Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are now believed to have been killed in its war with Ukraine—a figure that is expected to impact the nation for decades to come. As of December 2022, it is thought Russia’s military losses are double the number of U.S. servicemen who died in Vietnam in one tenth of the time.
The Vietnam Conflict Extract Data File of the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) Extract Files contains records of 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties of the Vietnam War.
In the first week of November, Army General Mark Milley, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said about 100,000 of Russia’s soldiers had been killed or wounded.
On December 4, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said total Russian deaths had reached 110,000. On the same day, Washington DC-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War said Russia was losing around 120 soldiers per day in the battle for Bakhmut. Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces, said that around 56 soldiers are being lost to injury each day, with another 180 being killed daily.
Russian soldiers are facing a new enemy during the country’s continued invasion of Ukraine, with reports surfacing that inadequate gear and clothing has led some troops to die from hypothermia.
“In terms of the number of deaths from a Russian perspective, one comparison is the effect the Vietnam War had on the United States,” Ronald Fricker, a professor of statistics at Virginia Tech, told Newsweek. “In that conflict, slightly more than 58,000 U.S. service members died, most occurring over the timespan of about a decade. For those of us old enough to remember it, that war caused substantial societal impacts.
“Of course, Russia in 2022 is not at all like the United States in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but it is also clear from news reports that this war is not popular with key segments of the Russian population. Combine that with a casualty rate roughly double Vietnam’s that has occurred over about one tenth of the time, and I am of the opinion that we have yet to see the war’s full impacts played out in Russian society.”
The current conflict between Ukraine and Russia began on February 24, 2022, when Russian airstrikes hit across the country. In the months since, various Ukrainian cities and regions have been claimed by Russian forces, who have faced a large amount of military resistance. Russia has begun to conscript soldiers, forcing men to fight unwillingly.
Hundreds of Russian men have reportedly been detained for defying orders from their military commanders, with several being trapped in basements for several days and forced to dig trenches as punishment. Ilya Kononov, a contract soldier from the city of Pskov in western Russia, was charged with “unauthorized abandonment of the unit” after he left without permission for more than 10 days. He was sentenced in July to restriction in military service for one year, with a 10 percent deduction from his monetary allowance.
But what is the true scale of these numbers, and what does it mean for Russia?
People find comprehending large numbers difficult. The bigger the number, the more difficult we find it to truly wrap our heads around the scale. One 2013 study found that when asked to place numbers relative to each other on a number line, participants placed one million halfway between 1,000 and one billion. In reality, one million equals 0.001 billion. Where one million seconds is about 11 days, one billion seconds is about 30 years. Therefore, it is difficult for us to truly understand massive numbers and to picture the scale of hundreds of thousands of human deaths.
In order to better understand the scale of 110,000 deaths and injuries, we need a point of reference that we can compare to.
“One hundred thousand people is the same number [that] attended the 2022 Super Bowl—that figure was officially 103k, but visually it is pretty much the same,” Professor Robert Dover, a criminologist and sociologist at the University of Hull in the U.K., told Global Defense Corp.
One other way to visualize it is in comparison to other causes of death. Russia’s population is roughly 143.4 million people, making these 10,000 possible deaths around one in every 1,430 people, or roughly 70 people per 100,000. That is equivalent to the rate of death from all respiratory illnesses across the country.
In the decade of conflict in Afghanistan between 1979-89, around 15,000 Soviet soldiers were estimated to have died.
“This death toll alone, surprisingly, would not have an enormous effect on the population of Russia or Ukraine, unless it was concentrated on a certain age group; e.g. in WWI most of the deaths were young men and this was visible in the population age structure for generations to come,” Melanie Channon, a demographer and social statistician at the University of Bath in the U.K., told Global Defense Corp.
At the start of the conflict, only Russian men aged 18-40 were allowed to serve in the war, although this was scrapped, with men over 40 being conscripted as of late May 2022.
The absolute impact of these 100,000 deaths and injuries will also be much wider than only the people who have lost their lives.
“Each of them will have circa 10 people in their immediate circles,” Dover said. “Thus the numbers directly impacted might be two million. And two million is sufficient to impact upon the mental health, societal level anxiety of entire towns, cities and regions on both sides. The knock-on impact of anxiety, grief and other comorbidities will be felt over the next 10 to 15 years, as will the additional health and social costs of dislocated families.”
The additional migration out of both Ukraine and Russia will have long-lasting effects on their societies too. Some 7.6 million Ukrainians have fled their country in the wake of the war, according to UN data, while up to 1.6 million having been forcibly deported from their homes after Russian forces took control in their areas.
Plus hundreds of thousands of Russians are leaving their country, both in protest and to avoid being conscripted to fight. Many have fled to Kazakhstan, Serbia, Turkey, Georgia, and Finland. This loss of person-power can negatively impact population health by compromising the health service in Russia, which can quickly cause a large number of deaths in soldiers in need, as well as regular citizens.
“However large the real figure of dead and wounded in Russia [may be] from the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of families are suffering and grieving,” Ronald Suny, a professor of history and political science at the University of Michigan, told Newsweek.
“The fallout from the losses has weakened Putin’s support in the public, but there is no organized or effective opposition. The losses and the disaffection are known to the government. It had hoped for a short, victorious war; instead, it got a war of attrition in which Russians are not doing well.”
If Russia’s casualties continue to mount, public opinion may change, however.
“Russia will lose because if their casualty rate continues as it has, pressure will build in the Russian population to leave Ukraine,” Fricker said.
“Indeed, we’ve already seen that Russia could not sustain a military draft because many parts of the population did not support the war. That will only get worse as casualties continue to mount, and even more so if those casualties are incurred while the Russian military continues to lose ground.”
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