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Ukraine Jumps The Shark

Volodymyr Zelensky's claims of how many Russians have died in the invasion should be met with intense skepticism.

Ukraine’s tally of dead Russians is growing by the second. At least, that’s what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian military would have people believe. Those figures, however, as well as all information from the early days of war, should be met with intense skepticism, especially when compared to Russia’s death tolls from other recent conflicts.

Last Wednesday, Zelensky, looking understandably exhausted and depleted, gave a televised address in which he asserted that Ukraine had claimed the lives of 6,000 Russian soldiers since the invasion began.

“Think of this number: almost 6,000 Russians died. Russian military. In six days of war,” Zelensky claimed. “This is without counting the losses of the enemy last night. Six thousand. To get what? Get Ukraine? It is impossible.”

As he has since the beginning of the invasion, Zelensky encouraged Ukrainians to keep fighting. “We are on our native land. And for the war against us there will be an International Tribunal for them,” Zelensky went on to say. “My dears, the time will come when we will be able to sleep. But it will be after the war, after the victory in a peaceful country, as we need.”

The Russians have rebutted Ukraine’s claims. Thus far, Russia’s Ministry of Defense has remained rather tight-lipped about Russian losses over the first week of the invasion. When it has released statements, they have predominantly been about the Russian advance or the Russians’ alleged pursuit of ceasefire talks with Zelensky or one of his representatives. Last Wednesday, however, the Russian Ministry of Defense said 498 Russian troops had died in the invasion and 1,597 had been wounded.

Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman, said Ukrainian claims of “incalculable losses” incurred by the Russian military are “disinformation.”

By Thursday, the Kyiv Independent reported that Ukraine’s Armed Forces estimated Russia had lost 9,000 troops, 217 tanks, 900 armored personnel carriers, 90 artillery pieces, 42 multiple launch rocket systems, 30 planes, 31 helicopters, 11 anti-aircraft installations, 374 cars, 60 fuel tanks, and 2 boats since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Meanwhile, the alleged Russian death toll climbed to 10,000 by March 5, then over 11,000 on March 6, according to Ukraine’s armed forces.

Propaganda machines, on both the Ukrainian and the Russian side, have been working in overdrive to present the best possible face. For the Ukrainians, stories like the “Ghost of Kyiv” and alleged photos of Ukrainian politicians taking up arms to defend their country are meant not only to inspire Ukrainians but convince other Western nations that they might be able to stave off the invasion if given the proper help and resources. When those efforts failed to inspire further Western engagement, the Ukrainians accused Russia of various war crimes, such as claiming that Russia was attempting to trigger nuclear meltdowns in Chernobyl and Zaporizhia—a claim that was quickly debunked.

The Russians, on the other hand, have tried to convince the world that the current invasion is still going according to plan, though the reality appears to be that the Russians have been met with more resistance than they anticipated.

While the fog of war has obscured the truth of what’s happening on the ground, a betting man would likely put his money on a reality somewhere in between the claims made by the two combatants. Where in between then becomes the question—there’s a lot of daylight between some 11,000 dead Russian soldiers and 500.

If the previous experience of the Russian military in the post-Cold War era has any bearing on what’s currently unfolding in Ukraine, it’s likely Russia’s estimates and framing of the conflict are closer to reality than Ukraine’s.

In the Second Chechen War, fought between Russia and the Islamist fighters of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Russia sought to regain control over Chechnya after failing to do so during the First Chechen War, which lasted from 1994 to 1996. Russia’s new prime minister, a former KGB agent and director of the Federal Security Service named Vladimir Putin, argued the situation in Chechnya was untenable, and its independence provided protection for terrorists who carried out attacks on the Russian people, such as the Russian apartment bombings.

When an army of about 2,000 led by the Chechnya-based Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade’s Shamil Basayev attempted to invade the Russian republic of Dagestan on August 7, 1999, Putin had undeniable justification for war.

On August 26, Russia began its advance into Chechnya. After a siege that lasted from December 1999 to February 2000, Russia established control over the Chechen capital city of Grozny by almost leveling it completely. Over the course of the siege, Putin became president. By late May, Russia claimed to control enough of Chechnya to declare direct rule over it, marking an end to the major fighting in the conflict, though insurgency efforts continued for nearly another decade.

The brutal war exacted a heavy human toll. NGOs estimated civilian casualties to be anywhere between 25,000 and 250,000. An article from the Chicago Tribune dated November 24, 1999, about three months into the fighting, claimed that Russia was losing troops at the same rate as the Soviet Union did in its failed invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. “Since fighting began in August in neighboring Dagestan and then moved into Chechnya, the Russians have lost at least 462 soldiers, according to official statistics. A further 1,485 Russian soldiers have been wounded,” the Tribune reported.

Ukraine, as Zelensky and the Ukrainian armed forces would have us believe, has killed 13 to 24 times as many Russians in the first week of the current conflict as the Russians lost in the first three months of the Second Chechen War. In total, pro-Russia forces suffered just over 7,000 fatalities in the entirety of the decade-long Second Chechen War. Ukraine’s armed forces estimate they’ve already surpassed that.

As for the First Chechen War, a humiliating defeat for Russia, Russia claimed to have lost 5,732 soldiers, though some Russian NGOs estimate the losses were higher. What about the aforementioned Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was used to frame Russia’s advance into Chechnya in 1999 as an abject failure? The decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan claimed the lives of about 15,000 troops. Another 60,000 were wounded.

Certainly, the armaments and aid Western nations have provided Ukraine since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 have likely helped Ukraine exact a heavier price from Russia for its invasion than expected, but do the Ukrainians really expect the rest of the world to believe that they’ve punished the Russians so severely without causing the Russian advance to grind to a halt?

When a story is too good to be true, chances are it isn’t.



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