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Six months in How Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine compares to other modern wars

Source: Meduza

Six months in How Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine compares to other modern wars

Source: Meduza

August 24 marks exactly six months (182 days) since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. While the war appears far from over, the size of the territory it affects and the number of troops involved have already made it comparable to many of the most well-known and politically significant conflicts of the last seventy years. Relatively speaking, the war’s death toll is still low, but it’s not guaranteed to stay that way — especially as it settles into a war of attrition. To better understand the invasion in a historical context, Meduza compared the best data we have on it to data from eight other modern interstate conflicts.

How we selected conflicts for comparison

For our comparison, we chose conflicts that are similar to Russia’s war against Ukraine in terms of political significance (at least for Moscow) and the type of warfare. We looked at:

  • The Korean War (1950–1953), which was the first proxy war between the West and the communist bloc (with one of the sides — the U.S. and its allies under the auspices of the UN — fighting on the ground and the other supplying weapons as well as “military advisors” and “Chinese volunteers”). After both sides deployed all of their resources, the conflict quickly reached a stalemate; once they were equally matched, neither side was able to organize a decisive attack.
  • The French war in Algeria (1954–1962) — a typical war for a collapsing colonial empire waged by Paris to “protect the rights” of the millions of French people living on Algerian territory (which was then a part of France).
  • The Vietnam War (1964–1973), another proxy war in the decades-long conflict between the West and the Soviet bloc. The fighting took place throughout Southeast Asia — a region that ultimately proved too large for the U.S. and its allies to bring under their control. The war showed that the U.S. Army was no longer a dominant force, even in clashes against Viet Cong guerrilla units and the North Vietnamese army (backed by China and the USSR). This led the U.S. to embark on a comprehensive overhaul of its military.
  • The Soviet–Afghan War (1979–1989), in which the Soviet army got caught in the very same trap: fighting on a massive territory with relatively few troops. Soviet commanders, forced to mount an anti-guerrilla operation, rather than a tank offensive, found themselves out of their comfort zone, and the army showed itself to be much less effective than expected.
  • The U.S. war in Afghanistan (2001–2021). In its initial stage, U.S. forces and their allies found success: Taliban leaders were eliminated in much of the country. Ultimately, though, Americans were unable to win the two-decade fight against underground Taliban networks.
  • The U.S. invasion of Iraq (March – May 2003). From a military perspective, this was a prime example of a strong army against a relatively weak one. The U.S. and its allies used their huge information advantage to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime in a single blow. The depth of the operation was over 400 kilometers (249 miles). Our analysis did not include the radical Islamic groups that formed in the vacuum left behind by the U.S. invasion; that was a different conflict with a different set of players.
  • The Arab–Israeli Wars (1967–1973) (two high-intensity operations, the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, as well as the War of Attrition in between them), which provide an example of a conflict with relatively equal resources and technology on both sides. In that sense, these wars are somewhat of an exception among post-WWII conflicts: as a rule, most wars after 1945 either had a strength imbalance between the two sides or had one side that preferred an “asymmetrical response” in the form of guerilla-style warfare. The Arab–Israeli War showed the value of effective organization and superior information about both the battlefield and enemy plans in modern warfare.
  • The Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988) of the 1980s, which was another example of how a war between two equal opponents in an obvious stalemate can continue for years with no clear strategic goal simply because neither opponent is satisfied with the outcome.

Our analysis left out dozens of interstate conflicts that occurred after 1945. Many were excluded because of their small scale or transient nature; others, like the second Second Congo War at the turn of the millennium, were ruled out because of their relatively low combat intensity (though this didn’t stop the Second Congo War from becoming one of the bloodiest wars in modern history due to civilian casualties).

Please note: The casualty numbers for Russia’s war against Ukraine shown in the graphics below are based on data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP). They include combat losses suffered by the armed forces on both sides as well as civilian deaths, but they don’t account for the effects of starvation, disease, and the destruction of infrastructure. This is preliminary data based on an analysis of reports from the ground as of the end of July.

Meduza’s comparisons

If you’re looking at these images on a mobile device, tap to zoom in and see them in more detail.

What to make of this data

Our comparison shows that Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine is currently far from being the largest or most intense in recent history (though it’s also not at the bottom of the list). The main factor that sets it apart is its political significance for Europe. But it’s important to understand that:

  • The war isn’t over, and it’s already become clear that the type of warfare used can change radically: the first stage of the war was full of chaotic battles and urban sieges, while the second has been characterized by artillery battles in which neither side is able to gain much ground. It’s entirely possible that the predominant strategy will change again.
  • The current uncertainty surrounding the future course of the war is a product of the fact that neither side is using all of the resources it has available: Russia could still mobilize more manpower, while Ukraine could receive more weapons from the West (possibly a lot more). That’s likely one of the main factors behind the war’s low-level intensity at present.
  • Finally, Russia’s war against Ukraine has been studied much less than previous conflicts simply because analysts have had less time. We don’t know for certain how many deaths the war has caused; nor do we know the number of troops involved on each side.
  • For our analysis, we used estimates that were all made using the same methodology by the same groups of researchers for each war. The number of casualties from the war in Ukraine, however, is likely much higher in reality (more accurate data will take months or years to come out).
  • We don’t know for certain how many deaths the war has caused; nor do we know the number of troops involved on each side.
  • Estimates of the numbers of troops involved (especially in the Ukrainian army, for which our estimate is based on statements from the country’s leadership) may also be inflated: in reality, it’s likely that Ukraine has over 300,000 soldiers at the front (rather than the 700,000 that Kyiv has reported), with several hundred thousand more currently training.
  • Thus, it should be noted that the real ratio of casualties to troops on the ground (an indicator of the war's intensity) may be significantly higher.

The first stage of the war was fought by relatively small armies over a large territory. In recent months, the number of troops (especially on the Ukrainian side) has been growing, while the territory on which active combat is happening has been shrinking; in other words, troop density is increasing. Both sides have proven unable to carry out large-scale offensives under these conditions; the largest has been the two-month battle for part of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk, which took place on a 30 by 30 kilometer (20 by 20 mile) area. Thus, the conflicts the war currently resembles most are the late, stalemate stages of the Iran–Iraq war and the Korean War.

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