Five weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv has kept the extent of its military losses under wraps, but analysts say the country has probably succeeded in limiting the toll thanks to years of preparation and smart tactics.
Hiding combat deaths and equipment destruction is standard procedure in wartime, and both Russia and Ukraine have given scant details on losses that are impossible to verify, but surely downplayed in order to keep morale up.
“It’s not clear what the rate of attrition is for the Ukrainian forces is. The answer is, We don’t know,” said Michael Kofman, a Russia specialist at the CNA think-tank based in Arlington, Virginia.
Ukraine has provided just two military status reports since Moscow launched its invasion on February 24, initially hoping to overwhelm the country’s main cities in just a few days.
The latest came March 12, when Kyiv acknowledged 1,300 soldiers killed out of the country’s standing land-based force of 130,000 troops.
Taking a standard wartime ratio used by observers of three wounded for every soldier killed, this would mean the fighting has taken around 5,000 Ukrainian soldiers out of combat — a figure analysts say is probably much higher.
Kyiv has been far more eager to discuss Russian losses, giving daily updates that now claim that 17,300 Russian soldiers have lost their lives.
Moscow for its part said on March 25 that after a month of fighting it had lost 1,351 soldiers with 3,825 wounded, with Russian sources confirming the death of one general and a senior naval commander.
But NATO officials estimate that of the 150,000 to 200,000 Russian troops deployed to Ukraine, 30,000 to 40,000 have been either killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
Ukraine’s army also claims it has killed seven Russian generals, a figure that Western officials say would be an unusually high casualty rate among military top brass.
While such differences in tolls are seen as normal in an intense information war that is accompanying the ground conflict, observers say Ukraine may have had some success in limiting losses.
Attackers in a conflict risk greater losses than defenders, analysts say, while Ukraine has also benefitted from considerable improvements in its military over the last eight years.
Even with the help of airborne missile strikes, assault forces often struggle to break through positions held by smaller numbers of dug-in troops.
A recent analysis from the France-based Foundation for Strategic Research said the conflict provides an “excellent demonstration” of the notion of a defensive force being worn down less than an attacking force.
“This is all the more true as Ukrainian forces have adopted tactics based on high-tech guerilla operations instead of direct confrontation, avoiding Russian firepower,” the analysts said.
Analysts also note that since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its aid to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east, Kyiv has hiked defence spending while streamlining its military command capabilities.
The military budget has tripled to some 3.5 billion euros ($3.9 billion) in 2021, and Washington has sent $2.5 billion in defence aid since 2014 even as NATO allies including Canada and Britain have provided training help.
“The Ukrainians were perfectly prepared, and had perfectly deployed their resources,” a Western military source, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
Cutting-edge foreign equipment such as accurate anti-tank missiles from Britain and the US, as well as TB2 combat drones from Turkey have also allowed Ukraine to limit its losses.
Ukraine has also been able to tap on large numbers of human resources with non-professional soldiers willing to swap trades and defend their country.
As of Tuesday, the widely followed Oryx military analysis blog, using photos and videos taken on the battlefields, set Russia’s losses at 318 destroyed or abandoned tanks; over 500 armoured vehicles, 16 fighter jets, 35 helicopters and two navy ships.
On the Ukraine side it counted 79 lost tanks, under 200 armoured vehicles, 12 jets and 13 ships.
“There has been such evidence of the Russian casualties and massive equipment losses that we haven’t seen on the Ukraine side,” said a British military observer, who asked not to be named.