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The danger of downplaying the Ukrainian battlefield toll

Are Americans supporting a policy of brutal attrition based on incomplete and skewed Western coverage of the war?

Analysis | Europe

“Ukraine will win.” Some variation of this has become the unofficial mantra of U.S. policy toward the Ukraine war, asserted in countless columns, interviews and speeches, ones often pledging open-ended U.S. commitment to the Ukrainian war effort and chiding policymakers for not sending greater quantities and more escalatory types of weapons.

It was partly on this basis, in fact — that with enough support, Ukraine could militarily defeat a Russia weaker than many thought — that then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly urged against peace talks early in the war. 

This attitude has been bolstered by the unconfirmed information that’s trickled out publicly about the significant damage inflicted on the Russian military. Besides the disastrous loss of equipment — including half of its usable tanks and as much as 8 percent of its active tactical combat aircraft, by one estimate — the consensus among Western officials about Russian casualties seems to have settled on a staggering 200,000, with more killed than in all of its other post-World War II conflicts combined. 

Yet this central claim of an almost certain Ukrainian military victory over chastened Russian forces is asserted in the absence of one key measure of the military situation: verifiable battlefield losses. From the beginning of the war until now, Ukraine has, like Russia, treated its casualties as a state secret, one so closely guarded that not even U.S. intelligence and officials, who advise the country’s leadership on military strategy and assist in war planning, know exactly how many Ukrainians have been killed and wounded over the past year. This is even though, as one Ukrainian officer told the Wall Street Journal in a recent piece about the grinding battle for the city of Bakhmut, “the war is won not by the party that gains territory, but by the party that destroys the armed forces of the adversary.”

The best we have are various estimates. In November, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley publicly estimated that Ukraine had “probably” seen more than 100,000 soldiers killed or wounded and 40,000 civilians killed, echoing EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s own public admission that month, which she was forced to retract as supposedly inaccurate in the ensuing public outcry. 

This past January, Eirik Kristoffersen, head of the Norwegian armed forces, put forward a similar estimate of more than 100,000 Ukrainian military casualties, and roughly 30,000 civilians killed — though he has also stressed the uncertainty around these figures. 

Whatever the exact number, it’s certain Ukraine has suffered greatly. Last June, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed the country was losing “60 to 100 soldiers per day killed in action and something around 500 people as wounded in action.” As the battle for Bakhmut became the war’s focal point, a January report from Der Spiegel revealed that German intelligence was “alarmed” at the number of Ukrainian lives being expended to hold the city, concluding that Ukrainian forces were “losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day.” 

An American fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in the city recently told ABC that “the life expectancy is around four hours on the front line.” More than a dozen soldiers fighting there told the Kyiv Independent that they felt they, like their Russian counterparts, were also being sent barely trained and under-resourced to their deaths, with the paper concluding that the Ukrainian casualties there “appear to be high as well.” 

Recent developments in Ukrainian mobilization suggests a similarly dire picture. There have been reports since the start of the war of Ukrainian men caught fleeing the country to avoid conscription, but public objections to increasingly aggressive military recruiters have been growing, with more than 26,000 Ukrainians having signed a petition last year calling for an end to the practice of issuing military summonses at checkpoints, gas stations, and on the street. 

Another 25,000 signed a petition opposing legislation passed in January that toughens penalties for desertion and disobedience, a further sign of rank-and-file military unhappiness. In one high-profile case, a man born without hands received a draft notice, and was told upon arriving at the registration office that he was fit for service anyway. None of this suggests the kind of bottomless reserve of willing fighters that the vast majority of press coverage tends to present to the U.S. public. 

This isn’t to say the situation is rosy on the other side. Reports suggest Russia is experiencing all of these same problems in its war effort, from massive battlefield losses and draft avoidance, to a shortage of artillery and signs of desperation among military recruiters, who have mercilessly thrown prison convicts into the Bakhmut meat grinder. 

But with a population more than three times the size of pre-war Ukraine’s estimated 41 million people, Russia can better absorb such military losses, even if Milley is right to call them a “catastrophe.” This is on top of the fact that Ukraine has lost around one-fifth of that number as refugees to other European countries since the invasion. The demographic reality is probably even more dire, since this pre-war figure counts the roughly 2 million inhabitants of illegally annexed Crimea and millions more in the Donbas, while by some estimates, Ukraine’s population has shrunk by 40 percent since its last census was carried out back in 2001, to roughly 30 million or less.

In other words, as catastrophic as these numbers are for Russia, they are even worse for a Ukraine whose population, already dwarfed by Russia’s, has significantly shrunk since the war, and is still heavily reliant on conscripting ordinary citizens to fight — a fact that may account for its military’s increasingly aggressive conscription practices. 

Yet U.S. coverage invariably foregrounds and heavily publicizes Russian losses, while largely de-emphasizing Ukraine’s similar and arguably more devastating ones. A poll from October hints at the implications of such coverage, finding that those Americans more confident Ukraine was winning were more likely to support the continued flow of military aid and even sending US troops, and vice versa.

The lack of public awareness of Ukrainian casualty levels raises a number of thorny questions: Are frequent predictions of certain Ukrainian military victory more fanciful than grounded in reality? Is the American public being misled into backing an escalating military commitment on false pretenses? Has Ukrainian leadership itself, as a result, been incentivized to set unrealistic military objectives that have helped to prolong the death and destruction ordinary Ukrainians have suffered? And has it helped create a political climate in the United States opposed to diplomatic solutions? 

We may soon find out. According to the Washington Post, even Ukrainian officials are now questioning their forces’ ability to launch a successful counteroffensive after the losses they’ve taken, with many of the most experienced fighters taken permanently off the battlefield. 

In a war where information has become a weapon, such reports can’t be treated as gospel. But there are too many signs that they’re not straying far from reality. 

Ukrainian soldiers hold portraits of soldiers father Oleg Khomiuk, 52, and his son Mykyta Khomiuk, 25, during their farewell ceremony on the Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine 10 March 2023. The father and son died in the battles for Bakhmut in Donetsk region. (Photo by STR/NurPhoto)
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