The beginning of the war in Ukraine proved very deadly for the Russian invaders. The daily fatality rate exceeds that of conflicts such as the first Chechnya War, and the ratio of dead to wounded follows the pattern of World War II.
These are conclusions drawn from the only official balance of war casualties, covering the first week of the conflict, which was released by the Russian Defense Ministry last Thursday (3).
Given the control of information in the information war about the conflict in Vladimir Putin’s country, it is reasonable to assume that the real numbers could be higher – although they should not be as dilated as the Ukrainian estimates, which put enemy casualties at almost 10,000 troops.
Using official figures alone, Moscow lost 498 soldiers killed and 1,597 wounded in the first seven days of the war. This equates to an average of 71 deaths daily. In the 630 days of the conflict considered the bloodiest that fought after the Second World War, the First Chechnya War (1994-96), 8 were killed at the end of each journey.
Naturally, caution is needed in this comparison, as military operations have distinct phases. But the data draws attention because there is a clear perception among analysts that Moscow did not take much risk in the early days of the war, favoring long-distance attacks with missiles and rockets.
More troubling to Russian planners is the death-to-wound ratio. In the modern Armed Forces, the usual rate is something like 1 killed for 10 wounded, which reflects the quality of the protective material used by soldiers, first aid in the field and the speed of transfer to field hospitals.
In the first week of the Ukrainian campaign, the Kremlin saw a rate of 1 to 3.2. This is more similar to the performance in the forces of the then Soviet Union in the most destructive conflict that has ever occurred on the planet, World War II.
There, the Red Army’s casualty rate was 1 to 2.57 in the years it participated in the war, from 1941 to 1945. Naturally, given the nature of the confrontation with Nazi Germany, the scale of the violence is indescribable: there were 8,668 400 soldiers killed, and 22,326,905 wounded, according to a study considered definitive by the Russian Ministry of Defense in 1993.
There are 5,650 deaths in uniform per day of the war, which took, adding civilians to the lives of 27 million Soviets, 40% of the total casualties of the conflict. This gives a measure of the national trauma, in a country where almost 70% of families have lost a loved one in the war.
Since coming to power in 1999, Putin has worked on rebuilding a Russian national image in which victory over the Nazis is central. Not by chance, the Russian insists on saying that his war in Ukraine involves the idea of denazifying his neighbor. He exacerbates the presence of neo-Nazi elements in the Armed Forces and in the neighboring political life, but his claim that they control the Jewish government of Volodymyr Zelensky is baseless.
The numbers on Russian military deaths will change, of course. But they demonstrate a pattern that stems from two things. One, the Ukrainian resistance, of course. The other, the idea that soldiers entered the war without precise coordination, despite the complexity of the attack on multiple fronts.
This is visible in videos from the beginning of the war, showing soldiers in poorly protected units entering cities in an exposed manner. Whether this was a mistake or a deliberate tactic by Moscow to avoid previous resistance to the idea of invading a country considered a brother by many Russians is impossible to know at this point.
The war changed its outlook, however, from the middle of last week, with the increasing siege of Ukrainian cities, with more intensive use of bombing, and the beginning of the use of tactical aviation, notoriously absent until now.
This carries risks. On Saturday, the first loss of a Su-34 attack plane, a star in Putin’s arsenal, was confirmed. This Monday, the second hunting downing of the model was measured. There are also two unverifiable reports of similar slaughter.
Russian performance now shows a drop compared to its previous direct conflict, when it fought in 2008 to subjugate little Georgia, in a clash with immense similarities in origin with the current one: involving Russian-majority areas in the neighboring country and aiming to leave it out of the NATO (Western Military Alliance) and the European Union.
In those five days of war, each journey ended with 13 dead Russians. The ratio for the wounded stood at 1 to 4.3, slightly worse than that recorded during the heaviest fighting period of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1980 to 1985: 1 to 5, with about five dead a day.
That war in South Asia would only end in 1989, with the humiliating retreat of the invaders after ten years. In the two decades they were in the same Afghanistan, only to be defeated by the Taliban’s return to power last year, the US had a death/injured ratio of 1 to 8.6.
In the deadliest post-war engagement for Americans, the Vietnam conflict, the rate was 1 to 5.2. In the Iraq War (2003-11), a conflict that had more than twice as many American deaths as that of Afghanistan (4,572 versus 2,401), it was 1 to 7.
These data are from reliable academic sources, such as the Costs of War project at Brown University (USA). In the Russian case, the Ministry of Defense figures do not, presumably, include casualties among pro-Kremlin separatists from the Donbass (east of the country) or members of the National Guard, a praetorian unit that falls under Putin’s direct authority and is commanded by a former bodyguard of the president.