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Acoording to the CNN, Russia has lost 87% of troops it had prior to start of Ukraine war:

Russia has lost a staggering 87 percent of the total number of active-duty ground troops it had prior to launching its invasion of Ukraine and two-thirds of its pre-invasion tanks, a source familiar with a declassified US intelligence assessment provided to Congress told CNN.

Still, despite heavy losses of men and equipment, Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to push forward as the war approaches its two-year anniversary early next year and US officials are warning that Ukraine remains deeply vulnerable. (CNN)

Those are not rookie numbers. Why are the Russian Armed Forces so ineffective? Shouldn't the Government of Russia prioritize soldiers getting good equipment and training and superb logistic and supply chains? At this point it seems they're just throwing meat into the meat grinder.

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    I'd also divide any numbers coming from Western sources by 1.5 and multiple any numbers coming from Russian sources by 1.5. For Ukrainian numbers, the multiplier/divider is π.
    – alamar
    Dec 13, 2023 at 12:29
  • "Shouldn't the government prioritize soldiers getting good equipment" - how do you propose that they do that, given the sheer number of sanctions and embargoes that Russia is currently under? Sure, they could manufacture things themselves, but they may not have access to the raw materials that would enable them to do that.
    – F1Krazy
    Dec 13, 2023 at 15:31
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    @F1Krazy: actually, they have all the raw materials. It's the industry churning out more Gerans and Lancets that's somewhat lacking. But they are working on that too. washingtonpost.com/investigations/2023/08/17/… Even so, some sources surprisingly claim that Russia has more drones than Ukraine businessinsider.com/… Dec 13, 2023 at 15:35
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    Voting to close - The data is questionable. The conclusion that "high" death toll mean an ineffective army is also questionable. The claim that the death toll is a result of poor equipment, training or lack of adequate logistics and supply chain is also questionable. Kindly address these issues to improve the answer.
    – sfxedit
    Dec 13, 2023 at 17:08
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    I would strongly caution against trying to understand Russian tactics, motives, and actions using a Western worldview. What is important to you may not be important to them. This may result in actions taken by Russia that appear to be crazy, wasteful, or dumb. These actions, if they yield results, might be fully worth the apparent cost from their perspective. Further, one must recognize that every single report about this war is biased and has been propagandized to some extent. What we see is mostly a curated highlight reel from both sides.
    – David S
    Dec 14, 2023 at 17:01

6 Answers 6

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Why the Russian army is so ineffective?

"so ineffective" is a relative term. Although they failed at their initial regime change goal in Kyiv, they've occupied 20% of Ukraine and have managed to hold onto it, despite....

  • fairly substantial Western material support for Ukraine, but IMHO not quite as unreserved as what e.g. Israel received [from the US] during the Yom Kippur war (for instance.)

  • Russia has various industrial limitations that limit[ed] what they can produce in terms of 21st century fighting. They are ramping up production of various kinds of drones, for instance. Yeah, the Iranian clones get most attention from the Western press, but there are other kinds they're ramping up too. Western sanctions probably had some effect, but Russia has worked around a good number of those.

Advancing against a constantly surveilled battlefield, when the enemy has plenty of ATGMs, drones, precision artillery, quick/remote minefield re-laying etc. has proven a tough nut for Ukraine too despite the level of Western help they are getting. The fabled Western tank tech superiority didn't prove to be the magic bullet some old answers here made it to be, for instance. Quantity does have a quality of its own.

Also, the Western press and analysts have put less effort in determining and publicizing Ukraine's losses:

The estimates [of the latter] vary so widely partly because of Ukraine’s reluctance to disclose its wartime losses even to the American government. U.S. intelligence analysts have also spent much more time focusing on Russian casualties than those of Ukraine, their ally.

That article discusses how some Western sources claimed only 17K Ukrainian military had been killed (and 125K wounded), while others claimed it was 70K killed (and 170K wounded). The "fog of war".

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    I mean, the same outlet CNN has another recent piece that says: "Russia is no longer losing the war, or the terrain it seized, and so Ukraine is definitely not winning it." Dec 13, 2023 at 16:29
  • I would also add the surprise that big armor has lost some of its tactical advantages. This is already causing changing strategy in US military circles, slowly.
    – paulj
    Dec 18, 2023 at 21:59
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It's a partisan leak by the US government, not a serious estimate.

What is the reason for such heavy causalties
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According to the CNN, Russia has lost 87% of troops ... a source familiar with a declassified US intelligence assessment provided to Congress told CNN.

And Reuters also makes a similar attribution:

A declassified U.S. intelligence report assessed that the Ukraine war has cost Russia 315,000

In war in general, the warring parties have a tendency to under-report their side's casualties and to over-report the other side's casualties.

Specifically, in context of the Ukraine war, the US is the second most prominent party on the Ukraine-and-NATO side: It is the main funder and armer, and the patron power to which Ukraine's president looks to for support. Many (including myself) would argue that it is in fact the most prominent party, but let's ignore that.

Anyway, you have the US government intentionally declassifying a report with a casualty estimate, and a source leaking it. Without strong indications that the number is not wishful-thinking, and actually derived from unbiased investigative and estimatory work - it is just another of the many fanciful US "estimates", which one never needs to account for errors in. "Well, we estimated, we didn't say we know this for certain."

Over the course of this war, the US, and perhaps more so US mainstream media, has significantly overstated Ukraine's military performance, understaded Ukrainian casualties, and claimed that Ukranian victory or significant breakthroughs were at hand, with that not being the case. So, don't give this number credence.

(That is not to say that Russia, the LPR and the DPR have not lost many troops since 2022; it's just unlikely that this is close to the real number.)

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Russia would tell you that they are facing the entire might of the Western alliance in a proxy war, and that serious casualties are to be expected in their fight.

Western media would explain that:

  • Russia suffered significant casualties in their most experienced forces early in the war because because they tried to attack with only limited numbers. Then they were replenishing these forces with inexperienced replacements and suffered significant casualties to those, too.
    The Russian leadership badly underestimated the Ukrainian will to fight and they feared the Russian domestic reaction to a full mobilization, so they deployed Battalion Tactical Groups, composite units drawn from many of the most experienced personnel in a regiment or brigade. These BTG were weak in infantry and suffered from that, while their parent units were seriously weakened when it came to fight with the rest.
  • The underestimation of Ukraine's political stability and of the support by the West caused the Russian leadership to expect a short, decisive campaign. Coupled with the secrecy of the initial preparations, logistics preparations were completely insufficient.
  • Russia suffered significant casualties because of orders to complete some operations before politically significant dates, or within a given timeframe. The generals tried that and the troops died.
  • Russia suffered significant casualties to some units because it made the deliberate decision to expend those while protecting others. Troops recruited from prison and also some draftees are sent on suicide attacks to reveal Ukrainian defensive positions. Later on, more experienced troops would use that information for more effective attacks.
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Just to point out that even if the 87% statistic is technically correct, it is a rather strange one to consider. It is

(Casualties during the war) ÷ (Personnel before the war/during peacetime) = 315,000 ÷ 360,000.

The denominator is small because during peacetime, most countries (including even a warmonger like Russia) do not have many active personnel.

It is possible that Russia had only 360,000 military personnel before 24 Feb 2021. (But even this is dubious. According to The Military Balance 2022 (published Feb 2022), Russia had about 900,000 active military personnel.)

But in Dec 2023, "the overall number of Russian military personnel" is "more than 2.2 million" (source).


If we try computing the same statistic for the US in WW2, we have

  • US personnel in 1940 = 458,365 (source).
  • US casualties during WW2 (1941–45) = 1,076,245 (source).
  • Statistic = 1,076,245 ÷ 458,365 = 234.8%.

One might similarly conclude from this staggering 234.8% statistic that the US military was very ineffective during WW2, but I don't think such a conclusion would be correct.

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  • The important question is whether the 315.000 were of the 360.000 or of the 2.2 million. Like did they sacrifice their professional soldiers or did they slaughter rookies.
    – haxor789
    Dec 14, 2023 at 10:11
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    Russia has a much larger order of forces, but only a part of it participated in the 2022 intervention. Moreover, I'm not sure the denominator is as the US claims. I vaguely recall that originally it was about 200K soldiers, but I'm not sure about that, plus maybe they're counting manpower increases since Feb 2022 as well in the denominator.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 14, 2023 at 11:01
  • A 2021 appraisal, quoted on Wikipedia, says the Russian Armed forces had ~1.1 Million active personnel and ~2 Million reserve. This does not include the militias of the Lugansk and Donetsk People's republics.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 14, 2023 at 12:18
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    @einpoklum Yes, but one can certainly make a case that, in a land-only war, you need to primarily consider land forces. From a past answer of mine: no their land force wasn't that big starting out. Which doesn't negate this answer's validity - it is a strange stat to be looking at. Dec 15, 2023 at 18:51
  • @einpoklum: You correctly point out that the 360,000 figure is dubious. I've edited my answer accordingly.
    – user103496
    Dec 17, 2023 at 1:56
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These are not some specific casualties like it would be, for instance, caused by incompetent generals, rotten tanks, drinking too much or other reasons of this kind. We do not need such reasons to explain the observed number of casualties because these numbers are usual, roughly comparable on both sides and comparable with historical examples. It is the war. It costs lives, lots of them, on both sides. Always it does.

The New York Times gives the numbers for both sides: 120,000 deaths and 170,000-180,000 injured for Russia, 70,000 killed and 100,000-120,000 wounded for Ukraine. If Russia would have any specific problems, the difference would be bigger. Now maybe just war prefers the defender.

During the the 1939 Soviet-Finland war that lasted 105 days so less and is somewhat comparable, the Soviet losses were most likely 84,994 dead or prisoners, 186,584 wounded or disabled, 51,892 sick and 9,614 frostbitten (while Nikita Khrushchev said 1,000,000 has been killed, source). There is some specifics, but, in general, roughly comparable numbers. Who wants to mess up with war, should consider this normal and expected.

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  • What do you mean? Do you not see a potential correlation between having more death when your general is an idiot, your tank does not start and half of your brigade is drunk? Seems to me that it should significantly increase the rate of death in your brigade. Dec 15, 2023 at 0:30
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    I want to say, the casualties of Russia side are not excessive. They are normal casualties as expected in the war of this kind and we do not need the explanations as you say to justify them.
    – Stančikas
    Dec 15, 2023 at 9:47
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It's useful to understand that this is a vanity war (an unfortunate but typical problem in authoritarian regimes). Vanity wars are geared towards symbolic goals, not practical military aims, and as such they tend to be more costly in lives and equipment than more grounded military actions. Prior to the war, Russia maintained hegemonic control over Ukraine through political corruption. When that began to slip, Russia wanted to assert control over Crimea — valuable because it is an extremely profitable and useful port region — and then the Donbas area which would give overland access to Crimea. They believed Ukraine (for the most part) wanted to return as a satellite state of Greater Russia, and that little effective resistance would be mounted except by Zelenskyy's immediate allies, so sent their troops in – overconfident and undersupplied — expecting token opposition and a quick (symbolic) victory. They did not anticipate or prepare for significant combat. It's all reminiscent of GW Bush's "mission accomplished" fiasco in Iraq. It took them quite a long time to retool for actual warfare, and in the meantime resorted to WWII era strategies against modern weaponry, something that came at a high cost.

At that point they had lost the cream of their military — the most seasoned professional soldiers and officers – and had to rely on less trained an insufficiently armed conscripts. Further, their various military commands were expected to produce political (symbolic) victories at all costs to justify the war effort, and so Russian commanders frequently have found themselves competing with other commands for achievements and fixated on particular goals regardless of their strategic value. Thus we had the earlier craziness around Bakhmut and the ongoing craziness to secure Avdiivka. When commanders get overly focused on specific achievements without an overarching strategic purpose, it tends to make the bodycount rise. Think Hamburger Hill

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