Russia may have just achieved a gruesome new claim to fame in its war in Ukraine. Of some 800,000 Russian troops who were part of the initial invasion army or recruited since then for the war, nearly 420,000 (over 52 percent) could now be dead or otherwise out of action due to wounds.
That breaks down as follows:
· 166,570 Russian troops killed.
· 499,700 wounded (including 150,000 still getting medical care and 100,000 permanently disabled).
The figures are based on calculations using data from Ukrainian, independent Russian, and Western sources for combat casualties and the rate at which soldiers typically return to combat after being wounded.
A military unit that has lost over 50 percent of its personnel is commonly seen as needing to be withdrawn from battle because of a loss of combat effectiveness. A 1997 U.S. Army field manual says such a unit is “combat ineffective” and “requires reconstitution before [its] next mission.” Soldiers may still be able to put up a fight, but not effectively as a cohesive military force.
Russia passed critical threshold in mid-March
Russia’s overall ground forces available for the war in Ukraine appear to have surpassed this critical 50-percent threshold in mid-March.
That’s in line with recent reports that Russia’s winter military offensive in eastern Ukraine appears to be starting to peter out.
It’s also consistent with reports about a major failed Russian assault near the southern Ukrainian town of Vuhledar in January and February, which ended after Russian units are said to have lost the better part of two marine brigades that constituted the main attack force.
666,300 total Russian casualties
Ukraine’s military estimates that 166,570 Russian troops have been killed in the full-scale war as of March 21. On top of this, NATO estimates that three Russian troops are wounded for each one killed. This suggests 499,700 Russian wounded, for a total of 666,300 total killed and wounded.
About half of the wounded are likely to have returned to battle after medical treatment, based on calculations derived from historical data from previous wars and reports from the independent Russian site Volya, which estimates Russian war casualties from information it says it gets from Russian security sources.
About 150,000 of the wounded are still getting treated, while 100,000 wounded are unlikely to ever return to combat because of the seriousness of their wounds, according to these calculations.
Volya’s estimates of Russian casualties are very similar to the estimates from Ukraine’s military.
Western estimate not updated since November
Western officials have given sporadic and inconsistent Russian war loss estimates that have generally been lower than Ukrainian ones, but the figures don’t appear to have been updated in months.
An EU military official said in a report last November that about 60,000 Russian troops had been killed and three times that number—180,000—had been wounded in the war by that point, for a total of about 250,000 casualties.
Western officials haven’t budged from that 250,000 figure ever since—despite a dramatic acceleration of Russian offensive action since the Kremlin drafted about 300,000 new troops last fall.
Russian ‘meat assaults’ likened to “World War Z”
Ukraine, for its part, had a slightly higher estimate of Russian war dead last November—about 80,000—but that figure has since doubled amid some of the bloodiest combat in the war so far, which Ukrainian troops have likened to facing swarming zombie hordes in the movie “World War Z.”
A NATO official said last week that up to 1,500 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in a single day of battle in the Kremlin’s winter offensive, while Russian draftees are bombarding Putin with a flood of video appeals complaining of being sent into senseless ‘meat assaults in which entire Russian regiments have been decimated in a few short days of fighting.
Missing Russian troops?
The Western estimate of 250,000 Russian killed and wounded is also questionable because the data would suggest Russia has some 650,000 troops left in and around Ukraine (taking into account the rates of wounded likely to have returned to duty).
Where are these missing Russian troops? Given Putin’s desperate war fortunes, it’s unlikely that many soldiers are left patrolling remote Yakutsk or the Mongolian border. Indeed, officials believe that Russia has deployed up to 97 percent of its army to Ukraine.
The likely explanation for the discrepancy is that Western estimates of Russian war losses are outdated or overly conservative.
Ukraine losses “an order of magnitude less”
Ukraine has lost many troops as well, but Western officials have described Ukrainian losses as “an order of magnitude less” than Russia’s and have said Ukraine is able to keep far more of its wounded soldiers alive—with a 10-to-1 wounded-to-killed ratio—thanks to better medical care. Ukrainian officials, for their part, say Ukrainian losses are seven to eight times lower than Russia’s.
If all this is the case, Ukraine’s current military could sustain its current rate of casualties until October 2025 before it crosses the 50-percent threshold of combat effectiveness, without recruiting any new soldiers.
Too broken to reconstitute
Russia, on the other hand, appears to have first crossed the 50-percent level last October, when its initial invasion force and new troops added in the summer suffered catastrophic losses in Ukraine’s early resistance and counteroffensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions.
Plunging below that critical 50-percent threshold could explain why the Kremlin decided last fall to draft over 300,000 new troops. It could also explain why those draftees were so ineffective in rejuvenating Russia’s battlefield prospects. They were recruited into an already broken army whose earlier losses had shattered its capacity to readily reconstitute itself.
As Russia’s troop levels plummet again below the numbers needed for combat effectiveness, the Kremlin is reportedly set to launch yet another round of mobilization aimed at drafting 400,000 new troops this spring.
These draftees will be entering an army twice hobbled to its knees by Ukraine and unlikely to get back up any time soon.
Alex Roslin is a Ukrainian-Canadian investigative journalist and author who is writing a book on the war and tweets at @ArmedMaidan.
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