Yemen and Ukraine : Two wars in comparison
The Yemenite conflict reached its seventh year. It is fought in the areas controlled by rebels, currently ruling the capital Sana'a, the South transition council, and the territory controlled by loyalists. Since 2015, the war between the Houthi and the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, recognized by the international community and actively supported by the Arab Coalition, has blooded the country.
Despite the high number of dead civilians and the humanitarian crisis, it receives only occasional media coverage. It is the war in Ukraine that, since the arrival of Moscow's armies on February 24, is currently dominating the newspapers. The Kiev government, guided by Volodymyr Zelensky, has been supported by the Western world, which ensures a constant supply of weapons, and has imposed heavy sanctions on Russia, which is becoming more and more an isolated country.
These conflicts are very different due to their causes, geographic location, actors on the field, and duration. Still, they present two common points of extreme importance: the possibility to obtain data about the losses of both parts, searching for their propagandistic use, and the direct involvement of civilians, deliberately or erroneously targeted by air and missile attacks.
Of both theatres of war, the Ukrainian one is currently the most fluid and complex to define. The situation is constantly evolving to only 30 days since the clashes began. In some areas of the country, the movement of both armies and their respective occupied zones are difficult to trace with precision. Furthermore, Moscow and Kiev's usage of disseminating data, highly influenced by propaganda in both governments, doesn't allow for a comprehensive framework of civilian and military losses. From the start of what they defined as a "special military operation", the Russians have made the briefings of the Ministry of Defense public. In these briefings, the destroyed enemy targets are listed. In detail:
- 261 drone
- 204 anti-aircraft defense systems
- 587 tanks and other combat vehicles
- 163 multiple rocket launchers
- 636 artillery pieces and mortars
- 397 special military vehicles
- 184 among planes and helicopters
- 14 boats
About a hundred military infrastructures are added, including radar stations, airports, weapons deposits, and barracks. There are also references to Ukrainian soldiers killed or wounded, often referred to as "nationalists" or "mercenaries":
- 3.528 dead
- 3.700 wounded
The membership of these soldiers in the regular army, paramilitary organizations such as the Azov Battalion, contractors, and foreign volunteers is difficult to verify. However, their grouping in the "Nazi" categories goes perfectly with one of the casus belli used by the Russian president Putin, the will to "denazify the country".
The information regarding civilian victims in these briefings is minimal:
- 220 dead
- 28 wounded
There is no data regarding age or sex; they are only defined as victims of Ukrainian nationalist battalions.
As regards the losses among the ranks of the Russian army, they are mentioned in the briefing of February 27, time 6 pm, but in the one of 8 pm of March 2, we can find numerical data, the only one at our disposal:
- 498 dead
- 597 wounded
Today, we don't have numbers for the vehicles or Russian equipment destroyed by Ukrainians, despite numerous videos on social media, where one can see lost aircrafts and helicopters, tanks, and other armored vehicles destroyed and abandoned in the mud.
Very different are the numbers published by Ukrainian authorities and international institutions. President Zelensky issued only one statement concerning the fallen Ukrainian soldiers on March 13, as reported by Rbc-Ukraine:
- at least 1300 dead
We do not have any data about the wounded or the equipment loss.
The civilian casualty count, released by the press office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and updated on March 23, reports:
- 977 dead (196 men, 144 women, 12 girls, 27 boys, 43 children, and 556 adults whose gender was not identified)
- 594 wounded (174 men, 136 women, 24 girls, 20 boys, 64 children, and 1,176 adults whose gender was not identified)
The number of children killed in the bombardments was raised to 128 by the Kyiv Independent, using information from UN communiqués, Ukrainian institutions, and anonymous Pentagon sources. As for Russian military losses, the Kyiv Independent has published several charts showing the number of dead soldiers and destroyed equipment. The last one dates back to March 24, but on the newspaper's Telegram group, the updated count was published on the morning of the 25th:
- 100 dead soldiers
- 561 tanks
- 625 armored vehicles
- 1,089 trucks
- 291 artillery pieces
- 90 multiple rocket launchers
- 49 surface-to-air missiles
- at least 115 aircraft
- 125 helicopters
- 5 boats
- 72 refueling vehicles
- 53 drones
NATO, however, estimates that Russia has lost between 7,000 and 15,000 men. Such a glaring difference between the data provided by the two sides makes it difficult to determine a precise number of casualties in terms of both men and equipment. Moreover, it should not be forgotten the use both Russia and Ukraine make of them for domestic propaganda and to weaken the enemy's morale.
Yemen is, in some ways, a more stable scenario. The various factions involved in the conflict are occupying well-defined areas: the Houthi dominate the North-West, the Transitional Council of the South controls the territory of Aden and part of the governorates of Lahij, Abyan, Dhali', Shabwa, and the island of Socotra, while Hadi's government has its strongholds in the central and eastern part of the country. After seven years, the international media are devoting little attention to this conflict, and it isn't easy to find updated data. As for the Coalition's military losses, the spokesman of the Houthi armed forces, Brigadier General Yahya Sare'e, held a press conference on April 21, 2021. He recalled the number of military operations and targets destroyed by rebel troops during the previous six years. More specifically, regarding the forces of the Saudi alliance, the general said that the Houthi killed or wounded:
- 10,403 Saudi Arabian military personnel
- 1,240 UAE military personnel
- 226,615 mercenaries, traitors, and enemy agents
- 8,634 Sudanese mercenaries
In addition to the losses reported in Houthi communiqués, we have data about the losses of the other Coalition members:
- 9 soldiers from Bahrain
- 4 Soldiers of Qatar
- 10 soldiers from Morocco
In addition to these, we must count at least 71 members of PMCs (Private military companies). The general also stated that 14,527 military vehicles were destroyed during the conflict. Among them, we have confirmation of:
- Saudi Arabia: 5 aircraft and eight helicopters shot down; 20 tanks destroyed; 9 drones lost; 1 frigate sunk
- United Arab Emirates: 2 aircraft and three helicopters downed; 1 minesweeping vehicle destroyed; 6 drones lost; 1 boat damaged
- Bahrain: 1 F-16 fighter shot down
- Morocco: 1 F-16 fighter shot down
- Jordan: 1 F-16 fighter shot down
- United States: 4 drones downed
In Yemen, American forces also lost a helicopter and a tiltrotor, which were forced to land due to malfunctions and were destroyed by U.S. soldiers themselves to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. The Coalition has also provided Houthi casualty numbers. Still, the last data of some significance dates back to a December 2017 press conference, when Colonel Turki Bin Saleh Al-Malki, the alliance's spokesman, stated that rebel losses amounted to:
- over 11.000 dead
No details were provided on the wounded or destroyed infrastructure and equipment. The only other mention of rebel losses currently available to us comes from Al-Jazeera, which in 2018 claimed Houthi casualties in the thousands, but did not provide a precise figure.
The most recent data we can rely on covers civilian casualties and Coalition air raids. The Yemen Data Project, a nonprofit organization, has been providing consistently updated numbers since 2016. As reported on the official website:
- Days of war: 2557
- Civilian casualties: 19,196; 10,226 wounded and 8,970 killed
- Coalition air raids: 24,876; 8,091 direct strikes against military targets, 7,040 against civilian targets, and 9,745 with an unknown target
According to the Project's graphs, the peak of the attacks occurred in September 2015 (921) and then declined until January 2016, when a new increase could be observed (839). The raids progressively declined until a minimum of 9 in December 2019. Then, an upward trend was observed until it reached 401 in January 2022.
The territory in which the most bombings occurred (5,547) is the governorate of Sa'dah:
- 830 on military targets
- 1.793 on civilian targets
- 2.924 on unknown targets
The Houthis have also provided their tally of civilian "martyrs" again in their March 21, 2021 press conference:
- 17,097 dead, including 3,821 children and 2,892 women
- 26,496 wounded
Another prominent source for casualties and war events in Yemen is the Acled Observatory (The armed conflict location & event data project), whose most recent data is from 2019. In over 40,000 military events recorded since 2015, Acled has reported the deaths of more than 100,000 people. In detail:
- 20,000 in 2019 alone, the year with the most casualties after 2018
- 1,100 civilian casualties in 2019 alone
Moreover, the observatory reported that 67 percent of civilian casualties were caused by Coalition airstrikes, while the Houthis are responsible for only 2,000 innocent deaths for direct targeting of non-military objectives.
Lastly, Acled reported the governorates where the most overall deaths were recorded:
- More than 19,000 in Taiz governorate since 2015
- More than 10,000 in Hodeidah and Al Jawf governorates
- 5,500 in Ad Dali governorate (60 percent of these in 2019 alone)
By analyzing the data of these two conflicts, it becomes clear that the massive use of media by the Ukrainians and the constant briefings provided by the Russian government ensure a continuous and constantly updated flow of information. This aspect places the war between Moscow and Kiev in a markedly contemporary dimension and in a Western world now accustomed to communication speed. This carries the risk of the rapid spread of fake news, a danger from which even the conflict in Yemen is not immune. However, it should not be forgotten that one of the warring parties, the Houthi movement, has been included by the United States in the list of terrorist organizations. This decision has led to the censorship of many of their information channels.
The second relevant aspect is the number of civilian casualties. In this case, there is a significant difference between the two conflicts: in Yemen, from 2015 until today, attacks have been deliberately conducted against civilian targets, while in Ukraine, at least in the first part of the conflict, it seemed that the Russians had limited their attacks to areas with military installations. This trend seems to have changed after the failure of Putin's blitzkrieg, which, according to many analysts, aimed at Kiev's capitulation within three days. Now that the Ukrainians are entrenched in villages and cities, missiles and bombings on densely populated areas are the only way left for the Russians to force the most important centers, such as Kharkiv and Mariupol', to capitulate.
A history of the conflicts in Yemen and Ukraine: a word from the specialists
"Allah is Greater, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse of the Jews, Victory to Islam" is the slogan imprinted in red and green characters on the logo of the Houthi rebels. The armed group, belonging to the Shiite branch of Zaydi Islam in Yemen, took control of the northern province of Sa'da and the surrounding areas in 2014. Loyal at first to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni leader was dismissed by one of the uprisings that characterized the Arab Spring in 2011. The Houthis managed to take command of the capital Sana'a by forcing president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi into exile in nearby Saudi Arabia. The situation in Yemen precipitated in March 2015 when the Coalition of Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and comprising the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Kuwait, Egypt, and Qatar, decided to make use of the logistical support provided by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Israel to launch a series of missile attacks aimed at the Houthi militias. The rebel group was accused of having political and military relations with Iran.
Seven years have passed since the beginning of the conflict, but "there are no precise and reliable data on the losses recorded in the two camps, nor on civilian victims", comments Eleonora Ardemagni, ISPI associate researcher and Aseri-Catholic University professor.
"It is difficult to distinguish between militias integrated into the regular army and armed groups that act autonomously, which is why the calculation of those who have lost their lives due to the conflict is so difficult, and even the United Nations is not able to provide reliable estimates ". According to the UN, since 2015 the war has caused more than 370 thousand deaths among the Yemeni population, but the calculation is complicated because "about 60% of them would not have died from causes directly linked to the bombing and fighting in the field," but due to indirect consequences such as the worsening of welfare services, the scarcity of food and drinking water, the cyclical spread of cholera and diphtheria epidemics that made the living conditions increasingly dramatic ".
The United Nations has defined the situation in Yemen as a "chronic emergency". The OWP (Organization for World Peace) has identified it as one of the "worst humanitarian crises in the world", in a territory that was considered one of the poorest in the Middle East, even before the Saudi military intervention, and that is now facing an increasingly critical economic condition.
"Consider that Yemen imports about 90% of its food and fuel. Moreover, since 2015, the entire north-western part, which the Houthi insurgents control, has been subjected to an embargo. This condition also worsens the humanitarian crisis because the same economic institutions have become part of the conflict. Since 2017, for example, there is no longer a Central Bank. There are two of them: one belongs to the recognized government that moved to Aden, and the other remains in Sana'a, a city controlled by the Houthis. Different and competing economic policies are applied, which determines the worsening economic instability, added to the collapse of the purchasing power of the Yemeni ". The ryal has lost 70% of its pre-conflict value. As a result, there has been a sharp rise in inflation which has severely impacted people's daily lives by exacerbating tensions between the pro-government and secessionists of the Southern Transitional Council and fueling discontent, strikes, and demonstrations. "On the other hand, - emphasizes Ardemagni - even the pro-government field is very jagged. The increase in prices motivates the protests in the territories which, despite being formally under the control of the government recognized by the international community, are managed by Southern secessionists who aspire to Yemen's independence from the central state".
The economic repercussions of the war in Ukraine involving Yemen, due to its dependence on imports of grain and fuel, have been added to a situation that is already very complex and tense. There has been a 35 percent increase in the price of wheat and a tripling of that of fuel, which hinders the arrival of international aid in a country that depends on them for 75 percent. A population already exhausted by hunger and violence is now forced to deal with a tragic increase in the cost of necessities, such as food, water, and medicines.
"The war does not homogeneously hit Yemen, - continues Ardemagni -. The bombing of the Saudi-led Coalition focuses on areas controlled by the Houthi insurgents, the authority that effectively controls the northwest of Yemen without being recognized. Sana'a, Saada, the stronghold of the Houthi, the governorate of al-Bayda, the port city of Hodeida on the Red Sea, and the western region of Taiz, which are currently the main combat areas, are also the most densely populated areas in Yemen, and therefore those where the attacks can cause the most civilian casualties. Other regions are characterized by instability and political violence: the governorate of Aden, controlled by the secessionists, the south-eastern one of Hadhramaut under the influence of the Arab Emirates, and the Marib, which is not geographically central. Here, large oil and gas fields have made the economy grow by making the governorate an oasis of stability and a bridge between the parts controlled by the Houthis and those under the hegemony of the recognized government. Since July 2021, however, the fighting has also reached the Middle Eastern border ".
The Stockholm agreements between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, reached in 2018 through the mediation of the United Nations, were supposed to lead to an immediate ceasefire, to the withdrawal of Shiite rebel troops from the main ports of Yemen, such as Hodeidah, Saleef, and Ras Isa, as well as the opening of humanitarian corridors to allow organizations to help a population prostrated by war. However, they have not produced any decisive effect. Thus, while the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) calculates that, in these seven years of conflict, there are more than 4 million internally displaced persons, mostly women and children, and hundreds of thousands of people forced to leave their homes in the hope of saving themselves, acute food insecurity is estimated for 16 million Yemenis, and UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) denounces the life-threatening for more than 400,000 children suffering from severe malnutrition. Still, the conflict in Yemen "remains marginal in the eyes of the West".
In any conflict, regardless of the alignment to which one belongs, there is a need to amplify the number of losses the opponent suffered and reduce one's own. This is the assessment of Aldo Ferrari, Head of the Russia, Caucasus, and Central Asia Program at ISPI, an expert in Russian history and culture, and a professor at the Ca 'Foscari University of Venice. "This need determines the impossibility of knowing the precise number of victims, which, in any case, must undoubtedly be estimated in the order of thousands on both sides. "In the rage of the war, it becomes even more complex to extricate oneself from the news to get information precisely, without prejudices that risk affecting the news's accuracy. That is why the analytical method requires a comparison between the sources of both parties involved, "otherwise - comments the professor - ideology risks compromising the objectivity of the judgment”.
For the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has deployed almost 200 thousand men, and the videos circulating on Telegram channels testify that, among them, there are also the conscripts of the reserve. This happened despite what was initially declared by President Putin and in contrast with the Russian presidential decree of 1999, which would prohibit their participation in wars alongside the regular military forces.
In fact, on February 22, the Duma approved a provision on mobilization in the event of martial law that obliges conscripts to respond to the call to arms, in derogation of the law that prohibits the use of conscripts in combat that have not received at least four months of training. However, alongside conscripts and professional soldiers, different forces would also be employed, such as the veterans of Syria and the Chechen fighters. Their summoning by the Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, dates to February 25.
According to Ferrari, however, the sources that speak of volunteers and mercenaries must be taken with caution to avoid distortions: "First of all, there is a tendency to confuse volunteers and mercenaries because a volunteer can also receive a salary without being a mercenary. These differences apparently may be subtle but become fundamental if one wants to understand the situation. As for the Syrian mercenaries, however, their impact remains insignificant now on the ground, while there are already heavy losses recorded among the militiamen sent from Groznyj".
What is certain is that "Putin has overestimated the strength of his army and underestimated the resistance of the Ukrainians, and this has certainly forced him to change his strategy, because the Russians advance, but they do it slowly, without being able to break the resistance of the Ukrainians".
Wars are also fought with propaganda, and both sides do it, so it is difficult to reason in numerical terms without being biased. The same communication strategies adopted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are, inevitably, deceptive: "Putin has never talked about the war, - underlines Ferrari - he minimizes it by referring to a special military operation, so it is normal that he does not want to devote too much attention to it and that he limits himself to saying that there are problems at the border and that Russian intervention is doing well, true or not true. The position of Zelensky is very different, as he is leading a country that fights for its independence and enjoys the unconditional support of the West".
We think about tactics and responsibilities also to try to identify what could be the future developments of the "blitzkrieg" waged by Vladimir Putin, which quickly turned into a conflict that has been upsetting the heart of Europe. A shred of single lapidary evidence remains: every broken life is an intolerable punch in the stomach and that number, 977, released by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, testifies that beyond the declared objectives, there can be no wars without civilian victims.