20.11.23 War Review

Competitive Contracts for 'Meat Grinder’ Assaults: The Russian command believes that the capture of Avdiivka will have a great psychological effect and is therefore worth any losses

The joint BBC and Mediazona project, which tracks the dynamics of Russian military losses using open source data, has recorded a sharp, at least twofold, increase in recent weeks. Between 3-17 November, the number of reports of dead servicemen the project was able to identify was 1300, which is comparable to the level of losses identified at the peak of the fighting for Bakhmut in early 2023. At the moment, this surge is linked to desperate attempts at a Russian offensive in the Avdiivka area. Following what experts have recognised as the stalemate of the summer-autumn campaign, the Russian command believes that a breakthrough in this area as winter approaches would have a major psychological effect on both the exhausted Ukrainian army and Western public opinion. The return to the practice of 'meat grinder' assaults is also being reinforced by the fact that the Russian authorities have found a new model to replenish its troops with manpower: a combination of coercion, persuasion and commercial gain. Amendments to next year's budget, which was passed by the Duma during its second reading, also point to an expansion of military stipend programmes.

Russian troops are suffering heavy losses in the offensive on Avdiivka, according to data from the joint BBC-Mediazona project, which tracks the dynamics of the reporting of the deaths of servicemen using open source data. In the two weeks from 3 to 17 November alone, the project identified a total of 1300 such reports. In its latest casualty summary, Mediazona reported: 'We see dozens of obituaries indicating the place of death, the rest are obviously related to Avdiivka, but the place of death is not specified'. For comparison, the number of dead identified was approximately 300 per week from early April to mid-May, about 250 from mid-May to late July, and about 150 per week from early August to early October. The highest mortality rate — about 550 identified dead per week — was observed during the period of the most intense fighting for Bakhmut in January-March of this year. It should of course be noted that these figures do not reflect actual losses, as we are talking only about information found in open sources concerning the deaths of servicemen with the exact date of death, but they are a good indicator of the dynamics of losses and the intensity of the fighting. According to the BBC’s calculations, from June to the end of October, i.e. during the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the losses identified in open sources totalled 6675 people — approximately 1335 per month. Thus, the mortality dynamics for November indicate a roughly twofold increase in the intensity of losses.

As of 17 November, the BBC-Mediazona project identified a total of 37,052 dead servicemen (at the end of September the figure was 33,236). It is conventionally believed that no more than half of those who have died can be identified from open sources (this conclusion is based on a sample monitoring of military cemeteries in 70 settlements over the course of 18 months, the results of which are compared with the data obtained from open sources, the BBC says). Thus, the total losses of the Russian army may currently amount to approximately 75,000 people.

Mediazona's report for the fortnight period in November also contains the names of 14 dead senior officers with ranks of lieutenant colonel and above. Such high-rank losses among the command staff have not been seen since last summer, when Ukraine first started using long-range HIMARS missiles, the publication's experts note. At the same time, most of the officers killed in November were the commanders of assault units.

The sharp rise in casualties given the general stalemate of the summer-autumn campaign reflects the Russian command's desire to make a breakthrough at any cost before the onset of winter, with the hope that this will have a great psychological effect both on both the exhausted Ukrainian army and on Western public opinion. This desire is reinforced by the fact that the Russian authorities, as Re:Russia has recently written, have found a workable model for replenishing its manpower, incorporating elements of coercion, persuasion and commercial gain, and can thus once again afford 'meat grinder’ assaults.

The fact that the Kremlin intends to develop this model of a new competitive contract and use it to increase the number of troops available is also evidenced by the increase in spending on military personnel in the new version of the budget proposed to the Duma for a second reading. In this version of the budget, the government has 'declassified' 1.2 trillion rubles of expenditures that were previously 'closed' items. The declassification itself has no effect on the amount spent — it is expected that 10.7 trillion rubles will continue to be spent on defence. The only real mystery lies in the allocated expenditures related to 'closed' articles in other sections of the budget, which, as many experts assume, may also be related to the financing of the war. We have learnt from the new version of the budget that military personnel are expected to be paid 370 billion rubles under the budget section titled 'National Defence', as well as 181.9 billion allocated under the state programme for 'Ensuring the country's defence capability', RBC writes. At the same time, the new contract model shifts a portion of the costs to regional budgets and regional businesses, which are supposed to help governors fulfil plans to supply contract personnel for the war.