Imagine you’re a 60-year-old Russian draftee who just arrived at the front line in Ukraine after just a month of half-hearted training.
Your weapons are 60-year-old Cold War leftovers. Your battalion has been losing scores of men every time it tries to advance. Your commander has set himself up in an abandoned Ukrainian house miles away, and rarely visits. Artillery support seems to be dwindling.
You could be forgiven for feeling … demoralized. Especially as your Ukrainian foes are getting more and more high-tech Western-made equipment. Leopard 2, M-1 and Challenger 2 tanks. High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems.
Would the prospect of a big cash bonus—potentially tens of thousands of dollars—motivate you to charge into battle and target a Ukrainian tank?
A Russian company called Fores, which sells oil-production supplies, earlier this year offered Russian and allied fighters a prize of five million rubles—around $72,000—for capturing an intact American-made M-1 or German-made Leopard 2. That’s four times what the average Russian earns in a year.
The Pavel Sudoplatov Battalion, an international volunteer unit that fights alongside Russian forces in southern Ukraine, doubled down on Fores’ offer.
The battalion last month offered to pay 12 million rubles for every working Leopard 2, M-1 or Challenger 2 tank. That’s $170,000, or nearly a decade’s wages.
Russian officials praised the private bounties. “As for these tanks, we have already said they will burn,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “With such incentives, I think there will be even more enthusiasts.”
Now it seems the Kremlin itself is offering bounties, the independent Conflict Intelligence Team reported on Friday. CIT highlighted a recent social media post from the mayor of Novosibirsk, a city in southern Siberia.
The mayor relayed what appears to be a bounty offer from the Russian defense ministry: 500,000 rubles, or $6,5000 for the destruction of Leopard 2, Abrams or Challenger 2 tank; 300,000 rubles—$3,900—for each HIMARS and Tochka-U rocket launcher a Russian or allied soldier knocks out. 200,000 rubles, or $2,600, for a helicopter, 100,000 rubles—$1,300—for an older tank type.
There’s a good chance neither Fores, the Pavel Sudoplatov Battalion nor the Kremlin will pay out many, or any, bounties. It’s not that a Leopard 2, M-1 or Challenger 2 is indestructible. It’s safe to assume that Russian forces eventually will capture or destroy some of the 71 Leopard 2s, 31 M-1s and 14 Challenger 2s Kyiv’s allies so far have pledged to the war effort. The first of these—ex-Polish Leopard 2s—already are in Ukraine.
But the biggest threats to tanks from either side of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine are artillery and mines. Good luck attributing a tank kill to any one soldier, when that tank either ran over a mine in a minefield that might have hundreds of mines, or blundered into an artillery barrage involving whole batteries of big guns operated by scores of gunners.
Intact captured tanks might actually result in bounties—but rarely, if history is a guide. In 13 months of fighting, Russian forces have captured 146 Ukrainian tanks. Soviet-vintage T-64s, mostly. It’s unclear how many were in working condition when they fell into Russian hands.
But even after the first consignments of Leopard 2s, M-1s and Challenger 2s have reached the front, these Western-made tanks will represent just a tenth of Ukraine’s armor holdings. Let’s assume, in the next year of fighting, the Russians capture another 150 Ukrainian tanks. It’s possible just a dozen or so will be Western models.
Private and public bounties don’t actually have to pay out in order to serve their purpose, of course. Russian and allied troops only need to believe they might earn a big payday—and act accordingly.
But it’s possible the pro-Russia establishment misunderstands what motivates most soldiers to fight. In one 2003 study for the U.S. Army War College, Leonard Wong, Thomas Kolditz, Raymond Millen and Terrence Potter rediscovered something historians long have understood.
“Today’s U.S. soldiers, much like soldiers of the past, fight for each other,” they wrote. “Unit cohesion is alive and well.”
Again, imagine you’re a 60-year-old Russian draftee who just arrived at the front line in Ukraine after just a month of half-hearted training. You barely know your battalion-mates. They barely know you.
There’s no cohesion to speak of. So how motivated are you to fight, even with someone dangling a massive cash bonus in the event you get lucky and knock out or capture a Ukrainian tank?