Russia Is Readying the Zinc Coffins Again

U.S. officials believe Russia is facing its toughest fight since World War II.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Russian Navy Day parade.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Russian Navy Day parade.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), sits next to Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu as he takes part in the main naval parade marking Russian Navy Day in St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 31. Alexey Danichev/Sputnik Host Photo Agency/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Defense Department believes that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded since the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine less than six months ago, a top Pentagon official told reporters today.

As the Biden administration announced a new $1 billion military aid package for Ukraine, the largest batch of weapons sent to Kyiv since the United States began sending lethal weapons to the war-torn country more than five years ago, U.S. officials sought to highlight the extraordinary toll that the war has exacted on Russia’s military, which they have described as the most intense conventional conflict in Europe since World War II.

“The Russians are taking a tremendous number of casualties on the other side of the equation,” said Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy official. “I think it’s safe to suggest that the Russians are probably taking 70 or 80,000 casualties in less than six months.”

The U.S. Defense Department believes that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded since the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine less than six months ago, a top Pentagon official told reporters today.

As the Biden administration announced a new $1 billion military aid package for Ukraine, the largest batch of weapons sent to Kyiv since the United States began sending lethal weapons to the war-torn country more than five years ago, U.S. officials sought to highlight the extraordinary toll that the war has exacted on Russia’s military, which they have described as the most intense conventional conflict in Europe since World War II.

“The Russians are taking a tremendous number of casualties on the other side of the equation,” said Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy official. “I think it’s safe to suggest that the Russians are probably taking 70 or 80,000 casualties in less than six months.”

Taken together with other U.S. government estimates, the figure could indicate that Ukraine has inflicted more than 10,000 casualties on the Russians in just the last month as new multiple rocket systems have come to Kyiv from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. In July, CIA director William Burns said Russia had suffered around 60,000 casualties, including 15,000 troops killed in action. Ukraine’s military estimates that 42,340 Russian troops have been killed in combat, nearly triple what Western officials have stated.

The upgraded estimate comes as the Ukrainian military has sought to leverage its new precision-guided rocket artillery to take back swaths of territory near Russian-occupied Kherson, seized days into the war and where the Kremlin hopes to hold phony referendums to give it popular justification to annex sovereign territory that belongs to Ukraine, as Moscow did in 2014 with Crimea. The new Pentagon military aid package includes an undisclosed amount of ammunition for the truck-mounted High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), 75,000 rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition, and munitions for Norwegian-made air defenses as well as 1,000 more Javelin anti-tank missile systems. The United States has now provided nearly $10 billion in military aid to Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion, nearly twice Kyiv’s military budget in 2021.

Officials did not immediately translate the impact of Russia’s combat losses into operational efficacy, although independent experts told Foreign Policy that the Kremlin was not suffering enough manpower issues to stop it from holding terrain, even as Ukrainian troops advanced on Kherson. Ukrainian officials have demanded that the United States send Army Tactical Missile System rockets that can hit Russian targets nearly 200 miles away and perhaps hundreds of HIMARS batteries, but the Biden administration has warned Ukraine against hitting targets on Russian soil.

The Pentagon initially estimated that Russia deployed about 120 battalion tactical groups, the Kremlin’s go-to combined arms unit, for the war—numbering around 100,000 troops. Experts said the new casualty estimate is likely to include Russian paramilitary and volunteer forces, such as the mercenary Wagner Group, some units of which have been redeployed from posts in Libya, Syria, and the Central African Republic to fight on the front lines in the Donbas region.

“Otherwise, the Russian military could not withstand that kind of casualty rate and still be fighting,” said Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

U.S. officials believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is reluctant to order a general mobilization that would allow the Kremlin to recruit from the population at large, eager to sustain the false pretense that the war is only taking place in Ukraine’s far eastern provinces to protect Russian speakers. For instance, the Kremlin initially struggled in a recruitment drive near Murmansk, Russia, near the Barents Sea in Russia’s Arctic north. But in the meantime, Lee said, Russia has succeeded in recruiting enough volunteers to continue the conflict through a shadow mobilization drive by relying more heavily on the Wagner Group, volunteer units, and reservists that signed contracts under a revamped system.

“The war is increasingly being fought by volunteers and reservists,” Lee said. “So the question is: Are Ukrainian reserve volunteer units better trained than the guys that Russia is sending up?”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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