Staggering Russian Losses in Ukraine Eroding Popular Support at Home, as Putin Resorts to World War II Tactics and Begins Looking for Women Prepared To Fight
While the world’s gaze swiveled to Israel’s war against Hamas, the fight at Avdiivka became Europe’s bloodiest battle since World War II.
Russia has lost a staggering 302,000 soldiers killed or wounded in Ukraine, Britain’s Minister of State for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, said in response to a parliamentary inquiry this week. Yesterday, the Ukrainian government’s daily tally hit 315,620 Russian dead or wounded.
Either set of figures indicates that Russia has lost in 21 months more than four times the 68,700 Soviet soldiers killed or wounded during the Soviet Union’s decade in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had 288 million people — nearly double Russia’s population today.
Ukraine’s losses are about half of Russia’s, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Book of Memory project. This Ukrainian NGO lists 24,500 dead Ukrainians soldiers by name. In addition, it believes that most of the 15,000 missing Ukrainian soldiers are dead. Using 40,000 combat deaths as a base, an estimated 120,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been wounded.
Russia has four times Ukraine’s population. Yet the human toll of the war of choice seems to be finally impacting Russia’s population. This Sunday, relatives of Russian draftees are calling for a first day of national protest under the slogan: “Bring our men home.” A manifesto on a Telegram channel, called the Way Home, denounces the army’s treatment of draftees as “legalized slavery,” and organizers accuse Russia’s government of “treating military personnel as consumables.”
Despite press censorship and jail terms for persons who protest the war, Russian public opinion seems to be souring on the conflict. Two different polling groups, Levada and Russian Field, find that half of respondents say Russia should start peace talks. In the Levada poll, 70 percent of respondents say they would support Mr. Putin’s decision if he decided to end the military conflict with Ukraine “as early as this week.” On Wednesday, Russian Field reported that 74 percent of its respondents said they would support Mr. Putin if he signed a peace agreement “tomorrow.”
One indicator of Russian apathy toward the war is the poor reception for Svidetel, or Witness, Russia’s first feature movie about the invasion of Ukraine. During the first four days of its release to 1,131 theaters, box office receipts for this $2 million film totaled $70,000.
Facing a presidential election March 24, Mr. Putin is throwing men and matériel into a big battle that he could call a victory. Last week, for the second time in a month, he visited Rostov-on-Don, home of the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District. From there, his generals focus 120 miles to the northwest, on Avdiivka. Their goal is to encircle and seize this road and railroad junction city, seen as the gate to Donetsk.
While the world’s gaze swiveled to Israel’s war with Hamas, Avdiivka became Europe’s bloodiest battle since World War II. Since September 1, Russia has lost 51,560 soldiers killed and wounded. Last night, Ukraine’s military reported that its drones and soldiers on the ground recorded 1,330 Russian military dead and wounded in the previous 24 hours. This toll was second only to 1,380 casualties recorded October 19.
Also since September 1, Russia has lost 917 tanks and 1,484 armored personnel carriers in the fight for Avdiivka. By comparison, in Second Battle of El Alamein the fall of 1942, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel lost 500 German and Italian tanks.
“Russia is already losing men and equipment near Avdiivka faster and on a larger scale than, for example, near Bakhmut,” President Zelensky said Tuesday, referring to a battle in May that previously was the bloodiest of the war. “The more Russian forces that are destroyed near Avdiivka, the worse the overall situation will be for the enemy and the overall course of this war.” After a summer of stalemate, Russia has resorted to World War II-style human wave attacks.
The Kremlin’s willingness to sacrifice hundreds of men daily stuns Ukrainians, including many steeped in the traditions of the Soviet Red Army. “That was my mistake,” Ukraine’s 50-year-old commander-in-chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, told the Economist last month. “Russia has lost at least 150,000 dead. In any other country such casualties would have stopped the war.”
To minimize the political impact, the Kremlin tries to fight a war without seeming to fight a war. One year ago, the announcement of a national draft prompted 1 million Russian men to flee the country. Now, the government designs its draft to minimize the political reaction from Russia’ urban middle class.
A Russian civic organization, Poteri.net, lists the names and hometowns of 36,379 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. Of these, only 167 were from Moscow, a city of 12 million inhabitants. A Russian man from outside Moscow is 18 times more likely to be killed in the war than a resident of the capital.
On the other side of the scale, an Important Stories portal survey of five non-Russian republics — Buryatia, Dagestan, Mordvinia, Mari El, and North Ossetia — found that up to 70 percent of the deaths of young men were due to fighting in Ukraine.
Taking a leaf from Stalin’s war tactics, Putin recreated “penal batallions” – units of convicts who are sent to the front with minimal training and ammunition. An estimated 150,000 inmates have been recruited over the last year, according to Russian prison rights groups.
Last month, Russia’s deputy minister of justices, Vsevolod Vukolov, told a public panel that Russia’s prison population has plummeted to 266,000 from 420,000 in February 2022. Of the missing 154,000 prisoners, 50,000 were recruited for the Wagner mercenary group. The rest were recruited by Russia’s Defense Ministry. The deal is basically the same — freedom in return for six months fighting in Ukraine.
In the field, they are used as cannon fodder. They are sent forward to identify Ukrainian firing positions to facilitate Russian artillery strikes. Wounded men are often denied medical care, Russian POW’s report.
In America, the National Security Council’s spokesman, John Kirby, said last month: “We have information that the Russian military has been actually executing soldiers who refuse to follow orders.” An estimated 17,000 Russian soldiers have deserted. Desperate for soldiers to fight in Ukraine, Russia is scouring for unemployed men in the Third World — from Afghanistan, Cuba, Nepal, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
Two other tactics default to World War II. Russian press reports that 70 Ukrainian POWs have agreed to fight for Russia in a newly formed battalion to fight against Kyiv. During World War II, 50,000 Soviet POWs joined the anti-Bolshevik Russian Liberation Army, a group armed and controlled by the Nazis.
Tapping another source of fighters, Redut, a major mercenary group, is advertising for Russian women to serve in combat roles. Russian women have not fought in combat since May, 1945.