20.01.23 War Analytics

Unknown Soldiers: What Do We Know About Russian Military Losses in the War with Ukraine?

What are Russia’s losses following eleven months of the war in Ukraine? This question has received little media coverage, yet it is an issue that is both urgent and somewhat depressing. The dead have been concealed by the ‘fog of war’, which has meant that Russian society has been unable to comprehend or assess the real costs of the conflict. The latest data from Mediazona and the BBC calculates that there have been 11,662 confirmed deaths; this number, however, cannot be used as an accurate estimate. An analysis of all the approximations we found indicates that there have most likely been between 100,000 to 280,000 total Russian army losses, and between 30,000 and 90,000 casualties. If the actual numbers are within this range, then they have already surpassed the total number of losses of the Soviet army during the ten years of war in Afghanistan.

On January 17, a joint project between Mediazona and the BBC updated open source data regarding the number of confirmed Russian army losses during the war in Ukraine. The list now consists of 11,662 names, with nearly a thousand added in the last seventeen days alone. Although the list is very important, it does not reflect the real extent of the losses, a topic which has received surprisingly little media coverage. 

On the one hand, data is deliberately manipulated and falsified by both sides in the conflict, and on the other hand, neither party possesses comprehensive information regarding their own losses. 

According to the latest figures published by the Russian Ministry of Defence, as of September 21, 2022, the number of Russian soldiers killed stood at 5937. Moreover, according to the data produced by the ombudsman of the so-called DPR, as of December 16, 2022, these losses totalled 4,133 killed and 17,379 wounded. Not only are the figures of the Department of Defence both underestimated and outdated, they are most likely deliberately misleading. According to the investigation by ‘Novaya Gazeta. Europe’, the Ministry of Defence uses data taken from reports by commanders, which are then combined into a single summary and transmitted to the General Staff. Using this data, payments are then made to the families of the dead and wounded. However, a significant number of deaths remain unconfirmed and many are simply reported as missing.

According to the same investigation by Novaya, many of the dead remain unburied or unidentified. The Armed Forces of Ukraine keep a record of killed Russian soldiers, and some of this information is published on the Telegram channel ‘Look for your Own’.

An additional issue is that apart from the army, separatists from the so-called DPR and LPR, mercenaries from the Wagner PMC, employees of the Russian Guard and the FSB are also engaged in fighting on the Russian side. Each of these organisations maintains their own independent records, and it is not known whether this data has been integrated into the final numbers.

Having examined cemeteries with fresh military graves, analysts from Mediazona and the BBC concluded that they are only able to identify 40–60% of the dead. This suggests that the number of soldiers, who have been killed and subsequently buried in Russia, stands at more than 22 thousand people. However, these estimates do not take into account those buried in Ukraine, or those declared missing, which would likely increase the overall number by up to 30 thousand people. Based on coefficients from the US Center for Naval Analysis, the project’s analysts estimate that the total number, including those seriously wounded, captured and missing, may have reached 99 thousand people as of January 6. 

In its weekly update, the Volya Telegram channel, which, according to its authors, collects data directly from sources from within various military organisations, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Wagner PMC, the Russian Guard and the FSB, has provided staggering numbers of how many pro-Russian formations were killed, went missing or became POW between February 24 to December 8 — 93,780 to 98,111 people. To add to this, the number of wounded was between 176,984 to 190,485, which brings the overall figure to somewhere in the range of 280–288 thousand. However, there is no way to verify this data at present. 

The rest is pure speculation. 

In July 2022, CIA Director William Burns estimated the number of killed Russian soldiers to be 15,000. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace gave an estimate of 25,000 in early September. If we are to take military losses to include not just those killed, but also those wounded, missing and deserters, then the Ukrainian side puts the estimate at 118,500. Similar figures have been quoted by the United States and Great Britain. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Army, General Mark Milley, speaking informally in early November, estimated that there had been more than 100 thousand killed and wounded on each side. Ben Wallace, the British Defence Secretary, has asserted that 25 thousand Russian soldiers were killed in September, with more than 100 thousand killed and wounded by December. Hervé Bléjean, Director-General of the European Union Military Staff, has given the highest estimates on Russia’s losses; speaking in mid–November with a report to the National Assembly of France, he estimated Russian losses in the range of 60 thousand killed and 180–190 thousand wounded. These figures come fairly close to those published by the Volya Telegram channel. Bléjean produced his estimate a month prior to Volya, who claimed that from November 8 to December 8, 2022, combined pro-Russian formations suffered losses of 21,000 killed and 43,000 wounded.

Estimated losses of the Russian army in the war with Ukraine, number of people

As a result, various estimates regarding Russia’s total losses range from in excess of 100 thousand people (Mediazona — BBC, Wallace, Milley, ZSU) to approximately 280 thousand (Volya, Bléjean), and estimates of the number of those killed stand between approximately 30 thousand (interpolation of data from Mediazona — BBC, the British Ministry of Defence’s September data) and almost 95 thousand (Volya). If we apply a two-month correction to the estimates produced by the UK Ministry of Defence in November, as well as a two-and-a-half-month correction and the standard ratio of killed and wounded to Blezhan's data, we come to a figure of 75,000 killed.

The Mediazona and BBC project has published a chart of the distribution of confirmed war deaths by region. Based on this data, the authors of the Demography Fell Telegram channel have calculated regional military casualty rates per 100,000 male population aged 18–50 (98% of all deaths are concentrated in this age range). According to their latest estimates, for the period from February 24 to December 26, 2022, the regions with the highest number of casualties were: the Republic of Tyva (172.2 killed per 100,000), the Republic of Buryatia (161.5), North Ossetia (109) and the Republic of Altai (102,3). It should be noted that in Moscow, this coefficient stands at 2.3, in St. Petersburg, at 7.7, and in the wider Moscow region, at 10. This data confirms the argument that the army’s manpower is predominantly being replenished with residents from Russia’s poorest regions, and, as a rule, from the national republics. 

Russian regions with the highest military losses in Ukraine, February 24 — December 26, 2022, the number of those killed per 100 thousand male population aged 18-50 years

Even the most conservative estimates given by various experts regarding the Russian army’s losses note that the overall number of casualties is much higher than those killed or wounded in the Chechen and Afghan wars. Thus, according to estimates by the military historian G.V. Krivosheev, in Afghanistan, the USSR lost 17,453 people, and according to official data, during the two Chechen wars, 13,157 people were killed. Yet, the war in Ukraine has been ongoing for eleven months, while the Afghan war lasted ten years, and the active phases of the two Chechen wars combined totalled approximately three years. We are also able to compare the number of Russian soldiers who have already died in Ukraine with the number of US soldiers who died during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: the US army lost 2324 soldiers over twenty years of the war in Afghanistan, and 4598 soldiers in Iraq, according to Brown University. 

Authoritarian countries have a low threshold of sensitivity when it comes to human losses, which means they are able to wage long and bloody wars. According to the Syrian Human Rights Monitoring Center (SOHR), during the eleven–year civil war in Syria, Bashar al-Assad's army alone lost 91 thousand people, while the total number of non-civilian casualties stood at 338 thousand. In the course of the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted eight years, conservative estimates put the number of Iraqi soldiers killed in the region of 100,000 and the number of Iranian casualties at 200,000. Other estimates claim that up to 500,000 Iraqi soldiers and 600,00 Iranians were killed. The discrepancy in these figures can be easily explained: authoritarian governments have the privilege of not counting their dead, and hiding the real number of casualties.