Unlike the Ukrainians, Russian commanders are willing to suffer heavy troop losses in combat. Russian tactics include sending more and more infantry at the enemy regardless of losses. Often this works, but when it doesn’t, the losses are substantial. This is the case in Ukraine, where Russian forces have lost at least about 400,000 soldiers so far. Not all were killed, but those who were not killed were badly wounded and no longer fit for service in the infantry.
Currently Russia is losing about 300 soldiers, dead or wounded, a day. If this continues throughout 2024, Losses to Russian forces will reach 500,000 dead and badly wounded. In contrast, the Ukrainians have had 70,000 soldiers killed and about 110,000 wounded. The lower Ukrainian losses are the result of tactics that seek to minimize casualties while deaths are reduced by providing prompt and more effective medical care for the wounded. The Ukrainians also take advantage of the Russian tactics by preparing for these attacks so that Ukrainian losses are low and Russian losses are high. Russian soldiers and junior officers understand what’s going on, but senior Russian leadership persists in using these wasteful tactics without noticing that their troops are less successful in these attacks because they keep their heads down and stay in one place if the Ukrainian fire is too intense. Russian soldiers are also more willing to be captured by the Ukrainians, who adopted a “I want to live” program to make it easier for Russian soldiers to be captured and moved from the combat zone to a prisoner camp. If the Russian government threatens to prosecute these soldiers after the war, Ukraine will offer asylum. The Ukrainian and Russian languages are similar enough for a captured Russian soldier to learn Ukrainian and blend in with the Ukrainian population after the war.
Russia lost more troops in less than a year of fighting in Ukraine than they did during eight years of fighting in Afghanistan during the 1980s. While the Russian government portrayed the fighting in Ukraine as an effort to keep NATO from harming Russia, it was obvious that no one was invading or attacking Russia and that it was Russians that invaded Ukraine. Like the Germans who invaded Russia in 1941, where they were on the defensive by 1944. The Russians invading Ukraine were soon on the defensive and could be driven out in another year or so.
Fourteen months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainians are attacking and driving the Russian forces out. This was bad news for the Russian government, which was receiving growing criticism from its citizens about not merely the war’s cost, but the need for it at all. The government responded to the internal criticism and did so more effectively than their military efforts in Ukraine. Russia declared criticism of the Russian war effort in Ukraine illegal. Arrests were made and some critics went on trial. This discouraged some Russian critics but emboldened others. This sort of thing was uncommon in Russia.
Throughout most of its history, Russia has been a police state. In addition to the secret police, Russia also intercepted and read mail and overheard radio and telephone conversations. Russia mobilized support inside Russia for detecting anonymous critics and threatening them with arrest if they did not curb their criticism.
This criticism made it obvious that the Russian government was losing the support of its own people, including a growing number of senior officers who spoke out, usually via encrypted messages on Telegram, an internet app in Russia and Ukraine. Early on many of these Russian internet based military bloggers supported the invasion and were supplied with information by the Russian government, including opportunities to spend some time with the troops inside Ukraine. After a few months the Russian bloggers were no longer reporting the official Russian version of events in Ukraine, but what was being reported by Russian veterans of the fighting.
After Russia announced a pause in offensive military operations in early July 2023, one of these bloggers, a former general who had served in occupied Ukraine before the invasion, reported a different reality. He insisted that Russia had suffered higher losses in eastern Ukraine than the Ukrainians, who were conducting a classic attrition defense. The Russians had suffered far more losses in men and equipment. Ukrainians withdrew slowly and deliberately to encourage Russia to keep attacking and losing troops and combat vehicles that could not be replaced. Meanwhile the Ukrainians were receiving more weapons and equipment from NATO and forming new units, including armed resistance groups in occupied Ukraine. This was not the official Russian assessment, but it was the reality that Russian troops in Ukraine were experiencing and some Russian bloggers were reporting.
All this was nothing new. When the most modern and effective Russian forces were assembled to invade Ukraine in 2022, they quickly discovered they were not facing an inept, poorly trained, and armed foe but one that was far more effective than the Russian invaders. The main offensive in the north, towards the nearby Ukrainian capital Kyiv, suffered heavy losses and within weeks was forced to withdraw back to the border. Russian troops were initially told that they had encountered NATO troops who were in Ukraine preparing to invade Russia. The surviving troops knew better because all they encountered were Ukrainians, usually armed with weapons similar to what Russia used as well as more effective ones they had received from NATO. The Ukrainians used more effective tactics and some new weapons that were based on Western models but Ukrainian-made. The Russian state-controlled media was ordered to ignore reports like this and stick with the official story that this was all a secret NATO operation to attack Russia via Ukraine. Whatever the official Russian explanation, Russia continued losing more troops than Ukraine.