American attention has drifted somewhat from the war to domestic concerns, which makes it easy to overlook that what’s unfolding in Ukraine is one of the deadlier conflicts of the past 200 years. That it is a “mere” proxy war, rather than a clash between two great powers, also tends to obscure its scale. But the rate at which soldiers are dying is already significantly higher than in the typical war of the modern era — and both sides are digging in, meaning it will steadily climb the list of conflicts that have caused the most overall fatalities.
The Ukrainian war may seem minor next to the two world wars of the 20th century, which killed tens of millions of soldiers and civilians. But those are extreme outliers that skew our understanding of international conflict. The Correlates of War Project, an academic enterprise with data extending back to 1816, offers a more comprehensive picture. The project defines war as sustained combat between organized armed forces of different states that results in at least 1,000 battlefield deaths in a 12-month period. The average war, according to the project, has killed about 50 soldiers per day and lasted about 100 days.
The top 25 percent of wars, in terms of intensity, witness just over 200 battlefield deaths per day, according to the project’s data. The Russia-Ukraine war already passes that threshold, even using conservative estimates of fatalities.
In late May, British intelligence officials estimated that the Russians had lost 15,000 soldiers, which equated to slightly more than 150a day (Ukraine said the Russian figure was double that; undisputed figures are hard to come by). Ukraine’s government, meanwhile, admits to losing 200 soldiers a day. Ukrainian military losses alone push the war into the top quartile of intensity. (This metric of war intensity does not take into account civilian deaths, but these have clearly been above average in Ukraine as well, given Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of cities.)
The Russia-Ukraine war has already surpassed the length of the average war since 1816 (again, 100 days). And far from showing signs of winding down, every indication points to drawn-out hostilities. Russia, for its part, appears willing to suffer heavy losses to make military gains (an approach consistent with that nation’s history of warfighting). And while Ukraine is overmatched in troops and materiel, factors that might ordinarily shorten a war, it is receiving a continual supply of weapons and ammunition from outside powers (mostly NATO). This combination of factors has bred a war of attrition characterized by sustained long-range bombardment and intermittent high-intensity offensives. Wars of attrition tend to be long wars.
Whatever its goals at the start, Russia is now consolidating its hold on land in the south and east of the country. Yet Ukraine has declared that it wants to fully expel Russia from those areas. Dislodging an army that has seized territory is a difficult task that can impose significant costs on the counterattacking side. To be clear, this is not a call for Ukraine to moderate its aims; Ukraine’s goals are for it to decide. Nor is this an argument to offer Russian President Vladimir Putin an “off-ramp” that he may not accept in any case. But it is a warning for everyone watching the war to brace for a protracted, sanguinary conflict.
The top 25 percent of wars, the Correlates of War Project shows, last 13 months or more. Military experts increasingly predict that this war is on course 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 mark, which only 10 percent of wars have achieved.
Total deadliness is naturally a function of daily casualties plus time. The median number of battlefield deaths 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 for total deaths as early as late May. And at a continued pace, the war will hit some 125,000 deaths if it lasts a year, well past the 80th percentile of wars.
To place these numbers in context, the Ukraine war has been deadlier than the Mexican American War (19,000 battlefield deaths), although the latter lasted nearly two years. It is approaching the deadliness of the 1913 Balkan war that preceded World War I (60,000 deaths). If the Ukraine war lasts into the beginning of 2023, it could surpass the death total of the Ethiopian-Eritrean War (120,000 deaths), which began in the late 1990s and lasted just over two years. If the war continues through a second year, then at just over 200,000 battlefield deaths, it could enter the top 10 percent of international wars over the past 200 years. That group includes the Franco-Prussian War (204,000 deaths) and the Crimean War of the mid-19th century (260,000 deaths), the latter being the largest war in Europe between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I.
This war will be among the deadliest of the last 200 years even if NATO and Russia manage not to slide into direct conflict — a prospect that carries the risk, though small, of the use of nuclear weapons. So far, both sides have been careful to ensure that even the perception of direct conflict not escalate beyond isolated instances (as when a Russian drone drifted over Poland and was shot down). But can that last? As the political and data scientists Bear Braumoeller and Michael Lopate recently pointed out, on the site War on the Rocks, pundits and policymakers who support NATO’s increasing assistance to the Ukrainian military must recognize “how easily and quickly wars can escalate to shocking levels of lethality.”
“Shocking,” of course, is in the eyes of the beholder. By historical standards, the lethality of the Ukraine war is already remarkable.