Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seemingly perpetual “special military operation” in Ukraine has served as a proving ground for a plethora of newfangled weapons systems such as the HIMARS artillery rocket system and Storm Shadow/SCALP air-launched cruise missile.
However, the battleground is also replete with older weapons systems that are seeing heavy use by both sides in the conflict. Firearms such as the AK-74 5.45x39mm assault rifle and the Makarov 9x18mm handgun are among these weapons, as are main battle tanks such as the T-72.
But it’s not just older equipment making its mark in the war.
This conflict has rebirthed a military tactic that supposedly went passé back in the nightmarish, bloodcurdling days of the First World War: trench warfare.
This warfighting reality is illustrated in a May 2023 article by Washington Times reporter Ben Wolfgang:
“It was billed as the first high-tech clash between major powers and a conflict that would offer an up-close look at the evolution of combat in the 21st century…In many ways, however, the Russia-Ukraine war is more like World War I with drones and iPhones and has far more in common with age-old approaches to tactics and strategy than many predicted, some analysts say.
“‘This war looks more like World War I to me than a futuristic vision of combat — World War I with precision artillery and drones and smartphones and satellites and anti-tank missiles, but still dominated by artillery barrages and defensive trenches,’ said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.”
For further reading within the virtual pages of 19FortyFive about the prevalence of trench warfare in the current conflict, you can turn to my colleague Peter Suciu, specifically his June 2023 articles “‘Pass The Rocket Launcher’: Ukraine Footage From Frontline Looks Like WWI Trench War” and “Total Massacre: War Footage Ukraine Shows Tanks Firing Right Into Russian Trenches.”
The Price of Russian Blood in Trench Warfare, Then and Now
As Wolfgang’s Washington Times colleague Mike Glenn indicated in the title of a March 2023 article, “Russia’s losses in Ukraine exceed all its wars since WWII, survey finds.” The key numbers from Glenn are as follows: “Russian troops are being killed in what the Kremlin calls its ‘special military operation’ at a monthly rate of at least 25 times the number killed in Chechnya and 35 times the number killed in Afghanistan, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“According to CSIS, Russia lost 14,000 to 16,000 troops in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 and between 12,000 and 25,000 soldiers in Chechnya. The think tank estimates that 60,000 to 70,000 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine in just over a year.”
Mind you, those figures don’t include the additional KIAs Russia has incurred in the four-and-a-half months since the article was published.
So then, what about the last time that Russia participated in large-scale trench warfare, i.e. World War I? According to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Czarist Russian Empire suffered 1,811,000 military deaths in the so-called Great War. This equated to a staggering 30% plurality of Entente powers’ military deaths in “The War to End All Wars.” By comparison, French deaths accounted for 25% of that total, casualties from the British Empire 16%, Italians 12%, Serbians 8%, Romanians 6%, the United States’ forces 2%, and others 1%.
Comparisons with Other Post-WWI Trench Warfare Usages
Next to the Russo-Ukrainian War, the most recent example of large-scale post-WWI trench warfare is Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, AKA Operation Desert Storm. That, of course, didn’t work out terribly well for Saddam’s troops, as the so-called “Saddam Line” was ravaged mercilessly. Iraqi troops were hit first from the air by B-52 carpet bombing raids and other Coalition airpower assets for 38 days. This was followed by an equally ruthless four-day ground campaign in which the United States and her Coalition partners steadfastly refused to play the Iraqi Army’s trench warfare game. According to Blake Stillwell of Military.Com:
“Rather than clear the trenches man by man, the Americans simply plowed through the Iraqis on combat earthmovers, even burying some defenders alive as they tried in vain to shoot the bulldozers…The Americans suffered zero casualties in the assault, as they were all inside of armored vehicles and the Iraqi ground forces had no answer to them. As the Iraqis watched their comrades buried alive, they began to surrender en masse…Some 70 miles of trenches were plowed over in a matter of hours. About 2,000 of the 8,000 defenders surrendered. It’s not known just how many Iraqi soldiers were literally buried in the onslaught.”
Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security.