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Are Casualty Levels of Kiev Forces and Rebels in Ukraine Really the Same?

That's unlikely considering the magnitude and the frequency of Kiev's military blunders - particularly during last summer

Anatoly Karlin is a long standing English-language commentator of Russian affairs. He burst on the scene in 2008 with his then blog Da Russophile and immediately established himself as one of Russia blogsophere's greats. Since then he has moved on to commentating on a wide variety of issues, which he currently does at The Unz Report.

He is well worth reading on a number of topics, but I wonder if the broadness of his interests has not left him with too little time to give Russia-related affairs that he was previously expert in full justice.

In his latest for The Unz Report Karlin suggests the casualties in Ukraine's war so far must be roughly equal for both sides. This makes me think Karlin was not a witness to the same war last summer that the rest of us were.

One argument Karlin uses to back his proposition is that allegedly POW counts for both sides are roughly equal. Allegedly rebels captured 2,800 Ukraine servicemen and volunteers and Ukraine forces bagged 1,800 combatants from the opposing side.

Incidentally, this conclusion is backed up by POW counts. POWs are harder to hide than military losses. As of March 2014, some 1,800 separatists were under or had passed through Ukrainian captivity, versus 2,800 Ukrainians. 

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This is a shocking argument since it has been repeatedly reported (1,2,3) that the overwhelming majority of people that Kiev counts as "prisoners of war" were detained far from the battlefield and never carried a rifle for the rebels. It has been a constant complaint of the rebels and Kiev critics that Ukraine keeps rounding up people across the country (typically in Russian-speaking cities like Odessa and Kharkov) on suspicion of pro-Russian or pro-rebel sympathies and then trading them for captured Ukrainian servicemen.

The number of captured combatants of the Ukraine side is therefore far greater than that of captured rebels - the count of "rebel POWs" in Ukrainian hands more closely aligns with the number of Ukrainians banished to Donbass after unlawful detention. 

Indeed, there have been a number of recorded instances of mass capture (and even more numerous instances of negotiated disarmament and withdrawal) of surrounded Ukraine troops - eg in the two "Southern Cauldrons" and during the collapse of the Debaltsevo pocket. At times entire brigades unraveled (though it is likely they were only ever manned to the equivalent of 1 or 2 battalions) and ceased to exist as effective formations

Rebels on the other hand have yet to experience a mass debacle of this kind. (Actually until at least the ceasefire the rebels possessed so little warfighting potential they couldn't afford one - a defeat of such a magnitude would have ended the rebellion.)

Ukraine troops from the "Southern Cauldron" after accepting refuge, exit through Russia

Another argument Karlin uses is to say that rebels are mostly attacking and that the attacking side normally suffers casualties 30 to 50 percent higher than those of the defending side. 

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First of all that is not really true. Rebels were the attacking side in the January-February fighting for the Debaltsevo salient, and earlier on in the brief summer counter-offensive last year - that is between Ukraine Independence day on August 24th and the ceasefire arranged in Minsk on September 5th. However through the entire spring and summer of 2014 it was the Ukraine side that was attacking.

Secondly, the idea of a 30 to 50 higher casualties for the attacker is too simplistic to be of use here. Actually the determining factor of casualties isn't attack or defense, but success and failure. An attack that is persistent but haphazard and is eventually rebuffed without straining the defender in earnest is going to produce a far different casualty ratio that an attack that overwhelms the defender, forces him into retreat, and then forces the withdrawal into a rout.

It is the case that most rebel attacks have been basically competent. On the offensive rebels seemed to have a realistic assessment of what could or could not be achieved. On the attack the rebels either accomplished their objective after a shorter (Southern Cauldron, the summer counter-offensive) or longer (Battle of Donetsk Airport, Battle of Debaltsevo Salient) effort, or were called off after it was realized they were beyond their abilities (attempted march on Mariupol in January).

On the other hand Kiev's record has been one of costly blunders as, particularly during the summer of 2014, its ambition fantastically exceeded its ability.

Aftermath of Debaltsevo battle

Kiev's reality at the start of the war was that it was in possession of relatively few combat ready units and able to raise the effectiveness of only a few at a time. Under such circumstances it would have logically made sense to wait to assemble an overwhelming force and only then move against the rebels, or else to send out its units one by one, but with initially very modest objectives to aim for.

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Instead, Kiev - under the weight of Poroshenko's election promises that war would be over within hours of his coming to power - kept sending ill-prepared units into the fray as they become nominally combat worthy, but tasked them with incredibly demanding tasks that were at the extreme limit of realistically possible and would have dangerously strained the units of even far more professional armies.

Time and time again the result was disaster and defeat to what on paper looked like the weaker side.

In addition to having the unenviable task of making Kiev's megalomania come true Ukraine forces faced extreme command neglect and incompetence and subsequently suffered from low morale. This sapped their enthusiasm and initiative.

Typically an Ukraine attack would go off to a good start simply due to the preponderance of firepower at their disposal, but then eventually find itself outmaneuvered by the more flexible and animated rebels, be cut off and defeated piecemeal.

A parallel could be drawn to the Winter War where similarly the less numerous, but more energized Finns were initially time and again able to surround and destroy larger and better-equipped - but tardier and haphazardly led - Soviet formations. (Though in truth Soviet soldiers in Winter War did not exhibit typical low morale - it was rare for them to surrender and numerous Soviet pockets fought until the last man.)

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All said Karlin is right to point out that both sides are guilty of greatly diminishing their own casualties and exaggerating the casualties of the enemy. (Doubtlessly most onlookers are nostalgic for the sincerity displayed by the rebel's former military commander, Strelkov).

He is also right to suggest Ukraine forces are frequently just as competent as the rebels. Indeed there is little reason to doubt that both sides suffered roughly equal losses in the recent fighting in Maryinka, in the battle for Donetsk airport and in the early stages of the Battle of Debaltsevo Salient.

However, Ukraine side has simply suffered too many utter debacles - among which: the pointless and costly assaults against Saur Mogila and Illovaisk, the many armored pushes of the last summer that became encirclements of the attackers, the defeat in the wildly successful rebels' summer offensive, the attempted evacuation of Illovaisk pocket, the haphazard evacuation of Debaltsevo pocket - for it to be true that its casualties have been roughly equal for the war as a whole.

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