Now that Western countries have agreed to supply Ukraine with offensive weapons, it seems a good time to review the statistics and dynamics of the Russo-Ukraine war thus far. A review might indicate what could be expected in the coming spring as the two sides prepare for a possibly decisive showdown, and it might also suggest appropriate Western policy measures.
The first question concerns statistics, their reliability, and what they might mean. Oryx, a Dutch organization using open sources, counts as evidence only those losses of equipment that are confirmed by photographic or video evidence. Thus as of Feb. 9, Oryx recorded that Russian losses of heavy equipment of all types were nearly 9,100 versus 2,934 for the Ukrainians.
While recognizing that these figures greatly understate actual losses, it is notable that the losses of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) were about one-third of Russian losses across most categories. This occurred even though AFU weaponry was comparatively poor — especially its artillery, which had a shorter range than its Russian counterparts and vastly less ammunition. The large majority of Russian tanks were destroyed by artillery, not by the famous Javelins, NLAWS, and Gustavs. Ukrainian-made anti-tank rockets and artillery lasted for four months, which meant that the eviction of the Russian army from the northern regions of Ukraine in the initial stages of the war was achieved mostly with domestic resources.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense reported that as of Feb. 9, 135,010 Russian soldiers had been killed and probably more than that number wounded. This is after a force of 190,000 was initially sent. Russian tank losses by that date were measured at 3,255 — 1,200 were originally sent; losses of armored vehicles, totaled 6,468 compared to an initial 2,900; of artillery, 2,244, when 1,600 pieces were initially deployed; airplanes losses totaled 295, while 330 were put into combat initially; and 285 helicopters were lost, after 240 were deployed in the initial invasion. (Those numbers will likely change further by the time this piece is published.) Western estimates were initially lower but have tended to converge toward the Ukrainian Ministry’s figures.
It can be inferred that the figures for personnel killed are broadly valid because of the political context, namely the enormous pressure placed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on his generals. He has replaced the supreme commander of the Russian army several times for failing to meet his objectives. Each commander has been indifferent to human losses, in line with a Czarist and Soviet tradition that says objectives are to be achieved according to political directives, not military good practice. In other words, the Ministry’s statistics are plausible because the situation required losses of the reported scale to stop the determined Russian army.
Essentially, the AFU destroyed the best of the Russian equipment and professional contract soldiers by using its own poorest resources. With the addition of the modern weapons now promised to Ukraine, it would seem that the AFU ais in a favorable position.
Unfortunately for the AFU, however, that is too hasty a conclusion, considering the characteristics of the Russian army.
The biggest Russian advantage is virtually unlimited manpower. The statistical imprint of losses on Russian society is negligible. But the social imprint is likewise small, because much of the fighting and dying on the Russian Federation’s side has been done by Asians and Caucasians, as well as by ethnic-Russian social marginals from the economically impoverished peripheries of Russia.
Stated plainly, Russian middle class urban society does not have much concern for the social marginals of its country, and Putin has decided that it is politically safe to proceed with large-scale recruitment.
One assumption is that soldiers are killed or wounded in proportion to equipment destroyed. In that case the Ukrainian-to-Russian loss ratio would be 1:3, as would seem to follow from Oryx figures. But whereas Russian officers expend their men copiously under political pressure, Ukrainian officers economize losses through better tactics. The AFU try to avoid set-piece battles against Russian artillery and armor. They emphasize mobility and surprise, executing a sort of guerrilla warfare with heavy weapons.
According to Ukrainian statistics in this regard, it is likely that the loss ratio is significantly higher. The spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Southern Military District said that the eviction of the Russians from the right bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region was achieved with a 1:6 ratio, which seems plausible considering the AFU’s mobile tactics and the fact that by then, the AFU had Western artillery of greater range and accuracy than what the Russians employed.
Several Ukrainian military experts concur that in the Donbas towns of Bakhmut and nearby Soledar, which are geographically very well suited for defense, the loss ratio in battles has ranged between 1:5 and 1:10.
But as astonishing as the performance of the AFU appears to be, additional statistics tell a different story. Currently, in Ukraine, there are probably more than 300,000 Russian soldiers of various kinds. Ukrainian military experts think that as Russian mobilizations are ramped up, Moscow will be able to train 100,000 infantrymen to a basic standard each month. (Specialists and equipment operators take longer.)
According to Ministry of Defense statistics, Ukraine’s armed forces had a record month in January, killing more than 20,000 Russian personnel. If an equal number were seriously wounded, this comprises a monthly loss of 40,000.
The dilemma for the AFU becomes strikingly obvious here, because despite high losses, the Russian army could grow each month by 60,000 personnel. If the Russian mobilization goes smoothly, then in six months a net of 360,000 new recruits would augment the 300,000 who are already in Ukraine. The task of Ukrainian troops threatens to be daunting.
Further, too much is made of the supposedly low morale of the Russian troops. The favored Russian tactic is to send out a wave of amnestied convicts to identify the AFU positions and draw the Ukrainians’ fire. The newly mobilized social marginals come next, and, if necessary, are kept from retreating by so-called barrier units of the National Guard or Kadyrovite Chechens. Finally come the husbanded and better-motivated professionals, who try to exploit openings. This is a costly method of fighting, but it is effective at making incremental territorial gains. In the recent actions at Soledar, where the Wagner Private Company spearheaded the Russian advance, the Wagnerites experienced losses on the order of 70% or more, but they eventually captured the town. In sum, the ability of the Russian military machine to keep pushing in the face of high losses is very impressive.
Given such a picture, it is an open question whether the AFU will be able to contain the Russian forces, even if heavy equipment arrives in the promised quantities. The main Russian effort is likely to come in the Donbas region, since the complete occupation of the Donbas is Putin’s minimal political goal of long-standing.
In such a scenario, the AFU would have to shift the bulk of their forces eastward to contain the Russian offensive there. This might mean that the Ukrainians would have to abandon their cherished plan for an offensive in the south and for cutting the Russian land bridge to Crimea. Consequently, Russia could gain all of the Donbas and retain the south and Crimea. It would be win-win for Putin, who would emerge triumphant.
If all that has been described above is roughly valid, what does this imply for Western policy? Two opposite lines of reasoning point to the same conclusion. One line of reasoning is that the AFU have always done well, even with poor resources, and should be supported with more heavy weapons because they have a real chance to de-occupy all territories.
The opposite line is that protests over war losses will not transpire in Russia and that Moscow’s potential to mobilize troops is practically limitless, not to consider also the potential of Russia’s industry. Consequently, the AFU could be in serious danger of losing the war.
In either scenario, the appropriate Western policy is one of maximal supply of heavy military equipment for Ukraine.
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Opinion Author Biography and Expertise:
Dennis Soltys is a retired Canadian professor of comparative politics living in Almaty, Kazakhstan.