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Russian Military Losses, Milestones and What History Can Teach Us About Their Impacts on Regime Stability

Feb 16, 2024

Today, we have reached a significant milestone in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, with Russian casualties—according to Ukrainian official statistics from the General Staff of the Armed Forces—reportedly surpassing 400,000, an additional 1,210 casualties bringing the total to 400,300. This figure, while rough, prompts a deeper examination of Russia's capacity for sustaining such losses and the broader implications for regime stability within the country.

Some Western opinion makers, since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, have loudly argued that not only will Ukraine secure a swift victory on the battlefield through a Blitz-like spring campaign, but also that the Russian regime should tremble as sanctions take effect and casualties escalate. I am not entirely convinced that this narrative is either objectively accurate or serves the interests of the Ukrainian people who endure the burden of the Russian onslaught.

Historically, Russia's willingness to absorb losses has been both a source of national pride and a strategic calculation. The immense sacrifices made during the Second World War, during which the Soviet Union sustained catastrophic losses, did not weaken but rather solidified the Communist Party's power. The Soviet Union reported approximately 8.7 million military deaths during WWII, demonstrating an unparalleled level of resilience and capacity for mobilization that ultimately contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

In comparison, the Soviet losses in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, though significantly lesser in scale, had a profound impact on Soviet politics and society. With military casualties totaling around 14,453, according to Russian sources, the conflict in Afghanistan was pivotal, arguably as momentous as the fall of the Berlin Wall in heralding the end of the Cold War. It underscored the limits of Soviet power and prompted a critical reassessment of Moscow's foreign policy and military engagements abroad.

On a sidenote it could also be mentioned that forgetting about the images from February 1989, of how the last Soviet armored personal carrier rolled its eight massive tires across the so called Friendship Bridge separating Afghanistan from Uzbekistan, spanning the Amu Darya River and shortly followed by Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, who was the commander of the 40th Army and the last Soviet soldier to leave, is not only historically unjust, but also presents a Western-centric perspective on geopolitics.

Turning our attention back to the present, the losses in Ukraine and today’s milestone raise questions about the sustainability of such a conflict and its repercussions on regime stability in Russia. Historically, the Russian state has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to absorb and recover from military losses. However, in a contemporary context, characterized by global connectivity and the rapid dissemination of information, the political and social ramifications may manifest more swiftly and unpredictably.

While it is premature to definitively assess the implications of reaching this milestone, it necessitates a skeptical and analytical approach. The impact of the loss of lives on Russian society, military morale, and political stability warrants meticulous observation.

Comparing the current situation to historical precedents like Afghanistan and WWII provides invaluable context, yet each conflict is distinct with its own set of circumstances and outcomes. History never repeats itself but always chases its own shadow.

As we contemplate the future, it is imperative to heed the lessons of history while recognizing the complexities of modern warfare and geopolitics. The full impact of Russia's losses in Ukraine remains to be seen, but it undeniably marks a critical juncture in the conflict and its broader implications for Russia and the international community. The eventual outcome and its exact impact on regime stability is challenging to predict.

What appears more predictable and less challenging to predict is the outcome of the upcoming presidential election in Russia, where it is reasonable to anticipate President Vladimir Putin's victory.

Andreas von der Heide