March 4, 2024 - 4:40pm

The average Russian soldier may wonder at times whether his own side poses a greater risk to his life than the enemy. The UK Ministry of Defence yesterday revealed that February constituted the bloodiest month for Russia’s troops since the invasion of Ukraine two years ago, with the average number of killed and wounded rising to 983 per day. The MoD attributed this to Moscow’s “commitment to mass and attritional warfare” which, though successful in putting “pressure on Ukraine’s positions across the frontline”, has proven “costly” to the lives of Russian servicemen. 

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Donetsk town of Avdiivka, which fell to the Russians in February and appears to be the main source of last month’s high death toll. While it is always difficult to pinpoint exact losses, neutral sources agree that Russia sustained staggering losses of men and equipment to ensure a symbolic and strategic gain. 

Ukrainian Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi has estimated that, from October until Ukraine’s February withdrawal, Avdiivka claimed 364 of Moscow’s tanks, 748 of its armoured fighting vehicles and 47,186 of its troops, who were either killed or injured. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently stated that the battle took more Russian lives than the entire decade of war waged by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. 

While Kyiv has an obvious interest in highlighting Moscow’s casualties, even Russian pro-war military blogger Andrei Morozov claimed last month that Russia sacrificed 16,000 men and 300 tanks to prevail in the city. Ukraine also sustained severe losses, albeit at a lower rate. Morozov estimated that Kyiv’s fatalities in defending Avdiivka were between 5,000 and 7,000 troops, while Ukrainian forces have spoken of a chaotic retreat in which 850 to 1,000 of their soldiers ended up captured or missing. 

Ukrainian forces have described the waves of inexperienced Russian troops who, lacking protective equipment, have been sacrificed for small territorial advances. With Russia estimated to have 1,320,000 active soldiers and Ukraine 900,000, Moscow has the clear advantage of a larger population — Ukrainian troops who fought in Avdiivka recounted how, vastly outnumbered, they struggled to fend off the seemingly ceaseless deluge of enemy attacks. 

This discrepancy allows Russia not just to absorb a high number of fatalities, but also to pursue multiple assaults in various directions along the entirety of the frontline. Russian defence analyst Ruslan Pukhov has characterised Moscow’s current strategy as an attritional approach of “inflicting many cuts” across the whole front line to exhaust Ukrainian forces, probe areas of weakness and create the preconditions for more significant breakthroughs. However, the strategy of sending out waves of under-trained conscripts is “very costly” for Russia’s army in terms of both men and equipment, leading to an “excessive depletion of forces”. 

While Russia has long adopted these “meat grinder” tactics in the current war as well as conflicts past, there may be a particular reason why Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to incur such high losses at this stage. In February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Moscow is planning a new counteroffensive in late May or the summer, while last year Oleksii Danilov, the Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, predicted that Putin may open a new wave of mobilisation after securing a mandate in this month’s presidential election. Putin could therefore be willing to accept more fatalities now in anticipation of a higher number of mobilised troops who might support his summertime offensive.