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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Casualty Rate Hits Afghan War Levels




According to official figures, Russian soldiers have been dying in the latest Chechen campaign at a rate roughly equal to that of Soviet troops in Afghanistan a decade ago.


Since Aug. 2 - when Russian forces began battling Islamic separatists, first in Dagestan and later in Chechnya - some 462 soldiers have been killed and 1,486 more injured, said officials at the Russian Information Center, which gets its information from the Defense and Interior ministries.


This casualty count means that Russia has been losing an average of close to 132 soldiers a month. By way of comparison, the Soviet Union, in its 10-year war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, lost a total of 15,000 troops, or an average of 137 soldiers a month.


Such casualty figures are usually enough to build up popular opposition to military actions: Despite a decade-long information whitewash, the protracted war in Afghanistan and its cumulative death toll eventually became a festering wound that helped discredit the Soviet regime.


And in Russia's 1994-96 war in Chechnya - where the casualty rate was more than double that of the current conflict - public opinion and the media quickly turned against the war.


But this time around, Russian society appears to be more resigned.


Despite the fact that the losses in this year's conflict - billed as a low-intensity "anti-terrorist operation" - are happening at a rate equal to those in Afghanistan, the public has remained steadfastly supportive of the Chechnya campaign. A recent poll by the VTsIOM public opinion center put the number of Russians supporting the conflict at 62 percent.


Society, it appears, is prepared to accept losses. And the reason why, analysts say, is a potent combination of fear and misinformation.


Following the series of apartment blasts in September - catastrophes that the Kremlin has repeatedly blamed on Chechen rebels - the public's state of mind and its willingness to accept battle casualties have changed dramatically, said Alexander Zhilin, a retired army colonel and military analyst for the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper.


"The psychological condition of society has changed. Right now, every Russian feels threatened by Chechnya and therefore they are prepared to accept these losses," Zhilin said.


"In Afghanistan, or in the first Chechen war, ordinary people didn't feel threatened by these countries."


The media, he added, have played their part. "It hasn't been brought to the public's attention that the losses are in fact high. The government has put together a very effective public relations campaign," he said.


Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of VTsIOM, agreed.


"In Afghanistan, the abstract geopolitical war aims were not understandable to most people. Now people see the war in Chechnya as a strong answer to terrorist acts," Grazhdankin said. "The public's psychology is that this problem needs to be solved."


Indeed, news stories of kidnapping rings and slave trade in the Caucasus, and regular television broadcasts of Chechen rebels torturing hostages, has significantly hardened the attitudes of the Russian public toward the region.


There is also speculation that official casualty figures are being kept deliberately low, and that actual tolls may approach those of the first, 20-month Chechen conflict, when most independent observers put Russian troop losses at 6,000 soldiers, or 300 a month. Official figures placed the losses at 4,000.


While most media have downplayed Russian troop casualties, an exception was made by Kommersant newspaper, which last week ran a front-page story, based on interviews with injured soldiers, claiming that Russia was suffering heavy casualties. One soldier was quoted as saying that 70 percent of his 1,200-man division was killed.


Social organizations in Russia, like Soldiers' Mothers, also say that troops are being killed at a rate higher than military officials are reporting. Chechen officials likewise say Russian troops have suffered losses in the thousands.


According to Zhilin, Russian troops are being killed primarily in ambushes by Chechen rebels during mop-up operations.


He added that Russia's official casualty figures, which place Russian losses in the hundreds and losses among the Chechen fighters in the thousands, appear skewed.


"As a rule, the attacking side always loses at least three times as many men as the defending side," Zhilin said. "Here, it's the other way around."