Putin’s Russia can take a lot more losses than it has already
March 23, 2023
  • Sergei Shelin 

    Journalist, independent analyst, until recently commentator at Rosbalt labeled “foreign agent” in Russia 
Sergei Shelin writes that, though the number of Russian dead in Ukraine is already higher than the Afghan and Chechen wars, the Kremlin is not facing pressure to change course. Overall, in the short and medium term, Putin has no reason to worry about problems arising back home.
The original text in Russian was published in The Moscow Times and is being republished here with their permission.
Burial of Russian mercenaries from PMC Wagner who died in Ukraine at the cemetery of the village Bakinskaya, 18 km north-east of the town Goryachy Klyuch, Krasnodar Region. March 2023.
Source: VK
When it comes to a country’s ability to make sacrifices, a benchmark is needed. For today’s Russia, the most suitable one is the so-called “people’s republics of the Donbas” – the DNR and LNR.
At the beginning of 2022, they managed to carry out a draft, which indicated that mobilization was possible and feasible in Russia as well. Which is what happened in the fall. The losses of the DNR and LNR contingents in the conflict have proven very high, and now their involvement in battles has had to be curbed. The scale of the casualties gives an indication of the ceiling for losses that today’s Russia can withstand.

A month ago, the BBC Russian Service, which, together with Mediazona, keeps a list of dead Russian soldiers by name, estimated the losses of the Donbas proxy states at 6,500 killed (5,000 servicemen from the DNR and 1,500 from the LNR). This corresponds to fragmentary information coming in from the Donbas. In December, DNR officials reported 4,200 deaths and four times as many wounded.
If we accept a minimum figure for Donbas losses at 7,000 today and take into account that Russia is 40 times the size of the DNR and LNR, then Russia could take losses of 250,000-300,000. Though arbitrary, these calculations give an idea of the scale of what is possible.

How many dead already

The Ukrainian General Staff reports about 160,000 Russian dead and raises that number by 500-1,000 daily. These estimates have not been confirmed independently. The most reasonable thing is to treat them as we would reports of any warring country about enemy losses.

More moderate figures are given by Western analytical and intelligence outfits. For example, the American Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) puts the number of Russian dead in Ukraine at 60,000-70,000 (including the DNR and LNR). That would already be more than the total losses of the USSR and Russia in all their wars and conflicts after World War II (about 50,000). However, CSIS has not disclosed its methodology.

Thus, for now, the abovementioned, unique project of Mediazona and the BBC remains the most reliable source. As of this writing, they have the names of 16,674 Russian dead (excluding the DNR and LNR). This list is compiled based on public information about the deaths of soldiers, like online posts by relatives, news in regional media, etc.

Russian casualties are definitely greater than 16,700. The investigators themselves caution that “the real death toll may be several times higher.” Most likely, it is about double that. If we multiple by two, we get 33,500.

Thus, the losses of the Russian side, including killed DNR and LNR soldiers (more than 7,000) and several thousand missing, approach 50,000. Though such an estimate cannot claim to be precise, it gives an idea of the scale of what is happening.

No sign of crisis

Now, we can answer the question about whether such losses are capable of shaking Russia enough to convince it to end the war.

On the one hand, the casualties are already twice or three times higher than Soviet losses in the Afghan adventure or Russian (federal) losses in either of the Chechen wars. On the other hand, they are five or six times lower than the “ceiling” of casualties that has already been reached by the Donbas people’s republics without triggering a revolt there.

The list that the investigators keep help us with a few more pieces to the puzzle.

They list 112 dead Muscovites and 149 dead Petersburgers. That is four to five times fewer than, for example, people killed from the Sverdlovsk, Buryatia, Kuban or Chelyabinsk regions. Moreover, the likelihood of dead Muscovites and Petersburgers not being counted is lower than anywhere else. Putin’s blood tax has been much less burdensome for the two capitals.

You do not have to see cynical tactics of the regime in this. The result is clear: there has been and will be less discontent in the capitals over losses simply because there are far fewer dead Muscovites and Petersburgers.

One might think that Putin would eventually face pushback from autonomous ethnic regions like Buryatia, Bashkortostan and Dagestan. Their losses are visibly higher than average. But currently there is no sign of a crisis there either.

Let us now look at the structure of the losses themselves in the last 2-3 months. Due to the attempts of Putin and his generals to turn the tide of the war, the number of weekly casualties has risen. But who is dying the most?
"Of the dead whose status has been established, more than a third are prisoners brought in by Yevgeny Prigozhin and PMC mercenaries. The share of mobilized men is about a quarter. The rest of the fallen are regular soldiers and volunteers."
That is, Prigozhin’s people are shedding the most blood, with 2,600 dead already identified – prisoners and mercenaries. If we assume that their actual losses are twice as high (5,000-6,000) and add in the wounded, about half of the estimated 50,000 that Prigozhin brought to Ukraine have been knocked out of the war.

Fifteen-hundred dead draftees have been identified. Even if the total number is being understated more than usual – and there is reason to think so – it is unlikely that the real number exceeds 4,000 dead. This is out of the 300,000 called up in the fall. That means that the vast majority of “mobiks” are alive and not even wounded. Let’s be realistic: in today’s Russia, such losses will not be considered unbearable.

A secure rear
"The blood tax has been applied differently to different groups of Russians, with those that are capable of exerting at least some influence on the regime clearly paying a lower price."
Not to mention the fact that the nomenklatura is completely and unconditionally exempted from having their sons sent to the front.

There is no reason to expect mass protests like those in the US during the Vietnam War. That experience is not for today’s Russia. The activists of the anti-war movement there were from educated and well-to-do families. In any case, they were less likely to be in the army and dodged the draft more easily. The American heartland, having put up with casualties for quite a long time and remained loyal, in the end paid the biggest price.

But in Russia there is nothing but the heartland now. Any anti-war movement is anathema to the current regime. The people who could have taken part in it understood this and left the country.

What things will be like in a few years is impossible to say, but in the short and medium term, Putin has no reason to worry about the rear. Prisoners can keep being put into the meatgrinder. They have not run out yet. Another one or two waves of mobilization are also quite feasible.

The country will put up with many more tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dead. Thus, the war will not be decided in the Russian rear, but on the Ukrainian front line.
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