Last week, after Ukraine’s dramatic and deadly strike on a Russian air base in Crimea, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had a particularly blunt message for the Kremlin.
“If almost 43,000 dead Russian soldiers do not convince the Russian leadership that they need to find a way out of the war,” Zelenskyy said, “then more fighting is needed, more results are needed to convince.”
We don’t really know how many Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine. But there is no shortage of estimates.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which provides a daily running tally on social media, put the number of enemy “liquidated” at around 43,000 as of Aug. 11 — hence Zelenskyy’s figure. The Russian government has not published its own losses since March 25, when it gave a total of 1,351 killed and 3,825 wounded. (Wartime casualties are a state secret in Russia, and revealing them is punishable by up to seven years in prison.)
The combatants have an incentive to inflate or deflate the numbers, but outside observers’ estimates have been a moving target as well. In late July, CIA Director William Burns put the U.S. intelligence community’s estimate “in the vicinity of 15,000 killed and maybe three times that wounded,” for a total of around 60,000 Russian casualties. This appears more conservative than NATO’s assessment, which said 15,000 Russians had been killed way back in March. On July 27, Biden administration officials told Congress that roughly 75,000 Russians had been killed or wounded, and on Aug. 8, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters that “the Russians have probably taken 70 or 80,000 casualties.”
As the Washington Post noted, the disparities don’t “mean that Moscow lost 15,000 over the stretch of a week.” Rather, they serve as reminders that counting casualties is an inexact science, often tangled in politics and misinformation. In his briefing, Kahl acknowledged that he was providing only a “ballpark figure” and that “there’s a lot of fog of war.”
This imprecision is not a new problem. As the 19th-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “Casualty reports on either side are never accurate, seldom truthful, and in most cases deliberately falsified.” For all the headlines these numbers generate, they should be treated with healthy skepticism, even when they come from generally reliable sources. As Grid has reported, body counts are often highly politicized by governments and militaries to exaggerate their own progress and the enemy’s losses.
But the international public’s desire for these numbers is understandable, and the impact of all these casualties undeniably important, given that troop losses are likely to be a main determinant of the outcome. Over the past several months, the conflict in Ukraine has become a classic “war of attrition,” meaning that rather than dramatic offensives or changes in territorial control, each side is trying to force the other to collapse by inflicting steady losses in personnel and equipment. Trench warfare in World War I was the classic example of this. Ukraine’s best chance of victory may be that Russia will simply run out of the troops it needs to hold onto Ukrainian territory.
What are we really counting?
Typically, militaries base their estimates of enemy killed and wounded on “contact reports” from troops in the field. These are notoriously imprecise. During the Vietnam War, when “body counts” became something of a national fixation in the U.S., American commanders were often incentivized to either exaggerate the number of enemy killed or — worse — to count civilians fatalities as combatants. Even with the best intentions, modern high-powered and long-range weaponry makes gathering reliable data difficult. Ukraine’s vaunted HIMARS rocket system has a range of about 40 miles. The Ukrainian troops who fire the rockets aren’t there to see who, if anyone, was hit.
According to Ukrainian media reports, the Ukrainian military bases its own estimates on a combination of reports from troops in the field, intercepts of Russian communications, open-source visual data and estimates based on the amount of equipment destroyed. If a particular vehicle is destroyed, the military has a decent idea of how many troops were likely inside it.
The U.S., of course, does not have its own personnel on the ground in Ukraine. (Not officially, anyway.) So what’s the basis for the American estimates? A senior Defense Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Grid only that “casualty estimates are derived from a variety of open-source and classified collection methods.”
Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Grid it wasn’t clear where the Pentagon was getting its numbers but speculated that they “may come from analysis of the Russian forces unit by unit, based on what can be discovered of the unit strength. They may also come from intelligence and intercepts of internal Russian discussions.”
Jeffrey Edmonds, an expert on the Russian military at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Grid that the challenge reminded him of the work he used to do compiling data on Pakistani insurgent groups at the CIA. “You had to take a number of disparate reports with varying credibility and try to come to some estimation,” he said. “Even if you had firsthand knowledge of what the Russians believe they have lost, that would also not be perfect given the Russian bodies that were left behind.”
There can also be some pretty fuzzy math involved. The Wall Street Journal has reported that NATO casualty counts were based on “statistical averages from past conflicts that for every casualty roughly three soldiers are wounded.” (Burns’ estimate seemed to be based on this same math.)
In addition to the traditional methods, one of the things that has characterized this war has been the wide proliferation of open-source information circulating online. This has made possible projects like the Oryx blog, run by two Dutch defense analysts, which has compiled an exhaustive list of Russian equipment losses based on photo or video evidence.
Then there are sources with a more human connection. A project run by the Russian opposition news site Mediazona and the BBC News Russian Service has documented 5,185 Russian deaths in Ukraine based on “social media posts by relatives, reports in local media, and statements of the local authorities.” These researchers don’t claim theirs is the actual death toll, just the number that can be independently verified.
Russia’s people problem
If the higher end of the U.S. estimates is accurate, it would mean that the Russian death toll in Ukraine has been greater than the Soviet Union’s during its 10-year war in Afghanistan. It far exceeds the number of U.S. service members, around 7,000, killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those assessments would also mean that of the estimated 150,000 troops Russia massed at Ukraine’s borders prior to the invasion, more than half have been lost to death or injury. Even if the real numbers are lower, it is clear that Russia is having trouble keeping troops in the field.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has refrained so far from calling the conflict in Ukraine a “war” — for the Kremlin, it’s still a “special military operation.” This may be a politically safer way to describe the invasion, but it also limits the Russian government’s ability to conscript troops. Absent a formal war declaration, Putin cannot order a mass mobilization of forces.
The Russians have also mostly avoided sending draftees into combat. This has led to a struggle to replenish the troops who have either been lost to death or injury, or merely rotated out. Regional governments across Russia have been advertising heavily to attract recruits, offering monthly salaries up to $5,500 — several times the average in many parts of Russia — along with lucrative signing bonuses. Standards have been loosened as well, with “volunteer battalions” seeking men up to age 50 and requiring only a middle school education. These volunteers are reportedly sent to the front with only three to seven days of training, and casualties among them are believed to be high.
Who is dying?
It is increasingly clear that it is not the Russian military itself that is doing much of the fighting and dying in Ukraine. The separatist militias from the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk did much of the front-line fighting in the recent battles for the eastern cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. These are often ill-trained and ill-equipped conscripts, and casualties among their ranks have been high. British intelligence officials estimated in July that the Donetsk militia had lost 55 percent of its original force. Russia’s reliance on these militias in eastern Ukraine is likely to only increase as Russia shifts troops to the south in preparation for an anticipated Ukrainian offensive.
Russia’s Ukraine offensive has also been relying heavily on the Rosgvardia, a national guard force that is supposed to be used only for internal security in Russia, as well as the Wagner Group, Russia’s secretive state-linked private military contractor.
The most dramatic example of the Kremlin’s desperation for troops is a scheme, under the auspices of the Wagner Group, to recruit in prisons, offering to commute the sentences of men who agree to go to the front lines in Ukraine. “They will accept murderers, but not rapists, pedophiles, extremists, or terrorists,” one prisoner told CNN.
As is often the case in war, not all parts of Russian society are paying an equal price for the invasion. The Mediazona/BBC analysis of publicly confirmable deaths shows that remote regions of Russia and ethnic minority areas account for a disproportionate share of those who have been killed. The disparity is stark: For every serviceman from Moscow — Russia’s most populous region — on the list of fallen soldiers, there have been 87.5 from the Caucasian region of Dagestan, and 350 from Tuva, a Central Asian region on the Mongolian border.
As dramatic as Russia’s losses appear to be, they tell only half the story: Ukraine is losing troops at a shocking rate as well, though these losses have been far less publicized by Western governments and the international media. During the height of the fighting in the Donbas region in June, Ukraine acknowledged that 100 to 200 troops were being killed per day. These numbers have decreased in recent weeks as Russia’s offensive has slowed, but the toll has been dramatic.
According to an estimate from Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, Ukraine saw more than 20,000 of its troops killed or seriously wounded during the first four months of fighting. Ukraine has also been augmenting its regular troops with national guard force and foreign fighters. Many of those sent to the front lines have been poorly trained volunteers, among whom casualties have been high.
The numbers on both sides can often blind observers to the reality that each death is of course a tragedy for the (usually) young life snuffed out and for those who mourn back home. The grim logic of attrition warfare will almost certainly mean a long procession of these individual and family tragedies.
“Both sides are suffering attrition rates that from a U.S. perspective are pretty incalculable since the days of maybe the Korean War,” Chris Dougherty, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Grid. “I don’t think one side or the other has a significant manpower advantage, but if you were to hold a gun to my head, I would say the Ukrainians have a very slight advantage because I would imagine their individual soldiers and individual personnel are probably more motivated than their Russian counterparts. It’s different when you’re fighting for your house, your wife, your kids. On the other hand, the Russians do have a deeper manpower pool. The question is, how deep?”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.