With the world absorbed by months of geopolitical brinkmanship, high-stakes diplomacy and scrutiny of Russia’s military encirclement of Ukraine, lost in the din has been this sobering fact: If President Vladimir Putin proceeds with a large-scale invasion, thousands will probably die.
U.S. officials estimate a major assault could leave as many as 50,000 civilians dead or wounded, as Western nations warn of Putin’s intent to drive deeper into the former Soviet state.
Experts and humanitarian groups have assessed the conflict could take a particularly devastating toll on noncombatants due to Moscow’s massive arsenal, its record of targeting civilians and the wider potential for punishing urban battles. Such a state-to-state showdown would represent a break from the insurgencies of recent decades, one that could usher in a new era of deadly modern warfare.
“It’s going to be a conflict between two institutional militaries and two sizable conventional forces,” said Michael Kofman, a Russia scholar at the research firm CNA. “One has clear qualitative and quantitative superiority over the other, but both forces have significant firepower and staying power.”
American officials have said Putin’s recognition this week of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine has not yet brought about their most feared scenario, which would involve assaults on Ukrainian cities, the crippling of key infrastructure and an attempt to take most or all of the country by force. But they are bracing for the worst and say Russia has positioned its military to do so.
Ukrainian leaders have vowed to repel such an assault, conscripting reservists and training volunteers who could take up arms in the event that Russian troops advance deep into Ukraine. This week, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov warned Ukrainians to prepare themselves for losses as Putin, in Reznikov’s words, attempts to resurrect the Soviet Union.
“The only thing that stands in between is Ukraine and its army,” Reznikov said. “Our choice is simple — to defend our country, our homes.”
Already, the protracted separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine has been deadly for civilians. In areas around the “contact line” between government forces and Russian-backed fighters, daily shelling, small-arms fire and mines have contributed to a death toll of an estimated 14,000 people since 2014. This month, artillery fire blasted into a kindergarten on the Ukrainian side.
Russia has accused NATO of threatening its security by placing troops and weaponry in Eastern Europe and holding out the possibility that Ukraine could someday join the Western military alliance.
In 2014, a Russian Buk missile shot down a civilian airliner from separatist territory, killing nearly 300 people on board, Dutch investigators said, in an attack they alleged was linked to Russians with ties to state intelligence agencies. Russia denies any responsibility for the attack.
Now, Russia has the potential to employ weapons and troops it has amassed in recent months around Ukraine, including 150,000 personnel and an array of weaponry that illustrates the fruits of Putin’s drive to modernize Russia’s armed forces.
In the event of a major assault on Ukraine, Russia’s artillery-heavy military is likely to draw from the weapons it has assembled around Ukraine’s border, employing short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and high-power artillery to knock out military and government targets, experts said.
Russia also has brought forward an array of planes that could fire guided air-to-ground missiles or drop “dumb” munitions such as cluster or fragmentation bombs.
For clues about how a deepening conflict could affect civilians, humanitarian groups point to Syria, where Russian forces have long been accused of deliberately striking medical facilities and other civilian sites, targeting aid convoys and employing unguided munitions as part of a larger Syrian-Russian air campaign that has included the dreaded “barrel bomb.” Since its entry into Syria’s ongoing civil conflict in 2015, Russia has helped President Bashar al-Assad claw back territory from opposition forces.
“We have to learn from Syria and how Russia behaved there,” said Beatrice Godefroy, Europe director for the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “The civilian perspective is very different when we have Russia in front of us versus having other belligerents.”
Months before taking over as Russia’s president, Putin launched a brutal war against Chechen separatists as prime minister that took a grave toll on the local population. What Human Rights Watch described as “five months of indiscriminate bombing and shelling” left thousands of civilians dead.
Within three years, according to Human Rights Watch, a “cycle of arbitrary detention, torture, and forced disappearance was well entrenched, and the crisis of forced disappearances appeared to have become a permanent one.”
Analysts said the calculus could be different in Ukraine, where Russian forces may feel compelled to tread carefully given that unlike in Syria, there are millions of people that Putin, as he has laid out repeatedly, considers to be Russian, or who have family and language ties to Russia.
“Russia doesn’t live next to Syria. Russian aerospace forces can leave, and Assad has to answer for what he’s done,” Kofman said. “It’s not the same story in Ukraine.”
The Biden administration also has warned that an invasion could fuel an anti-Russian insurgency that would be deadly for any forces the Kremlin sends into Ukraine.
Russia’s rules of engagement, no matter the location, will probably be looser than Western militaries — which have their own deadly history of bombing civilians — in part because of the country’s limited stores of precision munitions, analysts said.
Rob Lee, a Marine Corps veteran who is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Russia would be likely to employ its limited supply of precision-guided weapons for attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure or other valuable targets, or hold them in reserve for a potential conflict with well-armed NATO nations.
Ukraine’s military, with its meager air defenses and minimal air force, would have a limited ability to repel such attacks. Experts say Russia is likely to attempt to destroy Ukrainian government fighter jets on the ground in a first salvo.
Lee said the level of civilian suffering would depend largely on whether Russia attempts to push into heavily populated cities, such as Kharkiv or Kyiv, or simply focus on decimating Ukraine’s military and its defensive might.
“If Russia intends to occupy a lot or part of Ukraine, they have to go into cities,” Lee said. “If they start going into cities, the risk is going to be high no matter what. They simply don’t have the ability to fight within cities with low collateral damage.”
Since 2014, Ukraine has faced a humanitarian crisis in its eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with 854,000 internally displaced people, according to United Nations figures.
“Communities and families have been divided by the front line in eastern Ukraine for the past eight years,” Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General Jan Egeland said in a statement this month. “The decisions of far-away politicians make it impossible for grandmothers to see their children and grandchildren on the other side. With increased military and political tensions, thousands of families will be separated indefinitely.”
Oleksandr Vlasenko, the International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman in Ukraine, said the ICRC has been helping the some 70,000 civilians who live on both sides of the contact line, providing food and financial support to areas affecting by fighting, repairing damaged buildings and helping residents protect themselves in an area full of mines. He said the group would continue its work even if a broader conflict unfolds.
“ICRC is here to stay,” he said. “We are determined to stand beside the Ukrainian people.”