A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 4, 2022

The Reason Russian Casualties In Ukraine Are So High

The Russians have not a fought a war against a competent, well-equipped army since WWII. 

That lack of real combat experience against a determined, resourceful and well-led opponent combined with the Russian military's historic indifference to casualties (including poor medical care) is the reason why so many Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in Ukraine. JL  

Eric Redwine reports in Quora, image Andrii Marienko, AP:

Prior to Ukraine, the SR had only fought one sizable war after WW II. That was  in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. The recent wars by Russia have been against very small countries: two wars in Chechnya (a part of Russia), Georgia (also part of Russia) and Syria. Ukraine is the first time that SR troops have fought against a comparable modern military. Their small war tactics are not at all suitable. Russian indifference to their own casualties accounts for much of the severe losses, but overestimation of their capabilities and the gross underestimation of Ukrainian forces and the resolve of the West has been an even bigger. factor. Simply put, the Russians lack meaningful combat experience

Throughout Russian history and ever since their conquest by the Mongols 800 years ago (which was really bad and made the Ukraine thing look an unruly college frat party by comparison), Russia has always been far less casuaty averse than other European countries. That is, in part, due to the fact that Russia straddles both Europe and Asia and many of its attitudes of this kind reflect Asian influence.

But, on to the meat of your question:

  1. Korea and Vietnam are one thing, the later wars were very different. Korea was fought almost exclusively with methods and weapons left over from WW II. Ultimately, the US acheved its goal — keeping South Korea free from domination from the North, but the cost in US lives was high, almost 100,000 war dead. Vietnam saw the introduction of some vast improvements in weapons systems: B-52 heavy bombers that flew above the range of ground based anti-aircraft systems, “people sniffers” and other remotely operated sensor systems to detect movements of NVA and Viet Cong troops; improved munitions such as the “beehive” round (which fired thousands of small fletchettes over a wide area and could take down dozens of the enemy with a single shot), cluster bombs and napalm, fully automatic rifles, effective hand held grenade launchers and light explosive anti-vehicular weapons (LAWs), better and more secure communications, and considerably improved coordination between artillery and aircraft in close support strikes. Yet, because Vietnam remained a war that required constant patrolling and searches of potentially hostile hamlets and villages, effective use of mines and IEDs by enemy troops, and successful ambushes and underground bunker complexes, casualties remained high — about 58,000 US troops dead from 1964 (the start of major ground activities) and 1973 (when the bulk of American forces were withdrawn). Of course, even in WW II US losses were much lower in both absolute terms and on a per thousand basis than the Russians and, had Russia fought these same wars, their casualties would have been much higher because of their tendency for frontal assaults by masses of infantry accompanied by tanks.
  2. But after our defeat in Vietnam, the US developed entirely new modes of warfare. Part of this was due to improvements in technology, such as precision guided munitions, better aircraft, much better battlefield intelligence, better protection for ground troops by a variety of means qand other developments. The first time this became evident during the first US-Iraq war. An air campaign of 100 days was decisively effective in eliminating enemy aircraft and air defenses, destroying enemy supply lines and then inflicting massive losses on enemy formations. This enabled the ground campaign to be launched and achieve its objectives in just four days. American casualties were amazingly light, only 219 dead, with sixty five of those being from accidents and other non-combat deaths. Thirty-five of the remainder were caused by friendly fire incidents. Thus, the Iraqis killed only about 100 of our soldiers and Marines. This became the template for future wars, as the US public had become so casualty averse after Vietnam that military leaders understood that US casualties must be mininized to the greatest possible extent.
  3. In the second and far more confused and longer Iraq war, the US sustained significantly more casualties — about 4500 deaths total. Most of this was due to the length of the war and the fact that for most of the war, we were fighting insurgents rather than regular forces that could be easily destroyed by our aircraft. Still, compared to prior wars, US deaths were remarkably low considering the numbers of troops deployed and the long duration of the war.
  4. Afghanistan was somewhat different, as there was not the target rich environment that could be taken out by aircraft early on. However, air power was generally used to destroy groups of the enemy once they were located. After 20 years, a total of 2401 Americans were killed Both of these long recent wars continued to use indirected fires (from aircraft, drones, missiles and artillery) to cause the bulk of enemy casualties, rather than engaging in toe to toe combat.
  5. The principle reason US casualties dropped so much from Korea and Vietnam was a concentrated, highly effective effort to limit direct ground combat between US ground forces and enemy forces. In other words, we blew them up rather than shot them. US ground forces primary role changed from launching attacks to occupying areas already largely cleared of the enemy and locating and pinning enemy forces

Now, lets talk about the Soviet/Russian (“SR”) side:

  1. Prior to Ukraine, the SR had only fought one reasonably sizable war after WW II. That was of course their war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. By US standards, this was a fairly small war. The maximum size of Soviet forces in Afghanistan was about 150,000 troops, compared to a US high point of almost 600,000 troops in Vietnam. As you know, the war was a failure and the Soviets had to withdraw. Nonetheless, they had approximately 15,,000 combat fatalities.
  2. The recent wars by Russia have been against very small countries: two wars in Chechnya (a region of Russia that attempted to become independent — the Russians lost the first war, but won the second), Georgia (a small nation that was a part of the Soviet Union) and Syria. In Syria, they were supporting the Assad government, which was fighting a civil war within Syria. Russia provided only a small number of troops, but a lot of air power and artillery to help the Assad government gain the upper hand. That war continues to smolder on.
  3. The first Chechen war was a major military embarassment for the Russians, who had only recently become independent again after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Lasting from 1994 to 1996, at its peak involved approximately 70,000 Russian troops, the Russians again suffered casualties. The official Russian figure was about 5700 dead ,but the Russians were certainly underreporting their casualties and may have lost as many as 14,000 KIA. Chechens fighting from the mountains inflicted huge losses on the Russian army in ambushes and hit and run attacks. Then, as now, the Russians were heavily dependent on armored vehicles, which — as in Afghanistan, were difficult to use in the mountainous terrain. This was a substantially contributing factor in the demise of the Yeltsin government.
  4. The second Chechen war was fought under Putin. This time, much as in Ukraine, they launched an exceedingly harsh campaign that succeeded by, among other things, completely flattening Grozny, the capital and only really significant city in Chechnya. Committing roughly 80,000 troops at its height, the Russians suffered roughly 7500 killed — still a far higher casuatty rate than in similar US conflicts. This conflict lasted ten years and was won mostly by the destruction of the urban areas and depopulation of rural areas.
  5. The Georgian War was very short lasting less than a month. The Russians and their puppet troops only suffered about 170 killed. Actually, calling this a war probably overstates the case. It was a fast invasion which quickly achieved Russia’s aims.
  6. Syria is hard to talk about as it primarily involved Russian air and naval forces and a relatively small number of grounds troops. The Syrian War continues, with Russian involvement now primarily limited to air and some naval units. Russian involvement was primarily for the purpose of supplying high tech assistance to the Government and is not really comparable to the Ukraine action and remains ongoing. Russian casualties were small, but that is to be expected given the nature of their involvement.

So what does all this mean? Compared to the US, SR has had relatively small wars in which the high casualty percentages did not result in very large absolute numbers of Russian KIAs. The only really comparable war to any of the US wars during this period was Afghanistan, where Russian involvement for half the time of the US effort resulted in over seven times the number of KIAs that the US suffered in its 20 years. Significantly, the Russians have lost more killed in 70 days in Ukraine (around 20,000) than they did in 10 years in Afghanistan.

Why is this the case? This is the first time that SR troops have fought against a roughly comparable modern military. Their small war tactics were not at all suitable for Ukraine. In particular, their failure to attain quick control of the skies over Ukraine have hurt them severely, as has the presence of a substantial and increasing number of modern weapons supplied by the US and NATO. The relative Russian indifference to their own casualties accounts for much of the severe losses, but their gross overestimation of their capabilities and the gross underestimation of Ukrainian forces and the resolve of the West has been an even bigger. factor. Simply put, the Russians lacked meaningful combat experience, either individually or as an institution in dealing with a modern adversary since the end of WW II; They were not at all prepared for the type of war that they now have on their hands.

I realized I did not source this answer, but it was long as it was. I hope this has been informative in explaining the difference between the US and Russian ways of war and the huge differential in fatalities between the two militaries. As always, I am happy to discuss sources and specifics with the caveat that I had to engage in a lot of generalization and rounding to cover such broad topics in a reasoably limited amount of space and effort.


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