Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals aren’t the only people who think that the more ruthless, hypermasculine, and reflexively brutal an army is, the better it performs on the battlefield. That view also has fans in the United States.
Last year, Senator Ted Cruz recirculated a TikTok video that contrasted a Russian military-recruitment ad, which showed a male soldier getting ready to kill people, with an American recruitment video that told the story of a female soldier—the daughter of two mothers—who enlisted partly to challenge stereotypes. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea,” Cruz tweeted sarcastically. The Texas Republican is not alone in trumpeting a Putinesque ideal. Several months earlier, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson had similarly complained about a supposedly “woke” Pentagon, which he likened to the Wesleyan University anthropology department. By promoting diversity and inclusion, he insisted, military leaders were destroying American armed forces, supposedly the last great bastion of merit in the country. More recently, Carlson has complained that America’s armed forces are becoming “more feminine, whatever feminine means anymore,” just as China’s are “more masculine.”
Arguments like these were much easier to make before Putin unleashed his muscle-bound and decidedly unwoke fighting machine on the ostensibly weak Ukrainians, only to see it perform catastrophically. More than seven months into the war, the Ukrainian army continues to grow in strength, confidence, and operational competence, while the Russian army is flailing. Its recent failures raise many questions about the nature of military power. Before Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine, many analysts described his military as fast and powerful and predicted that it would “shock and awe” the overmatched defenders. The Ukrainian armed forces were widely assumed to be incapable of fighting the mighty Russians out in the open; their only option, the story went, would be to retreat into their cities and wage a form of guerrilla war against the invaders.
The success of the Ukrainian military over the past few months, along with the evolution of the Ukrainian state itself toward a more tolerant, more liberal norm, reveals what makes a better army in the modern world. Brains mean more than brawn, and adaptability means more than mindless aggression. Openness to new ideas and new equipment, along with the ability to learn quickly, is far more important than a simple desire to kill.
From the moment the Russian military crossed the border, the Ukrainians have outfought it, revealing it to be inflexible and intellectually vapid. Indeed when confronted with a Ukrainian military that was everything it was not—smart, adaptable, and willing to learn—the Russian army could only fall back on slow, massed firepower. The Battle of the Donbas, the war’s longest engagement, which started in late April and is still under way, exposed the Russian army at its worst. For months, it directed the bulk of personnel and equipment toward the center of a battle line running approximately from Izyum to Donetsk. Instead of breaking through Ukrainian lines and sending armored forces streaking forward rapidly, as many analysts had predicted, the Russian army opted to make painfully slow, incremental advances, by simply blasting the area directly in front of it. The plan seemed to be to render the area uninhabitable by Ukrainians, which would allow the Russians to advance intermittently into the vacuum. This was heavy-firepower, low-intelligence warfare on a grand scale, which resulted in strategically meaningless advances secured at the cost of unsustainably high Russian casualties. And in recent weeks, the Ukrainians have retaken much of the territory that Russia managed to seize at the start of the battle—and more.
I struggle to think of another case in the past 100 years when a major military power has performed as poorly against an adversary it was heavily favored to defeat. The supposedly second-strongest army in the world, with its martial spirit, brilliant doctrines, and advanced equipment, was thwarted and is now being pushed back by a Ukrainian military whose prospects most outsiders had dismissed before the war.
The persistence of the Putin-Cruz-Carlson vision of war is surprising, because we have decades, even centuries, of evidence to the contrary. Since the Industrial Revolution, and in many ways before, the ability to run a complex system has been the cornerstone of strategic success. Though much military popular literature likes to stress the human drama of combat—the bravery and sacrifice, the cowardice and atrocity—it is not nearly as important in victory or defeat as many people assume. In state-to-state wars—a category that includes the current Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as broader conflicts such as the two world wars—the side that can most efficiently deploy more effective equipment operated by better-trained personnel has typically emerged victorious.
The combination of education and technology overcame brute force during World War II, when the most militarily skillful and adaptable countries—the United States and the United Kingdom—were able to fight their enemies at a relatively small cost in casualties. The U.K., even though it fought around the world from 1939 to 1945, lost only 384,000 soldiers in combat. The U.S. lost even fewer, suffering approximately 290,000 battle deaths. The German armed forces, by contrast, lost more than 4 million soldiers.
That the British and American armed forces kept their casualties comparatively low is especially notable because they were confronted with an overwhelming majority of German arms, planes, and ammunition. Because of the sickening number of human casualties, the fighting on the Eastern Front between the Nazis and Soviets is widely deemed World War II’s largest engagement, but Germany had to send far more of its war production to fight the British and Americans than it did to fight the U.S.S.R.
The Ukrainians are trying, albeit with far fewer advantages, to do to Russia what the U.S. and the U.K. did to Germany. Ukrainian forces have learned to skillfully use advanced weaponry—in this case NATO-standard systems such as HIMARS and HARM missiles—to neutralize the brute strength of the Russian army. They have accomplished this because Ukrainian society is more flexible, technologically conversant, and willing to learn than the Russian invaders are. They have shown more cleverness and wisdom, and over time that advantage has allowed them to start taking the initiative.
Just as the ability to absorb information is better than lunkhead hypermasculinity in a modern army, diversity and societal integration also bring major advantages. As Ukraine has become more diverse and tolerant, its army has benefited. In contrast with Putin’s homophobic military, the Ukrainian armed forces include LGBTQ soldiers who have incorporated “unicorn” insignia into their uniforms. The valor of these soldiers, and the rallying of the Ukrainian people around a vision of a tolerant and diverse society, has led to an overall increase in Ukrainian support for gay rights—and it underscores the belief that everyone has a role to play in the country’s defense.
The Russian experience could not be more different. Putin has made suppressing gay rights one of the hallmarks of his rule. Determined to capitalize on culture-war tropes of the American right, he has portrayed Russia as a victim of cancel culture. He has retained rigid control over Russian society. While the Ukrainians are opening up, he is clamping down—with what we are now seeing as rather extreme results.
Last week, Putin called for a partial mobilization, which appears to be much broader than was originally announced. Now faced with the prospect of being forced into his army, large numbers of Russian men are desperately trying to get out of the country, and protests and even sabotage have occurred against government authorities. Whether Russian citizens generally view service in Putin’s army as a worthy national endeavor is in doubt. The Ukrainians, conversely, undertook a far more successful conscription at the start of the invasion.
Recent events should banish the idea that the more aggressive killing machine wins the war. Intelligence, technological savvy, and social integration are the assets that matter most on the modern battlefield.