The Russian army in three months of fighting has lost as many soldiers killed in action as the Soviet army lost in nine years of warfare in Afghanistan starting in 1979, the U.K. Defense Ministry announced Monday.
That’s no less than 15,000 KIA since Russia widened its war on Ukraine on the night of Feb. 24.
Worse for Moscow, the possible death toll—which is impossible to verify—belies much greater losses from wounds and fatigue. Not to mention the Ukrainians have captured potentially hundreds of Russian soldiers.
In Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union fought a disastrous war that presaged America’s own failed campaign a generation later, the Soviet army suffered three or four wounded for every soldier who died. It’s possible that, if you combine killed and wounded, the Russian army in Ukraine—which at its peak strength included around 125,000 people—has buried or sent to hospitals 50,000.
Some of the wounded could return to their units, of course. Even so, the permanent loss of tens of thousands of personnel underscores the brutality of the fighting in Ukraine—and gives credence to the U.K. Defense Ministry’s earlier claim that the Russian army’s combat power had declined by a third since the February invasion.
“A combination of poor low-level tactics, limited air cover, a lack of flexibility and a command approach which is prepared to reinforce failure and repeat mistakes has led to this high casualty rate,” the ministry stated.
To be clear, both sides are hurting. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelesnky this weekend uttered the first official statement on the Ukrainian armed forces’ casualty rate when, following a meeting with his Polish counterpart, he defended a law that bars Ukrainian men of fighting age from leaving the country.
Zelensky praised the Ukrainians who’ve willingly stayed and fought. “When today from 50 to 100 people can die in the most difficult direction, the east, they are defending our state and independence,” he said.
If a hundred Ukrainian combat deaths during the most recent uptick in violence in eastern Ukraine represents a daily high, it’s possible that in 89 days the Ukrainian armed forces have tallied thousands of KIAs. Five thousand? Ten thousand? Neither figure is outside the realm of possibility.
It makes sense that Russia’s losses would be higher than Ukraine’s. The Ukrainians generally have been on the defensive, fighting from fortified positions on familiar terrain. Modern warfare favors the defense.
Of course, Ukraine is a smaller country than Russian is, with just 44 million people versus Russia’s 144 million. In theory, Russia can absorb more losses.
In practice, however, Russia has proved more fragile than the country’s sheer size might indicate. To deploy 125 battalion tactical groups in Ukraine, each with 50 or so armored vehicles and between 500 and 800 people, the army had to mobilize the majority of its forces from across Russia.
Owing to poor leadership at every level, from the Kremlin down to small units, those front-line BTGs rolled into Ukraine in pursuit of a losing strategy. Too wide a front for too few forces lacking the necessary coordination and support. An attempt to capture Kyiv ended in defeat for the Russians after a month. A parallel effort to capture the port of Odesa stalled at the halfway mark. The Russian siege of Kharkiv collapsed after two months.
This month the Kremlin concentrated its best remaining forces along one narrow front—in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops still cling to two small cities on the far side of the Donets River: Lyman in the northern part of the sector and Severodonetsk, 25 miles to the southeast.
The handful of Ukrainian brigades in that pocket, together with thousands of troops, have been falling back under relentless Russian bombardment. Russian troops reportedly are on the outskirts of Lyman and Severodonetsk. The former could fall any day now. The garrison in the latter might soon find itself cut off from its main supply lines.
Finally concentrating its forces after losing a third of them has allowed the Russian army to make these small advances across one vulnerable Ukrainian salient. To be very clear: Kyiv’s troops in Lyman and Severodonetsk are in big trouble.
But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Russia does not possess a ready reserve of trained manpower. And it’s already written off sizable proportions of its best armored vehicles, helicopters, fighter planes and patrol boats.
Morale could become a problem. Not just in the Russian army’s rank and file, but along the home front, too. “The Russian public has, in the past, proven sensitive to casualties suffered during wars of choice,” the U.K. Defense Ministry explained. “As casualties suffered in Ukraine continue to rise they will become more apparent, and public dissatisfaction with the war and a willingness to voice it may grow.”
Ukraine by contrast is continuing to induct fresh troops from a huge pool of enthusiastic volunteers. And a steady flow of donated weaponry from the United States and other NATO and allied countries is giving them something to fight with. If there’s a major constraint on Ukraine’s mobilization, it’s time. It takes weeks if not months to form, train and equip a new brigade.
It will be no surprise if and when the Russians finally capture Lyman and Severodonetsk. But it also will be no surprise if the Russian army cannot muster the people, firepower and supplies to prolong its advance on terrain that isn’t as favorable to the attacker as the Donbas salient is.
Those possible 15,000 dead weigh heavily on the Kremlin’s prospects for any meaningful victory as the war’s fourth month looms.