Foreign Policy Essay

The Bloody Toll of Russia’s War in Ukraine

By Seth G. Jones
Sunday, March 19, 2023, 10:01 AM

Editor’s Note: The human cost to Russia of its invasion of Ukraine grows each month—but how bad is it? Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies offers a detailed assessment of Russian casualties, finding that it is the most deadly conflict for the Russian military—by far—since World War II.

Daniel Byman


Russia’s war in Ukraine has taken an extraordinary human toll. Russian soldiers have been involved in alleged war crimes, including the rape and summary executions of Ukrainian civilians. The Russian military has also targeted Ukraine’s civilian population with heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, missiles, and air and naval strikes. According to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, “Every day that violations of international human rights and humanitarian law continue, it becomes harder and harder to find a way forward through mounting suffering and destruction, towards peace.”

But the war is also decimating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own military. Russia has suffered more combat fatalities in Ukraine in the first year of the war than in all of its wars since World War II combined. In addition, the average rate of Russian regular and irregular soldiers killed per month in Ukraine over the first year of the war was at least 25 times the number killed per month in Russia’s war in Chechnya and at least 35 times the number killed per month in the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan. While Putin has managed to limit domestic opposition to the war, the current fatality rates may be difficult to sustain in a protracted war.

The war in Ukraine has become a war of attrition. A war of attrition is one in which the opponents attempt to wear each other down through the gradual destruction of materiel and personnel. The belligerents are mainly concerned with overpowering their adversaries in a series of bloody set-piece battles that are characterized by high casualties, huge expenditures of materiel, and minimal movement of front lines.

The difficulty of an attrition strategy is best described by Carl von Clausewitz in Book I, Chapter 1 of his book “On War.” He writes that “war is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds” and that the side “that uses force unsparingly, without reference to the bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary uses less vigor in its application.” As British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery commented to his senior officers before the 1942 Battle of El Alamein in Egypt, attrition warfare meant that “our soldiers must be prepared not only to fight and kill, but to go on doing so over a prolonged period. … Determined leadership will be very vital in this battle … nothing is ever hopeless so long as men have stout hearts.”

A war of attrition is not the type of conflict that Russian leaders likely hoped or expected when they invaded Ukraine in February 2022, but it is the war they have now. Russian leaders initially developed a blitzkrieg strategy, in which mechanized forces would move rapidly into Ukraine and seize Kyiv and key Ukrainian cities. But Russia’s strategy failed. Russian political and military leaders likely overstated their military’s ability to conduct joint and combined arms warfare, understated the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the “will to fight” of the Ukrainian population and military, and wrongly assumed that the United States and other Western countries would not provide military aid to Ukraine.

In today’s war of attrition, Ukraine and Russia have constructed trench systems and made heavy use of artillery. Russia has employed human-wave attacks against fixed Ukrainian positions, which include frontal assaults that attempt to seize ground by sheer weight of numbers, rather than by superior positioning or effective combined arms employment. Neither side has gained much territory since Ukraine’s successful offensives in late 2022, even as casualty rates have increased. Both militaries have suffered significant damage to their weapons systems. For example, Russia has lost approximately 50 percent of its modern T-72B3 and T-72B3M main battle tanks since the war began, along with roughly two-thirds of its T-80BV/U tanks.

Wars of attrition are generally bloody because they expose ground forces to heavy artillery and air strikes, but it is hard to know just how bloody the war has been for Russia. Estimating fatality and casualty numbers is notoriously difficult, in part because all sides have incentives to misrepresent such figures and in part because of the difficulties inherent in collecting data during active combat.

To estimate Russian fatalities, I took two steps. The first was a modified Delphi method, a process that involves reaching a decision by surveying a group of experts, which for this estimate included interviews with multiple U.S. and Western government officials. The second step involved compiling publicly available assessments of Russian combat deaths. For example, the U.K. government released data on the fatality and casualty rates of Russian government units and private military companies, such as the Wagner Group. But these estimates did not include militia forces fighting alongside Russian forces, such as the Donetsk People’s Militia and Luhansk People’s Militia.

Based on this evidence, there have been approximately 60,000 to 70,000 combat fatalities between February 2022 and February 2023. These estimates include regular Russian soldiers from the Russian armed forces, Rosgvardiya, Federal Security Service, and Federal Guard Service; fighters from pro-Russian militias, such as the Donetsk People’s Militia and Luhansk People’s Militia; and contractors from private military companies such as the Wagner Group. Overall, Russia has suffered roughly 200,000 to 250,000 total casualties—personnel wounded, killed, and missing—during the first year of the war. These casualty estimates also include regular Russian soldiers, militia fighters, and private contractors from the Wagner Group.

How significant are these numbers in historical context? As highlighted in Table 1, the number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine during the first year of the war was greater than the entire number of Russian soldiers killed in every war the Soviet Union and Russia fought in since World War II combined. These wars included the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia; the limited Soviet involvement in such countries as Angola, North Yemen, Vietnam, and Ethiopia; the Sino-Soviet border conflict; the decade-long war in Afghanistan; Georgia; Syria; and Ukraine between 2014 and February 2022, which occurred primarily in Crimea and the Donbas.

Table 1: Russian Forces Killed in Selected Wars Since World War II

The rate of attrition is also much higher in Ukraine than in any Soviet or Russian war since World War II. Russia suffered an average of roughly 5,000 to 5,800 regular and irregular soldiers killed per month in Ukraine over the first year of the war. In comparison, Russia suffered somewhere between 12,000 to 25,000 fatalities in Chechnya over a 15-year period (with a three-year pause), an average rate of between roughly 95 and 185 soldiers killed per month. The Soviet Union also suffered roughly 14,000 to 16,000 combat fatalities in Afghanistan, an average rate of between roughly 130 and 145 soldiers killed per month.

Russian fatalities in Ukraine pale in comparison to the Soviet death rate in World War II, but the political context is extremely different. The Soviet Union suffered roughly 8.8 million to 10.7 million military fatalities and a total of approximately 24 million civilian and military deaths in World War II. However, the Soviets were the defenders at the start of the war and were, therefore, fighting a war of survival. Such casualties were a necessary cost of national existence. The toll is also much less than the one Russia endured in World War I. The Russian military suffered roughly 1.7 million deaths from 1914 to 1918, but that was in a great power war that involved every major European power—as well as the United States and Japan. Those conflicts were significantly different from the situation in Ukraine, where Russia is currently the aggressor and engaged in a war of choice against a country that poses no meaningful threat to its survival.

Some types of authoritarian regimes are often willing to accept high casualties in interstate conflicts—at least for a time. But not all. The Soviet Union’s grinding war in Afghanistan ultimately took a political toll. At a Politburo meeting on October 17, 1985, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev read letters from Soviet citizens expressing growing dissatisfaction with the war in Afghanistan—including “mothers’ grief over the dead and the crippled” and “heart-wrenching descriptions of funerals.” 

For Gorbachev, the Soviet withdrawal was primarily about domestic politics. The downsides—including in blood—were too high and ultimately outweighed any geostrategic benefits. Over the course of the war, nearly 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and another 35,000 wounded. Putin has thus far been willing to accept large numbers of Russian fatalities and casualties. He is no Gorbachev—far from it. In fact, Putin lamented that the collapse of the Soviet Union, which occurred under Gorbachev’s watch, as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

There have been few negative political repercussions thus far for Putin. But it is unclear—and perhaps unlikely—that domestic support for Putin will remain steady if Russian soldiers continue to die at current rates, especially if Russia makes little progress on the ground. The Kremlin has conducted a disinformation campaign about the war and Russian casualties and fatalities; maintained some international partners, such as China, which could provide more military assistance; characterized the war as a conflict with the United States and the West; and used his security services to crush domestic opposition.

Yet there have been cracks. There have been some protests in Russia against the invasion, thousands of Russian men fled the country after Putin announced a partial military mobilization in September 2022, and heated disagreements about the war have occasionally surfaced between Russian political and military leaders. In February 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military company Wagner Group and a close confidante of Putin, publicly lashed out at Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin accused them of “treason” for depriving Wagner Group contractors of ammunition and causing them to die “in heaps” in Ukraine. These cracks could widen in a protracted war of attrition.

In his February 2023 state of the nation message, Vladimir Putin vowed to intensify the fighting in Ukraine and fight to the end. At the rate the war is going, however, Putin may severely weaken his military in the process.