The Economist: How many Russians have been killed in Ukraine?
The death toll probably exceeds all Soviet and Russian wars since 1945 combined
Nearly 1,200 Russian soldiers were recently killed in a single day around Bakhmut, according to Mark Milley, America’s top general, in an interview with Politico, a news website. “That’s Iwo Jima,” he reflected, referring to a brutal 36-day Pacific battle during the second world war. “That’s Shiloh”—a battle in the American civil war. A recently published paper offers a new assessment of the extraordinary losses Russia is facing in Ukraine.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think-tank in Washington, says that Russia is likely to have suffered 60,000 to 70,000 combat fatalities in the first year of its invasion, citing American and other Western officials, as well as public reports. Our chart depicts the central estimate in that range. Including those killed, wounded and missing, total casualty numbers swell to 200,000 to 250,000. Calculating such things is a highly uncertain business. But the CSIS tally is only a little higher than Western government estimates that draw on intelligence.
Stratospheric Russian casualties are unsurprising. Russia’s initial blitzkrieg in February 2022 failed, and the conflict has since turned into a war of attrition: huge volumes of shellfire continue to pound forces on each side. In its quest to capture the eastern city of Bakhmut, which is teetering, Russia sent waves of conscripts and prisoners to fight. They have been mown down in large numbers. For two weeks in late January and early February, as Russia intensified its attacks across eastern Ukraine, its casualties probably reached over 800 per day, killed and wounded, according to British defence intelligence.
This level of carnage far exceeds what Russia has faced in any of its modern conflicts. It lost 95 to 185 soldiers per month in Chechnya between 1999 and 2009 and 130 to 145 soldiers per month in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. In Ukraine it has seen 5,000 to 5,800 military deaths (including mercenaries) per month. The number of Russian soldiers killed in the past year probably exceeds the death toll in every other Russian and Soviet conflict since 1945, combined. Its casualties are dwarfed only by the second world war, in which the Soviet Union lost more than 8m men.
Russia’s severe losses forced it to conduct a mobilisation drive in September but it has largely frittered away those forces. It could launch another wave of mobilisation, though that would come with political risks. Already, two-thirds of Russians know someone who has been mobilised or is fighting in the war. Moreover, the troops killed in 2022 were many of Russia’s best young officers and most experienced soldiers. The men who replace them will have less training, discipline and skill. Nor will they have the same quality of equipment.
When American intelligence officials briefed Congress on Russian preparations for war last year, they suggested that 25,000 to 50,000 Ukrainian civilians might die. The true total has been considerably smaller: at least 8,000 confirmed civilian deaths, according to the UN. The officials also estimated that Russia would lose 3,000 to 10,000 military personnel—a range that reflected expectations of a relatively short conventional war. They could not have imagined that Russia would immolate an entire army in the space of a year.