At least 200,000. As many as 270,000. That’s how many Russian troops have died, been wounded or gone missing in the first 11 months of Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to experts.
It should go without saying that such steep losses could undermine Russia’s ability to sustain current operations—to say nothing of launching a new offensive.
The New York Times last week quoted U.S. officials estimating Russian casualties as “approaching 200,000.” But the analysts at the Conflict Intelligence Team believe Russian losses could be closer to 270,000.
CIT scrutinized media reports—in particular, the BBC’s own analysis of Russian obituaries—and concluded that Russian families since February 2022 have buried as many as 33,000 soldiers.
Next, CIT estimated the number of Russian troops who are missing in action by applying the MIA ratio that the Russian 1st Tank Army reported in documents the Ukrainians captured last spring.
After three months of hard fighting around Kyiv, the 1st Tank Army registered 61 dead and 44 missing. The same ratio, if it applies to the entire Russian war effort, points to tens of thousands of MIAs—most of whom actually are dead, in CIT’s estimation.
In all, CIT assumes as many as 65,000 Russians have died or gone missing in the wider war on Ukraine. Historically, modern armies suffer three or four wounded-in-action for every one soldier who’s killed in action. Thus CIT’s 270,000 overall figure for combined wounded and dead.
Put another way, it’s possible that—statistically speaking—every single Russian who marched into Ukraine 11 months ago has died or ended up in a hospital.
Russia of course has mobilized hundreds of thousands of fresh troops in order to make good these losses—and also has authorized mercenary firm The Wagner Group to recruit convicts from Russian prisons.
But the Kremlin isn’t sitting on limitless reserves of manpower. And absent a robust force-generation system, steep losses lead to even steeper losses as panicky commanders, desperate to maintain a certain pace of operations, spend less and less time training, and fewer and fewer resources equipping, their newest recruits.
Consider Wagner’s experience on the Bakhmut sector. After the Ukrainian army destroyed most of Wagner’s well-trained and well-equipped battalions, the mercenary firm adopted a new, less regular force-structure. It organized 40,000 untrained ex-convicts into loose, lightly-equipped battalions led by small cadres of experienced troops.
Instead of maneuvering for battlefield advantage—a practice that requires expensive, time-consuming training, a high degree of discipline among front-line fighters and creativity on the part of commanders—these battalions tend directly to assault Ukrainian positions.
There’s a term for this tactic. A “human wave.” Human-wave assaults are an expedient—a fast, cheap approach to war by an army that doesn’t have the time or resources to do things right.
They also are suicidal when your enemy is entrenched and supported by artillery, as the Ukrainians are in most sectors. It’s not for no reason that, according to Russian news site Meduza, Wagner has lost 80 percent of its forces in nine months of failed attempts to capture Bakhmut.
Volunteering to fight for Wagner practically is a death sentence—and Russian convicts seem to know it. “Russian conventional and irregular forces may be increasingly struggling to recruit from Russian penal colonies due to high casualties among prior penal-colony recruits,” according to the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.
“The high Russian casualty count for the war in Ukraine continues to have deleterious effects on the Russian military’s combat effectiveness and is likely in part prompting Russian officials to pursue a second wave of mobilization as the Russian military prepares for future offensives in Ukraine,” ISW noted.
But every mobilization reaches deeper into an evaporating manpower pool. Roughly half of the one million or so people in the Russian army forces are professionals on long-term contracts. The other half is conscripts between the ages of 18 and 27.
The conscripts serve just one year and, as a matter of policy, aren’t supposed to see combat. Of the million or so Russian young men who are in the age range for conscription, around a third are exempt for medical or educational reasons. Twice a year, the Kremlin taps roughly 200,000 of the 700,000 who are eligible for the yearlong military service.
There’s not a lot of excess manpower in the conscription pool. Which is why, right before the first round of mobilization last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law removing the 40-year age limit on new recruits.
Russian leaders many months ago realized they couldn’t replace their losses in Ukraine without drafting middle-age men and also recruiting prisoners. Now that tens of thousands of these older men and convicts are dead or wounded and the army needs yet more fresh bodies, will the Kremlin end education exemptions, target even older men or force prisoners to fight?