American attention has shifted somewhat from the war to domestic concerns, making it easy to forget that what is unfolding in Ukraine is one of the deadliest conflicts of the past 200 years. The fact that it is a “simple” proxy war, rather than a confrontation between two great powers, also tends to mask its scale. But the rate at which soldiers die is already significantly higher than in typical warfare in the modern era – and both sides are digging in, which means it will steadily increase the list of conflicts that have caused the most deaths.
The Ukrainian war may seem minor compared to the two world wars of the 20th century, which killed tens of millions of soldiers and civilians. But these are extreme outliers that distort our understanding of international conflict. The Correlates of War Project, an academic endeavor whose data dates back to 1816, offers a fuller picture. The draft defines war as sustained combat between organized armed forces of different states that results in at least 1,000 battlefield deaths over a 12-month period. The average war, according to the draft, killed about 50 soldiers a day and lasted about 100 days.
According to project data, the top 25% of wars, in terms of intensity, have just over 200 battlefield deaths per day. The Russian-Ukrainian war already exceeds this threshold, even using conservative estimates of fatalities.
At the end of May, British intelligence officials estimated that the Russians had lost 15,000 troops, which equated to just over 150 per day (Ukraine said the Russian figure was double; undisputed figures are hard to tell). to find). The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, admits to losing 200 soldiers a day. Ukrainian military casualties alone push the war into the top quartile of intensity. (This measure of war intensity does not take into account civilian deaths, but these were clearly above average in Ukraine as well, given Russia’s indiscriminate bombardment of cities.)
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The Russian-Ukrainian war has already exceeded the duration of the average war since 1816 (again, 100 days). And far from showing signs of running out of steam, everything points to prolonged hostilities. Russia, for its part, appears ready to suffer heavy losses to make military gains (an approach consistent with this nation’s history of warfare). And while Ukraine is overwhelmed with troops and materiel, factors that would normally shorten a war, it receives a steady supply of arms and ammunition from outside powers (mainly NATO). This combination of factors has led to a war of attrition characterized by sustained long-range bombardments and intermittent high-intensity offensives. Attrition wars tend to be long wars.
Whatever its initial objectives, Russia is now consolidating its hold on the lands in the south and east of the country. Yet Ukraine has said it wants to completely expel Russia from these regions. Dislodging an army that has taken over territory is a difficult task that can impose significant costs on the counterattacking side. To be clear, this is not a call for Ukraine to moderate its goals; It is up to her to decide on Ukraine’s objectives. Nor is it an argument for offering Russian President Vladimir Putin an “exit ramp” that he will in no case be able to accept. But it is a warning to anyone watching the war to prepare for a prolonged and bloody conflict.
According to the Correlates of War Project, the top 25% of wars last 13 months or longer. Military experts are increasingly predicting that this war is about to last that long. And given that both sides have already been embroiled in a low-intensity conflict since 2015 in eastern Ukraine, it’s not hard to see it reaching the three-year mark, which only 10% of wars have achieved.
Total mortality is naturally a function of daily losses plus time. The median number of battlefield deaths according to the International Wars Database is 8,000, with the top quartile of wars killing at least 28,000 military personnel. Estimates suggest the war in Ukraine entered the top quartile for total deaths as early as late May. And at a steady pace, the war will claim some 125,000 lives if it lasts a year, well beyond the 80th percentile of wars.
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To put these figures into context, the war in Ukraine was more deadly than the Mexican-American war (19,000 battlefield deaths), although the latter lasted almost two years. It is close to the death of the Balkan War of 1913 which preceded the First World War (60,000 dead). If the war in Ukraine lasts until early 2023, it could exceed the total death toll from the Ethiopian-Eritrean war (120,000 dead), which began in the late 1990s and lasted just over two year. If the war continues for a second year, then at just over 200,000 battlefield deaths, it could enter the top 10% of international wars in the past 200 years. This group includes the Franco-Prussian War (204,000 dead) and the Crimean War of the mid-19th century (260,000 dead), the latter being the largest war in Europe between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War.
This war will be among the deadliest of the past 200 years even if NATO and Russia manage not to slide into direct conflict – a prospect that carries the risk, albeit small, of the use of nuclear weapons. So far both sides have ensured that even the perception of direct conflict does not escalate beyond isolated cases (like when a Russian drone drifted over Poland and was shot down) . But can it last? As political scientists and data scientists Bear Braumoeller and Michael Lopate recently pointed out on the War on the Rocks website, pundits and policymakers who support NATO’s growing aid to the Ukrainian military must recognize ” how easily and quickly wars can escalate to shocking levels of lethality”. .”
“Shocking”, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder. By historical standards, the lethality of the war in Ukraine is already remarkable.