‘A gruesome way of accounting’: The politics of body counts in Ukraine – Grid News

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‘A gruesome way of accounting’: The politics of body counts in Ukraine

The numbers started coming out almost immediately. On Feb. 25, the day after the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s ministry of defense put out a statement claiming that more than 1,000 Russian soldiers had been killed — more troops than Russia had lost in any single day of fighting in any of its post-Soviet wars. Even if the number was exaggerated, it was an early sign that this would not be a quick or easy fight. In Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia, by contrast, Russia lost only 64 servicemen in five days of fighting.

The numbers have risen rapidly since then. As of Wednesday, the Ukrainian military estimated Russia’s personnel losses at 17,300, though it’s not clear to what extent this includes wounded soldiers or those taken prisoner. The most recent estimate from NATO is that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian troops have been killed; counting wounded troops and prisoners, the NATO figure is 40,000 total casualties.

Even at the low end, those death tolls are stunning for five weeks of fighting — more than the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined over the last 20 years. At the high end, it’s roughly equal to the number of troops who died in the Soviet Union’s nine-year war in Afghanistan, a debacle that contributed to the Soviet regime’s downfall.

By contrast, Russia’s government officially estimates its own losses at only 1,351 soldiers. This kind of disparity is normal for any armed conflict: Militaries always overestimate the enemy’s losses and underestimate their own. Ukraine is seeking to bolster its own troops’ morale and dampen the enemy’s.

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The use of casualties for political benefit has been particularly evident in this conflict — given that Ukraine has outside support in this element of the “information war” and the extent to which Russia is doing everything possible to hide or minimize the truth of what is happening to its soldiers.

In Ukraine, spreading news of death

Even before the war began, the Ukrainian media was predicting that if President Vladimir Putin decided to invade, “the stream of soldiers’ coffins that would flow back to Russia would shock its population.” Ukraine is now doing everything it can to produce that shock. Officials give a daily briefing — which is then shared on social media platforms — about Russian dead and wounded. Ukrainians have set up telephone hotlines and a channel on the Telegram app for Russians to learn details about sons and brothers fighting in Ukraine. In Lviv, in western Ukraine, a café owner posts the daily tally in his window.

In this as in many other ways, Ukraine is receiving outside help. NATO, the U.K. military and the Pentagon have given regular briefings in which they provide estimates of the Russian toll and assessments of the problems the Russian military has faced. It’s a clear effort to back up the message coming out of Kyiv.

In Russia, no news is best: Don’t “make a fuss”

What makes the body count disparity particularly interesting in this war is the degree to which the Russian government is both censoring information and doing whatever it can to keep any news about the conflict from reaching its population. The Russian government didn’t acknowledge that any of its troops had been killed until more than a week into the war. Even now, Russian newspapers rarely report casualties. This week, the BBC’s Olga Ivshina reported that local media outlets have been instructed not to publish any data on losses in Ukraine and that relatives of slain soldiers have been pressured by authorities to keep silent: “They say, now there is no need to make a fuss, we will find a way to commemorate your boys later.”

This is not a new practice in Russia, where wartime casualties are considered a state secret and revealing them is punishable by up to seven years in prison. In 2015, after Russia’s initial invasion of eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin amended the state secret law to include casualties in “special operations” where war has not been declared. (In that case, the Russian government never acknowledged that it had even sent troops into Ukraine, much less that any had been killed.) The current invasion, though on a much larger scale, is also still officially considered a “special operation.”

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Occasionally, the mask has slipped. On March 21, Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-Kremlin tabloid, published an article on its website claiming that, according to the Russian ministry of defense, 9,861 Russian soldiers had been killed in Ukraine — 20 times the official estimate at the time — and 16,153 had been wounded. Six hours later, the newspaper removed the estimate and blamed hackers for planting it.

The missing number

In fairness, Russia is not the only side in this war trying to keep its death count quiet. On March 12, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his first reference to the number of Ukrainian troops killed, putting the number at 1,300. That same week, a U.S. official estimated that between 2,000 and 4,000 Ukrainian troops had been killed. In the two and a half weeks since those assessments were made, there has been no official toll — or even estimate — given by Ukraine or other governments.

“You’ll notice that NATO is estimating a range of Russian casualties, but they’re not estimating a range of Ukrainian casualties,” John Pike, defense analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org, told Grid. “I suspect that it’s because the number would be pretty horrific.”

Not surprisingly, then, in contrast to the heavy attention paid to Russian body counts in the international media, citations of Ukraine’s losses have been rare.

None of this to say that Russia’s widely reported military failures aren’t real. In this era of open-source intelligence and social media, the invading military’s equipment failures and logistics breakdowns have been hard to hide. This week, Russian forces appear to be shifting priorities away from the capital, Kyiv, focusing instead on capturing more territory in eastern Ukraine, a clear sign that its initial war aims did not work out as planned. But there’s also no question that Ukraine is winning the information war when it comes to casualties; we’re seeing a lot more of one side’s military losses than the other’s.

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Calculus of war

One aspect of the body count question that has intrigued analysts is the ratio of wounded to killed. According to the Wall Street Journal, NATO’s most recent estimate for Russian casualties in Ukraine relied on “statistical averages from past conflicts that for every casualty roughly three soldiers are wounded.”

Tanisha Fazal, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota who studies the impact of combat medicine on armed conflict, told Grid that this 1-to-3 calculus “is the classic ratio. It’s the rule of thumb and it has been for a very long time.” However, she said, in recent wars “that ratio has been drifting up for just about everybody.” For U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ratio of killed to wounded was more like 1-to-10.

There are several reasons for this. One involves innovations in battlefield medicine, including one-hand tourniquets and improved anesthetics and antibiotics. An even bigger factor may be improvements in medical evacuation. In recent conflicts, the U.S. military has emphasized a principle known as the “golden hour”: getting troops lifesaving care within 60 minutes of a serious injury.

However, “golden hour”-style care is possible only when a military has control of the skies. In Ukraine, the skies are still contested. The kind of logistics and supply difficulties that are hampering Russia’s battlefield performance may also be having an impact on its ability to care for its soldiers. There have been alarming anecdotal reports of Russian soldiers being left for dead on the battlefield.

In any event, Fazal suggested that NATO’s use of the 1-3 ratio may indicate little faith in Russia’s ability to keep its wounded soldiers alive. “It’s not necessarily what you’d start with in terms of thinking about a modern military,” she said.


Indeed, it may be worse than that: Those numbers briefly published by Komsomolskaya Pravda suggested that the ratio for Russian soldiers is roughly 1-to-1.5. In this war, a wounded Russian has a relatively low chance of survival.

Why body counts?

Gregory Daddis, a military historian at San Diego State University and U.S. Army veteran, told Grid that despite being a “gruesome way of accounting … qualitative markers, like body counts, are always appealing from a media standpoint. It still has appeal, despite the fact of how problematic we saw it was in Vietnam.”

The practice has historically held appeal for commanders as well. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military was criticized for overemphasizing the number of enemy fighters killed, both to reassure the American public that it was winning and to keep its own troops’ morale up.

“American soldiers were frustrated by the war,” Daddis said. “They’re off on these long search-and-destroy missions, and, oftentimes, they come up empty-handed. There’s so many oral histories and memoirs of young soldiers saying there’s nothing like getting a body count because it makes you feel like you actually did something useful, you weren’t just pushing around in the jungle with nothing to show for it.”

The problem was that this measure incentivized commanders to inflate the number of enemy troops killed, or worse, to count civilians killed as combatants. And in general, body counts turned out not to be the best measure of progress in a counterinsurgency war where the ostensible goal was to win the “hearts and minds” of the population.

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After Vietnam, reporting enemy death tolls acquired such a bad rap that the U.S. often refrained from releasing them in subsequent wars. Gen. Tommy Franks, a Vietnam veteran who commanded U.S. forces during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, made a point of telling the media, “We don’t do body counts.”

In the first week of the Russia-Ukraine war, a senior defense department official told reporters, “We’re being very scrupulous about not putting numbers out there, because we have no confidence in the various ranges and numbers that are coming from all the kinds of different sources.” But other U.S. officials have continued to release figures to the media since then.

It appears, in this war at least, that body counts are back, along with the political questions. This makes some sense in what is a more conventional war. Russia has a limited number of troops, and at a certain point the damage these deaths are doing to the military’s cohesion and morale could become irreversible. But Daddis cautioned that even putting aside the incentives involved in publicizing them, these numbers are “never as accurate as commanders want them to be, just because modern war is so chaotic and the weapons are so powerful.”

Grim arithmetic

For all the politics and uncertainty involved in these estimates, it’s clear that a shockingly high number of Russian troops are dying in this war, not just in relation to the Kremlin’s apparent expectations, but in relation to any recent conflict. This doesn’t surprise Pike: “This is high-intensity combat. It’s the biggest war in Europe since World War II. This is exactly what you’d expect to see.”

Margarita Konaev, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, said the high number of Russian casualties may be due partly to the military’s well-covered logistical problems and limited evacuation capabilities, but also because this is a “conventional war between two professional militaries of independent states, and one with several active urban warfare fronts.”

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In recent years, these kinds of wars have become rare compared with civil wars and insurgencies which, deadly as they can be, don’t produce military casualties at the scale or speed of what we’re now seeing. The Russian government’s deadliest miscalculation, it may turn out, was to forget the type of war it was getting into.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.