On February 24, 2022, after weeks of media hype and repeated warnings from numerous western intelligence services, the Russian Federation launched what was supposed to be a 72-hour anschluss that would bring Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence. Confident in imminent victory, Russian soldiers brought along dress uniforms. Many who participated in the initial invasion were told they would soon parade in Kyiv and receive military decorations. As it has turned out, the affair was not the walk in the park anticipated by Putin and his planners. They grossly underestimated Ukrainian willingness to fight tooth and nail for every meter of territory, as well as NATO resolve to ensure a Ukrainian victory. This, combined with inept Russian leadership, antiquated tactics, and poorly prepared troops, quickly turned the conflict into the bloodiest conventional war of the 21st Century.
Interrogations of many Russian soldiers captured in the wake of the Battle of Kyiv are revealing. Almost uniformly Russian POWs stated that leadership told them they were going on maneuvers. No indication was given that they would invade Ukraine. None anticipated the type of fighting that took place.
Although the interrogations, such as this one of Russian POWs captured in the first days of the conflict, took place under duress, there is no reason to doubt the reliability of the information provided. The story they tell is similar to that of many other Russian POWs posted online.
Losses to Date
Both sides in the conflict have suffered tremendous losses. Most Ukrainian source reporting is focussed on Russian Federation losses, Ukrainian civilian casualties, damage to civilian structures, and national infrastructure. On the Russian side, losses are generally minimized or underreported.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claims to have inflicted the following losses to date on the invading Russian forces, including mercenary groups and breakaway province militias.
Personnel ‒ Around 145,850 Killed in action
Tanks ‒ 3,350
Armored fighting vehicles ‒ 6,593 captured or destroyed
Artillery systems – 2,352 captured or destroyed
Multiple rocket launch systems – 471 captured or destroyed
Anti-aircraft warfare systems ‒ 244 destroyed
Fixed wing aircraft – 299 destroyed
Helicopters – 287 destroyed
Unmanned aerial vehicles (operational-tactical level) – 2,029 destroyed
Cruise missiles ‒ 873 destroyed
Warships/boats ‒ 18 sunk
Motor transport vehicles including fuel tankers – 5,215 captured or destroyed
Other special equipment (such as armor recovery vehicles or bridging equipment) ‒ 228 captured or destroyed
The Russian government has not published statistics on Ukrainian losses. Peruse Russian new sites, such as Pravda, and it is obvious that the government is keeping the war off the front page as much as possible. Although the Russian government was eventually forced to admit that its forces had suffered “significant losses” in Ukraine. The Ukrainians, for their part, have made their own losses in personnel a state secret and will not make the final body count public until after the war is over. The Ukrainians do admit to having sustained “considerable” losses.
Both sides have likely inflated enemy losses whilst deflating their own. British intelligence recently estimated Russian Federation casualties at 175-200,000, with approximately 40-50,000 killed in action. In November 2022, top American general Mark Milley estimated that the Russians have had “well over 100,000” killed and wounded. The general further commented that the same could be said of the Ukrainians. BBC Russian Service teamed with independent Russian news source Mediazona (designated by the Russian government as a foreign agent) to track confirmed death reports of Russian soldiers in the media. As of February 12th, the group has corroborated the death of 14,093 Russian servicemen in Ukraine. After surveying cemeteries in sixty different Russian towns, they also estimated that their confirmed KIA count is 40-60% lower than the actual number.
As far as civilian casualties go, as of February 13th, the UN Human Rights Commission corroborated nearly 19,000 Ukrainian civilian casualties, but estimated that the number is “likely considerably higher.” In June the Ukrainian Minister of Defense, Oleksiy Reznikov, stated that there had been by that date tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Ukrainian officials believe that over 25,000 civilians lost their lives in the protracted urban battle for Mariupol. Russian forces continue to shell civilian areas. Some of this can probably be chalked up to front line fighting in residential areas where civilians are intermingled with legitimate military targets. Many others, however, appear to be indiscriminate. British intelligence recently reported that Ukrainian civilian casualties are caused by Russia’s “lack of discrimination in the use of artillery and other area weapon systems.”
While not a precise science, combat deaths are estimated in a variety of ways including aerial imagery from satellites, drones, UAVs, as well as combat footage video. The Ukrainians have posted many such videos like the one below on various Telegram accounts – WARNING GRAPHIC.
What appears to be a platoon sized element of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries advance in the open near Bakhmut and come under Ukrainian artillery fire. Eight are killed. The rest retreat while attempting to drag wounded comrades to the tree line.
When it comes to losses in materiel, the Ukrainians definitely have the home field advantage. In any modern conflict, damaged armor and vehicles are not always total losses; they are recovered from the battlefield, repaired, and refielded. Russia has involuntarily become Ukraine’s largest supplier of armored vehicles. Not to mention thousands of rockets, artillery, and other small arms ammunition. Abandoned and captured Russian vehicles compose half of Ukraine’s armor currently in the field.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) recently reported that Russia has lost approximately half of its inventory of T-72B and T-72B3M main battle tanks and a great number of T-80 tanks. They are losing tanks far faster than they can be replaced. Russia has been forced to bring older tank models out of mothballs and into service to maintain numbers. Last summer there were numerous reports that Russia was fielding obsolete T-62 tanks due to heavy losses. By October 2022, the Ukrainians were capturing and refitting them for service in their own armored corps.
An important component of any modern mechanized ground force is the Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), with the Russian BMP series of IFVs composing the backbone of both Ukrainian and Russian armored infantry transport. The Russians have lost thousands of BMPs in the conflict – to the point that they have depleted their reserves of latest generation BMP-3s faster than they can be replaced. Forbes, in an article aptly titled The Russian Army Is Time-Traveling Back To 1966, recently reported that Russia is now pulling obsolete BMP-1s out of storage and putting them into front line service. On paper the Russians have several thousand BMP-1s available, however those that have already been fielded in Ukraine do not have an impressive performance record. Like most first generation innovations, the BMP-1 had numerous flaws, not the least of which being thin armor. So thin that it can be punctured by shrapnel and heavy machine gun fire, not to mention shoulder fired anti-armor weapons such as the American made Javelin or the German Panzerfaust.
There are numerous videos of Russian BMP-1s going up getting shot to pieces or burning like torches after being hit by Ukrainian fire. You may want to mute the volume on the clips. Here are a few – WARNING GRAPHIC.
Both sides have accused the other of committing war crimes or crimes against humanity. The idea that Ukraine is a “Nazi” regime and discriminating against ethnic Russians was at the center of Putin’s pretext for war. In any conflict of this magnitude it is likely that both sides have at one moment or another violated international law on the battlefield. The Wall Street Journal documented one such incident in the video below – WARNING GRAPHIC.
There is, however, no documented proof of widespread Ukrainian crimes against ethnic Russians or Russian POWs as claimed by Russia. On the other hand, there is widespread evidence of Russian crimes against civilians. Everything from looting to rape and murder. In virtually every single town liberated from Russian occupation there is significant evidence of these crimes, including mass graves containing corpses of civilians and Ukrainian servicemen who were killed with their hands bound behind their back.
The Ukrainian State Security Service has posted numerous communication intercepts of Russian servicemen discussing potential war crimes on their YouTube channel. A couple are posted below. A word of warning, the events discussed in the clips below are very disturbing.
Since the Ukrainian summer counter offensives that reclaimed large swaths of territory in the Kharkiv region, the war has settled into a slugfest. A combination of static trench style warfare, frontal assaults, artillery barrages, small unit engagements, and targeted drone strikes. The Ukrainians sit in prepared defensive positions and inflict the maximum in enemy casualties until they are forced to fall back to the next line of prepared positions; they also launch tactical counterattacks, artillery strikes, and use drones to harass enemy troops. Russian tactical doctrine does not appear to have changed much since the mass artillery barrages and callous human wave tactics that the Red Army used in World War II. Significantly, and key to the success of any modern military operation, Russia still does not enjoy aerial superiority. Ukrainian air defense units continue to down Russian aircraft and choppers while launching small numbers of sorties daily on Russian positions. Consequently, the Russians rely heavily on artillery and rocket fire.
The current main Russian effort is centered in Donetsk with the objective of pushing the Ukrainians back to the administrative borders of that region. The main Russian thrust toward Kramatorsk and Slovyansk is an uphill fight against deeply entrenched Ukrainian defenders. The topography consists of ridges and ravines that run north-south as well as a major waterway that must be forded. Perfect for defense but major obstacles to an attacking force. Also hampering Russian efforts is their dependence on a single main rail line for supply.
The area around Bakhmut in the Donetsk region has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the last few weeks since the Russians forced the Ukrainians out of the nearby town of Soledar. The Ukrainians are holding on in the town which now sits at the tip of a salient in the front with Russians on three sides. Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group have led the push in this area. The Ukrainians are fighting fiercely to hold Bakhmut but may soon be forced to fall back as they did in Soledar.
Sixty miles southwest of Bakhmut the Russians have been pressing the attack at Vuhledar (also called Ugledar) in the Donetsk region, with the goal of moving northward and severing Ukrainian west-east supply lines feeding the Donetsk front. Two weeks ago it was reported that Russia lost an entire brigade (5,000 soldiers) in a frontal assault in this area. The Ukrainians subsequently trolled Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu on Twitter, posting a video of a Russian column getting blasted by artillery.
One of the most interesting and impactful tactics in the war is the use of drones in the battlespace. The Ukrainians have incorporated the use of civilian drones in a variety of roles. Economical and easy to use, this makes sense. In the past artillery units relied on forward observers at the front or small fixed wing aircraft to adjust fire on targets. Ukrainians use drones. Much of the footage of the war has been recorded by drones. The Ukrainians have also created numerous reconnaissance units that also utilize modified drones to attack and harass Russian troops.
Looking forward, Ukraine has the strategic advantage. Russian winter offensives promised by Putin, Shoigu, and others are measuring their success in meters, not miles and at a tremendous cost. Russia has been forced to turn to mass conscription due to a lack of volunteer contract servicemen. The conscript “Mobiks” are poorly armed, poorly trained, and being thrust into the front lines where they rapidly become casualties. In Bakhmut it has been reported that average life expectancy on the front line for these troops is only four hours. Russia has depleted stocks of munitions to critical levels and lacks the industrial capability to adequately supply troops. Russia is now receiving military aid from North Korea, Iran and now possibly China in the near future. Putin has also increased nuclear saber rattling. Likely, Russia’s goal is to occupy the breakaway territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, declare the “special operation” a success, and attempt a negotiated peace. The current Russian offensive is supposed to take these territories by the end of March, at least that was what Putin ordered his generals to do at the start of February.
With the continuing supply of western military assistance, the Ukrainians are at present able to keep the Russian advance in check. By late spring or early summer, they will field new armored units composed of modern NATO armor and troops trained in NATO nations. They already took delivery of the first batch of American Bradley IFVs. Ukrainian armor crews are being trained on German Leopard tanks. If the Ukrainian General Staff has the discipline to wait until they have assembled a powerful mechanized strike force instead of immediately feeding new units into the front piecemeal, which will certainly be a great temptation, they will have the means to launch an offensive capable of driving deep into the Russian rear, cutting off supply lines, and liberating large swaths of territory. If they can also get NATO to allow the transfer of aircraft that they pilots can fly, the Ukrainians will have gained the upper hand.