Russian Casualties in Ukraine: Reaching the Tipping Point
In four weeks of combat, Russia may have lost 25 percent of its initial attacking force. These casualties are not on the scale of World War II but are large compared with the relatively small size of the Russian military today. Although reinforcements and replacements can offset some of these casualties, the loss of trained troops will impair military operations and eventually have a political effect.
Russian losses to date are high. NATO estimates that Russia has lost between 7,000 and 15,000 soldiers. Wounded who cannot rapidly return to duty generally number about twice the number of dead. That would mean that Russia has lost between 21,000 and 45,000 troops in four weeks of conflict. To put that into perspective, Russia reported 14,400 killed through 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
The initial invasion force numbered about 190,000 troops. However, that included militias in the Donbas and security forces (Rosgvardiya) for occupation. Ground combat troops numbered about 140,000. Thus, Russia may have lost about a quarter of its initial combat force.
Russia has moved reinforcements and replacements into Ukraine to compensate for these losses, which will offset them to some degree. However, these reinforcements and replacements likely lack the training and experience of the early deployers, especially elite units like paratroopers. The loss of skilled troops and leaders will be felt in the conduct of tactical operations.
Russian forces are not large. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained a military of about 3.5 million. That military is long gone. Today, Russia maintains a total military of about 900,000, of which 280,000 are in the army, according to the latest figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Russia reformed its military after poor operational performance in the 2008 invasion of Georgia, where Russia won but with many tactical shortcomings that showed a lack of skill and training. The downsized military increased the proportion of volunteers (called “contract soldiers” in Russia) to about two-thirds, improved training, and streamlined the bloated officer corps.
Russia lacks a strong reserve force. In theory, former soldiers could be recalled to service, and Russia is likely doing some of that, but these soldiers receive no training or follow-up after their active service. Russia has tried to create reserve forces like those in NATO, where reservists are organized into units that train regularly, but such efforts have not made much headway.
To put the Russian force into perspective, the United States has an active-duty force of 1.3 million and organized, trained reserves of 800,000. Thus, the United States has about twice the trained personnel that Russia does.
To further put the Russian force into perspective, the United States sent about 540,000 troops to Saudi Arabia in 1991 to liberate Kuwait from Iraq. Total coalition forces numbered about 750,000. Russia is conducting this invasion on a shoestring.
Russia is sensitive to losses. Russia today is not the country of World War II (called the Great Patriotic War in Russia) that marched to victory over the bodies of its dead. In that conflict, the Soviet Union lost an estimated 10 million soldiers and another 14 million civilians but persevered through terrible losses and repeated battlefield setbacks to achieve ultimate victory. Today, an engaged public and organized mothers groups make casualties highly visible. The use of conscripts is particularly controversial because they are, in theory, not supposed to fight outside Russia proper. Russia may be an authoritarian regime, but it cannot suppress all dissent, just as the Soviet Union could not suppress discontent with the war in Afghanistan. Casualties will increase opposition to the war.
Commentators suspect that Putin is not getting objective advice about the war and thus may not fully appreciate the difficulty his forces are in. This is a common problem in authoritarian regimes where officials do not want to bring bad news to an all-powerful leader. However, eventually, battlefield realities will assert themselves. Likely a group of generals will agree among themselves that Putin must be made aware of battlefield circumstances before the army breaks from continuing casualties, physical exhaustion, dwindling supplies and munitions, and sinking morale. Bringing that message forward may be the push that convinces Putin to get serious about negotiations.
Mark F. Cancian is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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