Four years ago, in “All’s Not Quiet on the Eastern Front,” I wrote about the quadrennial Zapad exercise in Belarus, Kaliningrad and Russia involving as many as 100,000 troops, which some viewed as a rehearsal for an invasion of the Baltics, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and bombing of Germany. 

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Riho Terras, commander of the Estonian Defence Forces, alleged that Zapad simulated a “full-scale conventional war against NATO in Europe.” One naysayer called that “alternative history … being passed around Twitter.” And yet, Russia had followed a similar scenario in 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Crimea, using the guise of ‘snap drills’ to amass troops on the border they were about to violate.

I had inquired about becoming an embedded journalist at Zapad 2021, which grew to as many as 200,000 participants; I would have liked to observe the massive exercises from the Russian point of view. I was especially interested in the attitudes and discipline of the troops, less so the posturing of the generals. But we couldn’t make it happen.

The invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that large-scale military training exercises are not, as some think, merely an excuse to fire up the afterburners, chew up farmland with tank treads, and feign interoperability because you purchased weapons from the same sources.

Training exercises are only as beneficial as the intensity of effort and desire that goes into them. If the troops are merely going through the motions, little of value will be learned. If, however, there is a willingness to learn, to make mistakes, to adapt, those lessons can be carried over to a real-life battlefield.

“Clearly the Ukrainians have tremendous fighting spirit"

If numbers of troops and firepower were the decisive factors in battle, Russia would have certainly overwhelmed the smaller Ukrainian force in a few days, as they expected. But motivation matters. The heart that is defending family and homeland beats a different tune than the one which is palpitating from orders to attack by officers they fear but don’t trust.

“Clearly the Ukrainians have tremendous fighting spirit at the individual soldier level, at the small unit level. They feel that right is on their side,” noted Gen. Kenneth Franklin (Frank) McKenzie Jr., Commander, US Central Command.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger added, "I think they're proving to be very disciplined, very well trained, very well led, and now very inspired.”

The Russians are "just surprisingly unprofessional"

In contrast, Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute noted Russian forces continue to surrender, abandon their vehicles, and show little initiative in areas they control: “this is not a force that is well motivated.”

US Gen. David Petraeus (Ret.) said the Russians are "just surprisingly unprofessional. They clearly have very poor standards when it comes to performing basic tactical tasks such as achieving combined arms operations, involving armor, infantry, engineers, artillery and mortars. They are very poor at maintaining their vehicles and weapon systems. They are also poor at resupply and logistical tasks."

In the classic Hemingway tradition, tens of thousands of volunteers have joined the impromptu Ukrainian Foreign Legion, eager to see action in a romanticized defense of the underdog. Some have combat experience, most do not, and after one early skirmish the survivors were summarily dismissed. If they manage to make it to Lviv, those without military experience are put through a four-week training course, hardly qualifying as competency-based training. An unknown number of legionnaires were at a camp near the Polish border which was destroyed by Russian Tupolev bombers.

I would suggest as an alternative to “war tourists” that more nations follow the example of the Swiss, the Israelis and others … to require military service (or civil service) of all young men, young women too, and that they continue in reserve service with refresher training for a decade or so (to age 60 in Finland).

Some things, I think, you can train, such as procedure and discipline. But motivation, courage, honour… these must come from within.