Spike in Russian Combat Deaths Fuels Fears of Worse Carnage to Come

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Ukrainian troops carry the coffin of a fellow soldier killed by mortar fire outside the city of Bakhmut, Ukraine, in early April 2023.

The rate at which Russian forces are being killed or wounded in Ukraine has spiked in recent months, according to estimates disclosed by the White House this week, underscoring how ferocious the combat has become and suggesting the carnage could get even worse with Kyiv’s long-planned counteroffensive to retake occupied territory.

Such a scenario could compound the already staggering number of military casualties suffered on both sides of the war, officials and analysts say, a figure that may be greater than 360,000 dead and injured combined since the war began, according to a tally of the most recent Western assessments to become public.

Those assessments come as the United States and its allies continue to provide Ukraine with an ever-expanding arsenal of weapons intended to inflict devastating losses on Russia’s army – even as, in private, U.S. officials have determined that Kyiv’s counteroffensive will probably yield only “modest territorial gains” with the bloodshed extending well into 2024 with neither side securing victory.

The White House this week, in an apparent attempt to portray President Vladimir Putin’s military as badly degraded, said that about 20,000 Russians had been killed in action since December alone, as the Kremlin readied for a multi-prong offensive intended to break the Ukrainian resistance in multiple regions. Another 80,000 Russian personnel had been wounded in that time, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Many of those casualties, U.S. officials surmise, have occurred in Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city where Putin’s army – augmented by tens of thousands of private paramilitary fighters and prison convicts – has since late last year mounted an intense fight against dug-in Ukrainian forces.

It’s unclear how many casualties Ukrainian units have suffered in that time. Kyiv keeps those numbers a secret, worried that too much transparency could weaken its troops’ morale and dampen public support for the war.

The U.S. government, similarly, has refused to disclose what it knows about the scope of Ukraine’s losses. A leaked intelligence assessment from late February that surfaced online with several other U.S. secrets indicated that up to 17,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in action since Putin’s full-scale invasion began a year earlier. The classified document said that, over the war’s first 12 months, as many as 42,500 Russian troops had died as a result of the fighting.

The battle for Bakhmut has been especially horrifying, with Russian airborne units seizing control of high ground on the city’s flanks as commanders with the Wagner Group, the paramilitary organization, order Russian convicts to assault through neighborhoods in the city’s center. Unlike Russian military units, the convicts generally are not allowed to retreat under any circumstances and have been killed at a disproportionately high rate.

Kirby, in his remarks Monday, said that “nearly half” of the 20,000 Russian military fatalities since December were Wagner personnel, with thousands of deaths among the convicts ordered into battle in an effort “to throw human flesh at this fight.”

Bloodshed has occurred in other locations since December, however. Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who has closely followed the conflict, said Russian forces suffered significant fatalities during their winter offensive in Vuhledar, Kreminna, Marinka and elsewhere. Those losses, he said, also explain the rise in Russian casualties noted this week by the White House.

“When you’re attacking,” Lee said, “you’re typically going to take more casualties.”

Lee pointed to how well fortified Ukraine’s defensive positions are, saying that any Ukrainian counteroffensive could face similar obstacles and a rise in Ukrainian military deaths.

The Ukrainian military has said its continued, costly defense of Bakhmut, now the war’s longest battle, was a strategic move aimed at weakening Russia by making its military expend more people, ammunition and other resources. Analysts have warned, though, that Ukraine also is suffering heavy casualties and burning through large qualities of materiel.

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s ground forces commander, told The Washington Post in February that Kyiv considers forces from Wagner among the most effective of Russia’s units. The more Wagner fighters who die in the battle for Bakhmut, Syrsky said, the fewer there will be for Ukraine to worry about during its counteroffensive.

“Russia,” Syrsky said at the time, “always concentrated the most prepared units here. And Russia suffered the heaviest losses here. . . . If you look at this whole area, it’s literally soaked in the blood of people who died here.”

As the Ukrainian military has lost ground in Bakhmut since the start of the year, U.S. officials have downplayed the city’s strategic value. Privately, they also advised the Ukrainians to withdraw in January, said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

Instead, Ukrainian officials have amplified what they consider to be Bakhmut’s symbolic importance. Appearing before the U.S. Congress late last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky compared the fight to the battle for Saratoga during the American Revolution.

“It really keeps a large number of Russian troops tied up and prevents them from breaking through our country in different directions,” Zelensky said in an interview with The Post on Monday. “That is why all the military believe that this is a very important point and that a large number of enemy troops are destroyed there.”

Assessing casualty counts remains difficult, as U.S. and other Western officials have acknowledged a limited ability to observe the battlefield, and efforts by Russian and Ukrainian commanders to protect operational security by obscuring the true scope of each side’s losses.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with Foreign Affairs magazine published Tuesday that Russia has suffered “maybe” 200,000 or 250,000 dead and wounded overall in the war. Putin has replaced them, Milley said, with waves of reservists who are “poorly led, not well trained, poorly equipped, not well sustained.”

The leaked U.S. intelligence assessment from late February says that American officials believed with “low confidence” that between 35,000 and 42,500 Russian soldiers had been killed at that stage of the war, with another 150,500 to 177,000 wounded. The same assessment listed Ukraine’s losses at between 15,500 and 17,000 dead after a year of war. Another 106,500 to 110,500 were believed to have been wounded.

Despite the bloodshed, neither side seems inclined to end the war. The conflict, according to another leaked assessment, is expected to drag on into 2024, even if Ukraine inflicts “unsustainable losses” on Russian forces. “Negotiations to end the conflict,” the document says, “are unlikely during 2023 in all considered scenarios.”