Soaring Death Toll Gives Grim Insight Into Russian Tactics

The Russian military has been following the Wagner playbook and deliberately using the poorly trained troops to draw, and deplete, Ukrainian fire, senior American military and defense officials said.

Kusti Salm, Estonia’s deputy defense minister, in a briefing with reporters in Washington last week, said that Russia’s casualties were high in part because of its use of convicts on the front line in Bakhmut.

“In this particular area, the Russians have employed around 40,000 to 50,000 inmates or prisoners,” Mr. Salm said. “They are going up against regular soldiers, people with families, people with regular training, valuable people for the Ukrainian military.”

“So the exchange rate is unfair,” he added. “It’s not one to one because for Russia, inmates are expendable. From an operational perspective, this is a very unfair deal for the Ukrainians and a clever tactical move from the Russian side.”

Moscow has thrown people it sees as expendable into battles for decades, if not centuries. During World War II, Joseph Stalin sent close to one million prisoners to the front. Boris Sokolov, a Russia historian, describes in a piece called “Gulag Reserves” in the Russian opposition magazine that an additional one million “special settlers”— deportees and others viewed by the Soviet government as second-class citizens — were also forced to fight during World War II.

“In essence, it does not matter how big the Russian losses are, since their overall human resource is much greater than Ukraine’s,” Mr. Salm, the Estonian official, said in a follow-up email. “In Russia the life of a soldier is worth nothing. A dead soldier, on the other hand, is a hero, regardless of how he died. All lost soldiers can be replaced, and the number of losses will not shift the public opinion against the war.”

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.

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