As the war in Ukraine finishes its fourth month, Russian losses appear to be reaching unsustainable levels as Western officials fear a grinding, bloody war of attrition.
Casualties among Russian and pro-Russian forces are mounting at an unsustainable rate in Ukraine, British intelligence reports, raising more questions about the extent to which Moscow can maintain its current pace of operations amid limited progress on the battlefield.
Figures published last week by the Donetsk People’s Republic, part of the self-declared pro-Putin autonomous region in eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas, claimed that more than 2,100 of its forces had died since operations began and nearly 9,000 had been wounded.
The casualty rate equals roughly 55% of its total force, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense, “which highlights the extraordinary attrition rate Russian and pro-Russian forces are suffering in the Donbas.”
The losses of men and material have come at a staggering rate since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 24 and immediately encountered a stiff resistance from local forces backed with Western munitions and financial resources. The number of Russian deaths are a closely guarded secret. Moscow in March placed the death toll at 1,351, but even then there was reason to believe it was far higher. A British estimate in April put the number around 15,000 – more than were killed in the Soviet Union’s nine-year war in Afghanistan – while other estimates project that as many as 40,000 have been injured.
Among the most central questions facing the government in Ukraine and its Western backers is the extent to which Russia can continue fighting and the pressure that forces loyal to Kyiv can exert on invading forces to accelerate those shortcomings as Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin face growing dissent and dwindling resources.
The Institute for the Study of War, citing the BBC’s Russian service, noted that new Russian recruits receive only three to seven days of training before being sent to “the most active sectors of the front.”
The BBC also reported that volunteers within the Russian military along with the equivalent of national guard forces and Russia’s government-affiliated mercenary group have become Russia’s main assault force, as opposed to conventional military units.
The institute has previously noted that the Russian military is lowering its standards on things like age, health, criminal records and other routine qualifications for service while offering substantial financial incentives for recruits. The BBC also reported that the Russian Ministry of Defense is now offering to pay off the loans and debts of volunteers to entice recruits.
“On both sides, the ability to generate and deploy reserve units to the front is likely becoming increasingly critical to the outcome of the war,” the British Defense Ministry said.
The casualty counts have appeared similarly grim for Ukraine. U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted last week that public assessments of as many as 100 killed-in-action every day align with the Pentagon’s assessment of the battlefield carnage, combined with as many as 300 wounded-in-action every day.
“This is an existential threat. They’re fighting for the very life of their country,” the veteran commander of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan said. “So, your ability to endure suffering, to endure casualties is directly proportional to the object to be attained.”