The Russian Army can’t afford to lose more soldiers

Sometimes history is closer than it seems. Russian soldiers who have been wounded, captured or lost friends and colleagues in Ukraine have learned that very painful lesson over the last six weeks.

The losses that the Russian Army has suffered have been extreme, not just by the standards of post-Cold War warfare, but by all 19th and 20th century standards. Indeed the Russian war experience so far is perhaps more reminiscent of the mud and gore of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 than any subsequent military engagement.

By my calculation, based on a variety of public information, the Russians have lost approximately 30% of the forces that they have sent into Ukraine. This is a truly colossal figure, higher, in fact, than almost any engagement in modern military history from the US Civil War through to the two world wars.

The US Civil War, often seen as the first war of the industrial era, witnessed massive attritional and battle losses on all sides. But even Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General who suffered the most casualties, lost closer to 20% of his army than 30%.

Jumping to the Second World War, Russian losses are already outpacing German losses at the famously bloody Battle of Kursk. This series of battles, perhaps the greatest armour engagements in human history, saw the Germans suffer major losses in their war against Stalin’s Soviet Union. Indeed, after Kursk, the Germans never went on a major offensive again on the Eastern Front. In the six weeks of the campaign, which took in the opening offensive of the Germans (known as Operation Citadel), and stretched through Soviet counterattacks after Citadel’s failure, the Germans lost somewhere between 160,000 and 200,000 of the more than 900,000 soldiers they committed. This loss rate (between 17-22%) was almost unprecedented at the time, but again, it pales in comparison to estimated Russian losses today.

Now let’s look at the Battle of the Somme. The engagement is usually talked about mostly in terms of its exceedingly bloody first day, on which almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed. After this, though British losses were considerable, they slowed down significantly as the British army learned and adjusted.

Knowing exact casualties across the entire battle is not easy, and can spark passionate debates today. However, based on the figures we have, we can roughly estimate that around 1.05 million troops were killed from all sides out of around 3.5 million committed to the area between late June and late September, approximately 30%.

Crucially, however, these losses took place over 12 weeks, and the conflict in Russia began just seven weeks ago.

What does this huge Russian loss rate mean for the next stage of the war? First Russian forces across the board are suffering. The Russian Air Force still can’t gain air supremacy over the areas of battle, and the Russian Navy, which this week lost its flagship cruiser Moskva, has shown itself wanting. There are signs that morale is low: among the units pulled back from Kyiv there are stories of soldiers refusing to return to combat. Meanwhile, back in Russia, major steps are being taken to drum up new soldiers to fill the ranks.

In military terms, the Russian Army that invaded Ukraine six weeks ago might have one more big effort in it — but based on historical evidence, it seems likely that that would be it. In other words, the Battle of the Donbas, if that is what we are to witness, may be Russia’s last throw of the dice with this army.

After that, Putin will need an entirely new army if he is going to continue this war.


Phillips O’Brien is a historian and professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews

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