American attention has been driven somewhat from the war to domestic concerns, making it easy to overlook the fact that what is unfolding in Ukraine is one of the deadliest conflicts of the last 200 years. That it is a “mere” proxy war, rather than a clash between two great powers, also tends to obscure its scope. But the rate at which soldiers are dying is already significantly higher than in the typical war in the modern era – and both sides are digging in, meaning it will steadily climb the list of conflicts that have caused the most total deaths.
The Ukrainian war may seem smaller alongside the two world wars of the 20th century, which killed tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians. But there are extreme outliers distort our understanding of international conflict. The Correlates of War Project, an academic enterprise with data dating back to 1816, provides a more comprehensive picture. The project defines war as an ongoing battle between organized armed forces from different states, resulting in at least 1,000 deaths on the battlefield in a 12-month period. The average war, according to the project, has killed about 50 soldiers a day and lasted about 100 days.
The top 25 percent of wars in terms of intensity are witnessing just over 200 battlefield deaths a day, according to project data. The Russia-Ukraine war is already crossing this threshold, even using conservative estimates of fatalities.
In late May, British intelligence officials estimated that the Russians had lost 15,000 soldiers, which was equivalent to a little more than 150 a day (Ukraine said the Russian number was double; undisputed numbers are hard to come by). The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, admits to having lost 200 soldiers a day. Ukrainian military losses alone push the war into the upper quartile of intensity. (This war intensity intensity does not take into account civilian deaths, but these have clearly also been above the average in Ukraine, given Russia’s arbitrary shelling of cities.)
The Russia-Ukraine war has already exceeded the length of the average war since 1816 (again 100 days). And far from showing signs of settlement, all signs point to widespread hostilities. Russia, for its part, is showing up willing to suffer great losses to achieve military gains (an approach consistent with that nation’s history of warfare). And while Ukraine is overmatched in troops and materiel, factors that can usually shorten a war, it receives a constant supply of weapons and ammunition from outside powers (mostly NATO). This combination of factors has bred one war of exhaustion characterized by sustained long range bombing and intermittently high intensity offensives. Wars of exhaustion tend to be long wars.
Whatever its goal in the beginning, Russia is now consolidate its team on land in the southern and eastern part of the country. Nevertheless, Ukraine has stated that it wants to expel Russia fully from these territories. Displacing an army that has conquered territory is a difficult task that can incur significant costs on the counterattack side. To be clear, this is not a call for Ukraine to moderate its goals; Ukraine’s goal is that it decides. Nor is this an argument for offering Russian President Vladimir Putin a “exit”, Which he must not accept in any case. But it is a warning to all who see the war, to prepare for a protracted, mentally weak conflict.
The top 25 percent of wars, the Correlates of War Project shows, last 13 months or more. Military experts are increasingly predicting that this war is going to last that long. And given that both sides have already been involved in low-intensity conflict since 2015 in eastern Ukraine, it is not hard to see it reaching the three-year limit that only 10 percent of wars have achieved.
Overall deadliness is obviously a function of daily losses plus time. The average number of deaths on the battlefield from the International War Database is 8,000, with the top quartile of wars killing at least 28,000 military personnel. Estimates suggest that the Ukraine war entered the top quartile of total deaths as early as the end of May. And at a continued pace, the war will hit about 125,000 deaths if it lasts a year, well past the 80th percentile of wars.
To put these numbers in context, the Ukraine war has been more deadly than the Mexican-American war (19,000 battlefield deaths), although the latter lasted almost two years. It is approaching the time of death for the Balkan War of 1913, which preceded World War I (60,000 deaths). If the Ukraine war lasts into early 2023, it could surpass the death toll from the Ethiopian-Eritrean war (120,000 deaths), which began in the late 1990s and lasted just over two years. If the war continues through another year, with just over 200,000 deaths on the battlefield, it could enter the top 10 percent of international wars over the past 200 years. This group includes the Franco-Prussian War (204,000 deaths) and the Crimean War in the mid-19th century (260,000 deaths), the latter being the largest war in Europe between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War.
This war will be among the deadliest in the last 200 years, even if NATO and Russia do not succeed in slipping into direct conflict – a prospect that carries the risk, albeit small, of the use of nuclear weapons. So far, both sides have been careful to ensure that even the perception of direct conflict does not escalate beyond isolated cases (such as when a Russian drone drifted over Poland and was shot down). But can it last? As the political and data scientists Bear Braumoeller and Michael Lopate recently pointed outon the website War on the Rocks, experts and policy makers supporting NATO’s growing assistance to the Ukrainian military must recognize “how easily and quickly wars can escalate to shocking levels of mortality.”
“shocking” is, of course, in the eyes of the beholder. By historical standards, the mortality rate of the Ukraine War is already remarkable.