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Some Thoughts on Military Details of the War

Apparently some Russian news site recently published casualty figures of 10,000 dead and 16,000 wounded on the Russian side. The numbers were quickly taken down and denounced by Russia as the result of hackers. I have to say that the numbers do seem higher than I would have expected, and the ratio of dead to wounded is significantly higher than in a normal military campaign, so I am inclined to doubt them. But, the truth is that it is hard to tell. Military data is hard to obtain during a war, even by those who want it and have means to gather it; and of course, they do everything possible to keep what information they have a secret.

America has been used to wars with fewer and fewer casualties: about 36,000 deaths in the approximately 3 years of the Korean War; 47,000 dead in Vietnam over the course of about 8 years (some of them more intense than others); 4,500 in the Iraq War (2003-11); 2,400 in the Afghan War, which lasted 20 years (2001-2021). Even the worst of these, Korea, does not approach 10,000 dead in three weeks. Admittedly, most of these wars have been asymmetric in some stages, and the U.S. has enjoyed varying degrees of technological superiority. The Russia-Ukraine war is a more conventional fight between two standing militaries, so it seems logical that casualties would be higher than what we are used to. However, it is extremely difficult to generalize because I don’t know the intensity of fighting and how concentrated it is at the key points.

I am surprised that I haven’t read more in Western media about Putin’s comment that he would be happy to use volunteers from the Middle East in the Russian army. This is, on one hand, almost a declaration of the lack of morale among Russian forces. If it was just poor training, one would expect the Russian army to improve with experience; but, if the troops simply do not want to fight Ukrainians, no amount of training will make them into a motivated force.

On the other hand, Putin’s declaration seems like a dangerous escalation to the war. Any time one side calls in foreigners to fight, it is inviting an escalation of brutality. This is especially true since Russians and Ukrainians have so much in common, whereas Middle Easterners do not share the language or religion of either. For people from the Middle East, participation in the war would seem to offer valuable training, especially in advanced technologies, as well as experience fighting against a quality opponent. This is the sort of thing that could make them better able to fight Israel or other opponents in the future. For Russia, it is a chance to get troops without scruples of fighting their neighbours, as well as potentially strengthening their ties with Middle Eastern nations.

Now, whether this was more of a wishful statement on Putin’s part, or an actual plan that will come to fruition, it is hard to tell. I have seen references to 40,000 Syrian troops going to Russia, but this seems much too large for the short time that has elapsed. Syria can barely manage its own civil war, and to part with several divisions’ worth of troops would seem like a big risk. That said, I don’t know how many Russians are actually in Syria already, so it may be possible that the Syrian troops have become superfluous (or perhaps will become superfluous as they are replaced by Russians). We won’t know the full truth until the war is over.

Two follow-up notes from headlines in today’s BBC Persian page: “If Kharkov falls, all of Ukraine will fall”, an interesting assessment of the big battle in eastern Ukraine (while everyone is focussing on Kyiv); and “Russian mothers ask: ‘Whom shall I beat at home to get my children back?'” (I assume this is a reference to the fact that they are used to beating their children when they misbehave).

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