heavy equipment. The Ukrainian civilian population is suffering in and around their air raid shelters and is trying to flee the violence, something the Russians hardly allow.

But the Russian army has also suffered heavy losses since the start of the war, although it remains unclear exactly how many. Ukraine estimates the number of Russian dead since the start of the war at more than 20 thousand. Moscow itself doesn’t say anything about it. Despite the casualties and disappointing results — Russia had to give up on its goal of conquering Kyiv, at least in the short term — President Putin doesn’t seem ready to give up the fight.

Victory Day is the day on which the former Soviet countries, including Russia, celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany.

Historic reputation

Looking at Russia’s past wars, this seems to fit a pretty horrific pattern. The Russian military does not have a great historical record for effective warfare. It lost a number of important wars including the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Both wars were lost by Moscow with great tragedy and human losses, despite an initial superiority of men and equipment.

The greatest achievement of the twentieth century, however, is the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II. After a relentless campaign, the Red Army managed to force Germany to capitulate on 9 May 1945, a day celebrated every year in Russia.

But the losses were enormous. Estimates vary, but the Soviet Union as a whole lost 10 million soldiers by some counts. Germany, which had to fight a battle on two fronts, lost an estimated 4.5 million. Even in the Winter War against Finland of 1940, the Soviet Union managed to win, but lost more than twice as many soldiers as the Finns.

human lives

In as many as half of its historic wars, Russia or the Soviet Union was ultimately the party with the heaviest casualties of all the belligerents. This is evident from a graph that Paul Poast, a political scientist from the University of Chicago, recently posted on Twitter. ‘The Russian army is in fact using a ‘breakdown model’ (attrition model): keep taking losses until the other side gives up, is destroyed, or if the fighting has lasted long enough, Russia itself decides to stop,” Poast describes Russia’s war strategy in a nutshell.

Percentage of wars in which the named country suffered the heaviest losses. fltr: USA, UK, Germany, France, Japan, Russia.

People who hope that Putin will soon give up the war should first delve into Russian war history, he says. Does this also apply to the situation in Ukraine? It wouldn’t do much good. For Ukraine, but also for the Russian soldiers who, viewed in this way, are nothing more than cannon fodder.

“Russia certainly has a strong tradition of being willing to make sacrifices for the fatherland,” says Henk Kern, assistant professor at Leiden University who specializes in Russian history. “Human lives, very different from ours, are subordinate to the importance of a strong state. Self-sacrifice for the state is therefore seen as a noble goal. This tradition is deeply rooted. It was passed from the Russian Tsar Empire via the Soviet Union to present-day Russia. You can see that when you look at historical Russian warfare. The management is always willing to achieve its goals at any cost.”

Kern cites the Second World War as an example. “The Germans on the Eastern Front watched with amazement at the massive waste of life by the Soviet Union. That the German army lost because they were buried under corpses was a sinister joke at the time.”


According to Kern, the Russian ideal of making sacrifices for the fatherland resembles a cult and has therefore been actively honored by various governments. “Putin regularly gives speeches saying that there is no greater proof of love for the Russian motherland than self-sacrifice. Today’s regime likes to go back to the past, especially the Second World War. Suffering for the fatherland is highly idealized. And that too is nothing new. Now the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia, is the ultimate example. At the time, it was that other great war in which Russia eventually won, the Napoleonic War. In Russia it is called the Patriotic War. So there is a kind of historical succession in that.”

Napoleon’s Retreat from Russia, painted by Adolph Northen

According to Michael Kemper, professor of Eastern European studies at the University of Amsterdam, there is also something else going on. “Russia has been trying to change its way of waging war in recent years. When it starts wars itself, Russia always tries to achieve as much as possible with as little effort as possible. We saw this already during the short war in Georgia in 2008. But also in Syria in 2015. The Russian deployment there consisted mainly of air strikes, with very few troops on the ground. And during the annexation of Crimea in 2014 there was hardly any fighting, while the goal was achieved. This large-scale war in Ukraine comes as a surprise when viewed from this point of view.”

Key to the idea that Russia would be capable of a short-term rapid military operation to achieve specific goals, Kemper says, is the successful intervention in the uprisings in neighboring Kazakhstan in January. They broke out against President Tokayev’s government after a rise in fuel prices. “The Russian-led military alliance CTSO sent ‘peacekeeping troops’ to quell the uprisings in the country. This was achieved in a short period of time without large-scale deployment of people and equipment. This may have strengthened Putin’s view that something similar could be done in Ukraine.”


The Russians have suffered two major defeats in Ukraine, according to Kemper. First, it failed to carry out a brief military operation that could potentially replace President Zelensky’s government. And it has lost the important warship the Moskva. The war has therefore now escalated, requiring much more military commitment.

The now-broken battle for the Donbas, the region in eastern Ukraine, could well turn into a full-scale battle with tanks and heavy artillery, somewhat reminiscent of the great campaigns of the Second World War and until recently difficult to imagine in Europe. “World War II brought the Soviet Union to the brink of destruction. The Soviet leadership made many strategic mistakes. As a result, mass mobilization was ultimately the only remaining option. It was certainly not a strategy in advance to sacrifice as many human lives as possible.”

“There is, of course, a big difference whether Russia itself starts a war or whether it is attacked,” Kern said. “But that deep Russian tradition of making ultimate sacrifices is certainly reflected in history. And that also includes the willingness to inflict many casualties among the civilian population, something that is avoided as much as possible in Western military operations. So in this war we are dealing on the one hand with Russia, which is very willing to make sacrifices in order to achieve its goals, and on the other hand, with Ukraine, which is fighting for its right to exist and its own future. Therefore, this could be a long, unpredictable and increasingly hardening battle.”

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