Russian military losses in Ukraine continue to mount. Here’s a look at why the death toll is so high

Although it is very difficult to obtain an accurate number of deaths in a war zone, evidence is mounting that the Russian military casualty rate in Ukraine is extremely high.

NATO has estimated between 7,000 and 15,000 the number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine since the start of the invasion. This higher estimate is roughly equivalent to the number of Soviet soldiers killed in more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan.

According to a report in the New York Times in mid-March, US intelligence officials said they were confident that up to 7,000 Russians had been killed by this stage of the conflict.

the The Washington Post reported around the same time a Russian news site published a file – then quickly took it down – claiming up to 10,000 troops had been killed in the conflict so far.

CBC News takes a closer look at why Russia’s casualties have been so high and how long they can be sustained, and the difficulty of getting accurate statistics on a war zone.

How accurate are the statistics from Ukraine?

While experts say there’s reason to believe some of Russia’s death estimates are close to the truth, it’s nearly impossible to get a clear account of the battlefield death toll.

“Under wartime conditions you have the fog of war, which makes it very difficult to get accurate numbers,” said Walter Dorn, professor of defense studies at the Royal Military College.

“To see deaths, you have to go to places where people are dying, which usually means there’s a dangerous threat. So it’s hard for objective observers to get those kinds of numbers.”

Stephen Saideman, Paterson Professor of International Affairs at Carleton University and director of the Canadian Defense and Security Network, told CBC News that experts don’t like to trust numbers provided by Russia or the United States. Ukraine.

“Each party is incentivized to inflate the damage they cause and deflate the damage done to them,” he said. “It’s part of every war to do that.”

US and NATO experts use models to calculate casualties that are informed by terrain intelligence, satellite imagery and knowledge of the Russian military, making them the most reliable sources we’re likely to get, Saideman and Dorn said.

“We know the size of a Russian battalion, we know how many guys fit in a Russian tank, which tank takes four, which tank takes three, and we have lots of videos and pictures,” Saideman said.

Local residents walk past a damaged Russian tank in the town of Trostsyanets, some 400 km east of kyiv, Ukraine on March 28. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

Sean Maloney is a professor of military history at the Royal Military College and was the Canadian Army historian for the conflict in Afghanistan. He told CBC that based on his knowledge of the Russian military and sources inside Belarus and Russia, NATO’s high-end estimate of Russian casualties is likely accurate. .

“I am convinced, with the sources I have, that the number of Russians killed in action is over 15,000,” Maloney said.

Why were so many Russian soldiers killed so early?

If this estimate is accurate, it raises a question: Why did a single month of war in Ukraine kill almost as many Russian soldiers as the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan?

“It was always going to be bloodier than the wars we’ve grown accustomed to because it’s just a higher level of explosive power meeting a higher level of explosive power,” Saideman said.

Experts say Western democracies have come to expect casualty tolls similar to those generated by US conflicts in the Middle East. Saideman and Maloney said it was a very different kind of warfare.

Afghanistan and Iraq have been “low-intensity conflicts,” Maloney said.

“Yes they are violent, yes people are getting killed,” he said. “Corn [in Ukraine] we’re dealing with high intensity mechanized warfare where you have a lot of vehicles, a lot of personnel, a lot of air support colliding at the same time, everywhere. It’s continuous, at all levels.”

A captured Russian Air Force officer whose plane was shot down by Ukrainian forces reacts during a news conference in Kyiv on Friday, March 11. (Associated Press/Efrem Lukatsky)

Another reason for the large number of casualties, Saideman said, is Russia’s poor strategy.

“The Russians haven’t prepared the battlefield at all,” he said. “They didn’t do a lot of things that US/NATO doctrine would usually do, ie take out maximum anti-aircraft capability, hit command nodes.

“The fact that Ukrainians still have power, that they still have internet, that they still have means of communication means that it is much easier for Ukrainians to make smart decisions and communicate them effectively.”

Saideman said Russian military medical services were also substandard, which contributed to the death rate. Reports from Ukraine suggest that Russian doctors are failing to properly treat cases of frostbite, as well as more serious injuries.

And because there was no bombing before the invasion, he said, the airspace over Ukraine remains contested. Ukrainian forces were able to shoot down helicopters that could have brought wounded soldiers back from the front.

The mother of Russian army soldier Rustam Zarifulin, killed in action in Ukraine, cries surrounded by relatives during a farewell ceremony in his homeland in Kara-Balta, 60 km west of Bishkek, in the Kyrgyzstan, March 27. (Associated Press/Vladimir Voronin)

Maloney said the poor state of the Russian military has left troops in the field with inadequate equipment.

“They don’t care about their personnel, their vehicles are not equipped to protect their people. They are not like our vehicles with fire suppression systems and all that,” he said.

“I haven’t seen an armored ambulance in this whole war. We have some but I haven’t seen an armored ambulance at all.”

Can Russia sustain these losses for much longer?

To sustain these heavy casualties and continue the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin must maintain battlefield morale and cling to the autocratic regime he leads. Experts say there are reasons to believe that Russia’s ability to continue the war and Putin’s grip on power could be threatened.

Maloney said the Russian army was poorly trained. He said about 31 senior Russian military officers, from colonels to generals, were killed in action, as were many highly trained soldiers.

The loss of experienced officers and fighters can undermine troop morale. But poor training, poor logistics and substandard medical support have a bigger effect on Russia’s war effort, experts said.

“Soldiers who are currently fighting, if they see their colleagues not being recognized, they will lose their will to fight,” Dorn said. “If they see their comrades dead, over whom they mourn…are not sent home…it will have a huge effect on the morale of the Russian troops.”

Despite his iron grip on Russia, Putin must also keep in mind the threat of a backlash at home.

“His power base is intelligence and the military and if he loses the support of generals and infantry then he knows he can’t stay in power for very long. There is a huge risk for him,” Dorn said.

Retired Major Michael Boire, a former NATO war planner and assistant professor of military history at the Royal Military College, disagreed. He said while a high death toll would be a problem for a country like Canada, Russians are used to bad news.

“A democracy would say these are high, unacceptable and appalling numbers. The average Russian would say, ‘This is war, this is how it is, this is how you do business,'” Boire said.

“The average Russian expects life to be rough.”

Saideman said that during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, a group of mothers organized to pressure the regime to end the war and bring their sons home. In the short term, he said, battlefield losses in Ukraine will force Putin to spend more resources to retain power. Longer term, he added, it could go two ways.

“At some point there will be a large gathering of people and the Russian apparatus of oppression will appear and they will have to choose whether or not to shoot these protesters,” he said. “And we never know how it will unfold until it actually unfolds.”