The Russian authorities mistakenly released an estimate of the number of Russian soldiers killed in action in Ukraine, as of February 1, 2015. It came to roughly 2,000. That is a larger number than I would have expected.
How intense is the fighting? In part, that depends on when the bulk of the troops arrived. If we date the start of the fighting from the first armed clashes on April 7, 2014, then the Russian armed forces have suffered a casualty rate around 7 per day. If, on the other, we date involvement from the first known large-scale Russian troop movements on August 22, 2014, then Russian soldiers have been dying at a rate around 12 soldiers per day.
How intense is that compared to other wars? Well, it depends on our point of reference. The Correlates of War database classifies war into three types: interstate, intrastate, and extra-state. Interstate wars are wars between states. Intrastate wars are (basically) civil wars. Civil wars in which foreign governments send forces become internationalized intrastate wars. Extrastate wars are wars between a state and a non-state actor fought outside the metropolitan territory of the state.
Wars can and do shift categories. For example, a civil war can start off as an internationalized intrastate war. But if a foreign government takes over the bulk of the fighting from local forces, it switches to an extrastate war. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan provides an example. Similarly, if a foreign government takes over the bulk of the fighting from an insurgency, an intrastate war will switch to an interstate war.
So far so good? The Donbass War, then, looks like an interstate war. (Is there is a political component to the choice of the number of “s’s” to put at the end of Donbass?)
How does it stack up to other post-1945 interstate wars in terms of Russian battle deaths?
Short answer: A battle-death rate between 7 and 12 per day is surprisingly intense.
Longer answer: Israel lost 3 soldiers per day during the 146 days of the First Lebanon War (1982); their Syrian opponents suffered around 8. The United States lost 4 soldiers per day in Gulf War 1 (considering all 86 days, not just the 100 hours of intense combat) and 3 per day in Gulf War 2 (over the 44 days of the 2003 invasion). Vietnam took 6 losses per day over 471 days of fighting during the 1977-79 pacification of Cambodia. The Second Ogaden War of 1977-78 may be almost forgotten outside Cuba and the Horn of Africa, but it was not low-intensity by any measure: Ethiopia lost 8 soldiers per day and their Cuban allies lost 6. India lost 7 soldiers per day over 70 days of fighting in the 1999 Kargil War; Pakistan lost 10. Argentina suffered 9 battle deaths per day over the 81 days of the Falklands War. Ecuador took 11 deaths per day over the short 48-day Cenepa War in ‘95; Armenia suffered 12 per day during the (rather longer) 463-day Azeri-Armenian War of 1993.
Putin can take some solace that the fighting is less intense than the 20 battle-deaths per day inflicted on American soldiers during the 2,912 days of the Vietnam War. (Which was an interstate war, by the way.) But it is in the range of the 12 per day suffered by Soviet forces during the 3,280 days of its fighting in Afghanistan. (Which was a classic extrastate war.) And it is at least as bad as the 7 deaths per day that France suffered over the 2,695 days of the Algerian War of independence.
As bad as the French in Algeria!
On the other hand, France fought for a long time in Algeria, and an annual average conceals a lot: by 1960 its battle-deaths were almost nil. And we need not mention the Russians in Afghanistan or America in Vietnam. These casualty levels can be tolerated for a long time with enough political will.
Does the relative intensity of the fighting say anything about the ultimate result in Ukraine? Probably not. Considering only the three wars listed in the above paragraph, the foreign government only lost one of the three.
By 1959, France had pacified Algeria to a level of violence below that which many nations have endured for decades and then (wisely) decided over the next three years that the game was not worth the candle. The context for that decision does not apply to the Donbass, where continuing inter-ethnic violence after the end of the war appears unlikely.
In Afghanistan, the Soviets turned the fighting over to a client state which was capable of staying in power as long as it received continuing financial and logistical assistance. I do not know if the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk will ever reach that point, but it is not inconceivable. That would be a victory unless the Russian Federation suffers a USSR-like collapse.
Only the United States can be clearly said to have lost its war against North Vietnam. The U.S. could no longer politically sustain a troop presence after 1973, but had no credible local force over to which to turn the effort. SVN forces started to crumble almost immediately after 1973. By the time Congress pulled the plug, South Vietnam was doomed.
Perhaps that could happen in Ukraine ... but consider how long the United States tried to win a war fought thousands of miles away amid a people to which we had no historical ties. The Donbass is right next door and populated by Russian speakers. No comparison.
To sum up: the Russians are surprisingly taking it on the chin in Ukraine, but that says very little about the ultimate outcome of the war. Even if the Ukrainians keep up the good fight, success is not guaranteed. If I had to bet, I would say the Donbass is lost ... and it is a tragedy that Ukrainian internal politics makes that outcome impossible to accept.