29.02 War Review

Calculating Losses: The ‘meat grinder' strategy remains the main element of the Russian offensive doctrine

Russian military losses since the start of the war amount to 85,000–90,000 individuals. The exact figure is less significant than the range, which BBC, 'Mediazona,' and 'Meduza' have managed to establish through two different methods. If we include the armies of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics fighting on the Russian side, the number will increase by approximately 20,000–25,000 individuals. Russian losses likely exceed Ukrainian losses not by 2.5 times, as claimed in Kyiv, but by 1.6-1.7 times, still a significant margin — a difference of about 35 thousand people. Moreover, Russian losses in the second year of the war exceed those of the first by approximately twofold. This is partly due to Ukraine acquiring much more effective weaponry and the widespread use by the Russian command of the 'meat grinder' tactic to achieve tactically insignificant but politically advantageous victories, such as the capture of Bakhmut and Avdiivka. Currently, Russian forces seek to exert psychological pressure on Ukraine and its allies by demonstrating initiative and attacking Ukrainian positions on multiple fronts. However, the scale of resources expended in the process will likely prevent Russia from achieving significant tactical goals, rendering these losses meaningless, according to analysts.

Analysis of the scale of Russia's losses, conducted using two different methods — in a joint project by BBC and 'Mediazona' on one hand, and in the project by 'Meduza' and 'Mediazona' on the other — allows us to assert that we now have a fairly accurate count of the number of military personnel killed in the two-year war with Ukraine. This figure stands at approximately 85,000–90,000 individuals. In fact, this number may be slightly lower due to errors in accounting for deaths related to the Russian AIDS epidemic or slightly higher due to missing persons and cases where inheritance matters remain unresolved, as well as due to the large number of Russian so-called 'bear corners', where deceased members' information does not reach the public space. The crucial point is not the exact number, but that the anchor value around 90,000 is highly reliable.

Why can we assert this today? If we recall that the BBC-'Mediazona' project maintains a named list of deceased servicemen based on open sources (social media posts, obituaries on local administration websites, media reports, etc.). By observing cemeteries in 70 settlements in Russia, the project concluded that the number of 'military' graves exceeds the number of names of the deceased identified by about twofold. On the second anniversary of the war, the project identified 45,123 names of the deceased (with data from the final weeks of monitoring typically resulting in additional increases). Consequently, the estimated number of deceased individuals should be around 90,000.

The 'Meduza'-'Mediazona' project employs a different method. Its conclusions are based on a statistical analysis of excess male mortality using data from the registry of inheritance cases, which remains an open source because notaries are legally required to publicly inform potential heirs about open inheritance cases. Based on this data, 'Meduza' claims that Russia's military losses in the war with Ukraine amount to 75,000 individuals. However, it is noted that this figure is an estimate that may not be entirely accurate. The reliable range is 66,000–88,000 individuals, and the actual figure may deviate towards either end of the range. Additionally, this method does not allow for an accurate assessment of recent losses — 'Meduza's' calculations cover the period until the end of 2023. Extrapolating from the pace of losses in the last quarter of 2023, 'Meduza' suggests adding another 7,800 individuals for January–February, resulting in an anchor figure of 83,000 individuals.

However, another crucial outcome of the statistical analysis conducted by 'Meduza'-'Mediazona' is that after analysing the data from the BBC-'Mediazona' project, analysts concluded that the number of deaths within a certain period, according to their data, exceeds the number included in the monitoring of the first project by more than 1.8–2 times. This implies that the 'graveyard index' of BBC-'Mediazona' is accurate and confirmed by another method. Applying the adjusted coefficient by 'Meduza' to the data of the named list, we arrive at 85,000 individuals. Thus, the actual number of deaths could realistically be 85,000 (with a higher probability) or slightly over 90,000, but it is unlikely to be 70,000 or 110,000–120,000. The estimate of 85,000–90,000 is the result of applying the two independent methods.

However, these are not all the casualties of the war. Based on obituaries and messages about missing individuals, the BBC-'Mediazona' project concludes that losses in the armies of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions could amount to approximately 22,300 individuals. Thus, the total losses on the Russian side may increase to approximately 110,000 individuals. Meanwhile, the 'Meduza'-'Mediazona' project conducted a selective check of the database of deceased soldiers from the Ukrainian side, UAlosses, which lists 42,150 names, and concluded its high reliability. Researchers also believe that its completeness is significantly higher than that of a similar database by BBC-'Mediazona'. Additionally, they point to the registry of missing persons maintained in Ukraine, which includes around 15,000 soldiers. This suggests that the total number of deaths from the Ukrainian side could exceed 60,000 individuals. Thus, on average, more than 120 Russian military personnel die every day of the war, over 150 when considering losses in Luhansk and Donetsk, and over 250 military personnel from both sides combined.

The pace of Russian losses in 2023 increased, totaling nearly 50,000 individuals for the year, which is twice the number of losses in 2022 when Russia lost about 24,000 military personnel (however, the initial stage of the war is an area where losses unaccounted for by both projects may be concentrated). The peak losses occurred during the battle for Bakhmut from January to March 2023. The next point of explosive growth in deaths was in the autumn of 2023 amid the beginning of the Russian offensive on Avdiivka. The reasons for the twofold increase in losses include Ukraine acquiring more effective Western weaponry in the second year of the war and the 'meat grinder' ideology adopted by the Russian command. The Russian military strategy remains despotic in nature, assigning significant importance to symbolic territorial gains devoid of strategic value, considered as a political factor, while not facing pressure regarding the scale of human losses. As evident from the calculations presented, the ratio of losses on the Russian and Ukrainian sides is not as devastating as claimed by Volodymyr Zelensky: Russian losses exceed Ukrainian losses not by 2.5 but by approximately 1.6–1.7 times. However, this difference in losses (around 35,000 individuals) is substantial with minimal tactical results.

The capture of Avdiivka serves as a vivid example of such a 'Zhukovian' military campaign. According to the BBC-'Mediazona' project, from October to February, the number of confirmed deaths exceeded 6,600 individuals (i.e. 13,500 when accounting for the double coefficient), while according to American intelligence, by mid-December, Russian irreversible losses (killed + seriously wounded) in the offensive on Avdiivka amounted to 13,000 individuals. Sources close to military blogger Andrey Morozov, who took his own life after publishing this data in mid-February, cited a figure of 16,000 irreversible losses. Russian military analyst Ruslan Pukhov believes that the Russian side currently relies on a tactic of 'multiple cuts,' exerting pressure on Ukrainian positions on many fronts to wear down the enemy and force it to expend ammunition, the shortage of which is increasing. This tactic also entails knowingly higher losses for the attacking side, which does not aim to achieve a strategic breakthrough, essentially embodying the concept of 'cannon fodder’.

The dynamics of losses over two years reflect the changing recruitment principles: in the initial stage of the war, casualties mainly consisted of old-style contract soldiers, then, in late 2022 – the first half of 2023, mobilised and conscripted soldiers, and finally, in the second half of 2023 and the beginning of 2024, so-called volunteers, essentially contract soldiers of a new type (now including conscripts), make up the majority. In recent months, Russian authorities seem to be in a state of euphoria due to the success of the renewed contract system, which has provided a significant influx of troops (→ Re:Russia: Competitive Contracts for 'Meat Grinder' Assaults). However, the statistics of the deceased show that the proportion of contract soldiers is rapidly increasing and has already reached 40% of all losses.

According to calculations by the Estonian Ministry of Defence, cited in a report by 'Meduza,' with irreversible losses of 50,000 individuals in six months, Russia will not be able to replace them with any sufficiently prepared contingent capable of conducting offensive operations. The same opinion is held by Pukhov, who asserts that the tactic of 'cannon fodder' is 'costly in terms of losses and resource consumption and may lead to excessive exhaustion of forces, which, in turn, will partially transfer the initiative back to the Ukrainian side'. Despite the excessive losses, he believes that this tactic will not create opportunities for a breakthrough. Moreover, the effectiveness of this tactic will sharply decrease if, at some point, the Ukrainian side overcomes the shortage of ammunition. Currently, according to statements by Ukrainian officers cited by the New York Times, they are forced to refrain from strikes if they see that there is not a sufficient number of Russian soldiers accumulated at the impact point.