EDIT: It is understood that the US military generally was not in direct confrontation with the Soviets during the Cold War (hence it being Cold). It's also true that even during a cold war "things" happen, either deliberately or not, that result in casualties to the opposing side, and the casualties inflicted might not necessarily be acknowledged by government officials on either side.

Recently, US forces inflicted casualties on a force of Russian mercenaries in Syria. I read an article by David French at National Review Online about it, and he stated that, if the larger casualty reports are to be believed, the US military killed more Russians in a single engagement than it did in any single engagement during the cold war.

Numbers like 200 and 300 Russian dead have been bandied about; ignoring the question of the reliability of these numbers and how many actually were killed, if those high estimates were correct, would David French's statement be correct?

Restated, during the Cold War, did the US military ever kill anywhere near that number of people of Russian (or Soviet, if we are being broad) nationality in a single incident? Incident meaning an isolated event where casualties were incurred, such as the accidental downing of a transport plane, not sporadic fighting between a few combatants, as in espionage or aerial dog fighting.

Bonus points: If David French's statement is correct, would that mean that this was the single largest incident of US on Russian casualties in history? To my knowledge, the only large-ish military engagement we had directly against Russians was our intervention in Archangelsk during the Russian civil war right after WW1, so it seems very possible.

  • 2
    Considering the US and the USSR never directly fought each other other than in very covert ways during the Cold War...
    – Semaphore
    Mar 8, 2018 at 15:44
  • 8
    That wasn't snark. There's no need to get so defensive about basic facts. It's very difficult to accidentally kill hundreds of people without direct combat, which is also why the numbers given in this story are unsubstantiated, hence historical numbers are bound to fall short of dubiously high guesses. Plus during the Cold War tensions were too high for the US or the USSR to be this careless about bombing each other.
    – Semaphore
    Mar 8, 2018 at 15:48
  • 1
    @Semaphore No offense meant, nor none taken mate! I just meant to point out, if not being "at war" could be constituted as evidence that no mass casualty events took place between nations, then that would preclude the US inflicting a mass casualty event on the Russians in Syria now ;) Mar 8, 2018 at 15:52
  • 3
    If I understand well, the reported clash is not between US forces and Russian military, but in between US forces and some mercenaries who happen to be of Russian nationality. Unsubstantiated figures aside, I suppose it is possible that a lot of Russian mercenaries had fought and died in Korea or in Vietnam. Also, US strikes may well have killed hundred of ISIS fighters of Russian nationality (Chechens, Ingouches,...) in the last years.
    – Evargalo
    Mar 8, 2018 at 16:51
  • 1
    @T.E.D I have updated my question to clarify. "Cold" does not preclude casualties being inflicted in isolated, or secretive incidents, deliberately or otherwise. Espionage, accidental shoot downs, deliberate shoot downs, black ops, etc. I am trying to figure out a way to edit my question so that people reading it don't assume that I think the Cold War was actually hot. Mar 8, 2018 at 16:59

1 Answer 1


The Cold War did involve direct military conflict between the super powers. Those confrontations were just contained and covert and in many cases are still not publicly acknowledged. From what we do know about such direct cold war confrontations, mostly coming from Russia David French's numbers are pretty close. However, given many such actions are still unknown to the public, there is reason to suspect his numbers are low.

The Cold War was not called cold because it didn't involve shooting wars. It was called cold because both super powers took measures to cover-up their direct involvement in wars in which the other was publicly participating. Both parties struck at each other clandestinely, mostly with weapons and training but also with military participation.

The Cold War involved dozens of proxy wars in which millions of people died. The most famous of these proxy wars were Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan but there were dozens more. In some of these proxy wars it was not uncommon for US and Soviet militaries to come into direct military conflict for years at a time. If these are the deaths that you are speaking of the answer is not entirely understood because for fear of escalation neither side acknowledged their casualties or even their involvement. Public knowledge of those incidents are thus limited even today.

Just in the Korea War alone the Soviet Union lost 282 to 316 pilots and airmen in struggling with the American Air Force for air superiority over North Korea.

Soviet Combat Losses

282-316 Soviets Lost in the Korean War(1950-1953)
13 Soviets Lost in Vietnam (1964 to 1973)
60 Egypt 1956 - 1974(!)
35 Syria 1956 - 1991(!)
(!) Unknown American involvement.

Korea and Vietnam were wars in which the United States was fighting and the Soviet involvement was clandestine. During the Cold War their were many such wars, and many where the Soviets were publically fighting and the American Military involvement remains classified. Take Afghanistan for instance where the Soviets lost about 14,453 soldiers. The full story of American involvement remains classified.


SOVIET CASUALTIES DURING THE KOREAN WAR (1950-1953) According to declassified Soviet Records, throughout the Soviet Union deployed 12 divisions of the Soviet Red Airfare – numbering an over-all figure of 72,000 combat (and supporting) personnel throughout the entire three years of the war – peaking with 26,000 operating in 1952. During that time, Soviet pilots shot-down 1097 enemy planes, and the Soviet Anti-Aircraft Artillery shot-down 212 enemy planes. The Soviet Airforce lost 335 planes and 120 pilots. Over-all, the full Soviet casualties are listed as 282 people.


Russia's Secret Operations
In the Korean War the Soviet Union deployed the 64th air defense corps, with over 300 fighter jets, over 400 pilots, 2 artillery air defense divisions, and ground staff -- up to 40,000 in all. The 64th was given the task of challenging US air supremacy over the Korean peninsula, but pilots were ordered to fight only defensive battles and not to fly near the front line. From 1950 to 1953 the 64th lost 335 fighter jets and 125 pilots. Overall, Russian casualties in the Korean War are estimated at 316 dead. The US lost some 55,000 men and 1,182 airplanes.


Russia's Secret Operations


From 1964 to 1973, 6,359 Soviet generals and other officers "visited" Vietnam. Soviet-guided surface-to-air missile (SAM) regiments were deployed to encounter US warplanes. Thirteen Soviet servicemen were lost in action during these years. In Indochina the US lost over 60,000 men and 8,612 aircraft.


Russia's Secret Operations

Egypt (1956 to 1970s)

In Egypt Russia lost 25 military advisers and 35 combat personnel.


Russia's Secret Operations

Syria (1956 to 1991)

In Syria and accompanying Syrian troops into Lebanon from 1956 to 1991, Russia lost 3 generals, 39 other officers, 1 non-commissioned officer and 1 private.

Other Cold War Proxy-Wars and total casualties.

Cold War and War on Terror Casualties and De-Escalation


Conflict                                        Total Cold War Casualties          
================                               ================        
Greek Civil War                                 158,000            
Executed in East Germany                          3,000             
Hungarian Revolution                              6,222–6,722               
Korean War                                        2,469,287–3,272,955             
1945–49 Chinese Civil War                         2,500,000–6,000,000               
Iranian Revolution                              200–300          
Guatemalan Civil War                            200,000           
Congo Crisis                                    100,000          
Cuban Revolution                                  5,000         
Bay of Pigs Invasion                              4,198           
Dominican Civil War                               2,825             
1965–66 Indonesian Genocide                     400,000–3,000,000          
Vietnam War                                     966,000–3,812,000         
Cambodian Civil War                             240,000–300,000             
Cambodian genocide                            1,700,000–3,000,000             
Laotian Civil War                                20,000–62,000            
Hmong genocide                                  100,000           
Degar genocide                                  200,000          
Boat people                                     200,000          
Reeducation Camps                                95,000         
Foreign Intervention In Indochina Wars           65,425       
Operation Condor (3,000 Pinochet, 13,000 Vidella, et al.)          
Yom Kippur War                                   10,822–21,601           
Ogaden War                                       14,119         
Menghistu Haile Mariam Crimes Against Humanity  430,000–1,500,000          
Angolan Civil War                               500,000           
East Timor genocide                              60,000–308,000           
Soviet Afghan War I                             500,000–2,000,000         
Low End Total Casualties                      10,580,098           

Russia's Secret Operations
Soviet Casualties During the Korean War(1950-1953)
Wikipedia: Greek Civil War
Cold War and War on Terror Casualties and De-Escalation

  • Im not sure what light that table of "Total Cold War casualties" from many nations throws on this question.
    – Spencer
    Mar 10, 2020 at 21:59
  • @Spencer - a cold war is typically defined as a state of political hostility: which falls short of open warfare. The Cold war between the United States and Soviet Union is thus somewhat of a misnomer, Direct conflicts between the two parties did occur and as demonstrated by the Total Casualties table that conservatively 10 million people died in the proxy wars fought in it's wake. Both points re-characterized what historically the cold war was, and speak to this misnomer.
    – user27618
    Mar 11, 2020 at 20:53

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