31.01.23 War Review

Hidden by the Fog of War: assessing the number of civilian casualties in Ukraine

Just as the fog of war hides the true number of military personnel killed on both sides of the conflict, it also hides the true number of civilian casualties in Ukraine. This prolonged state of uncertainty ultimately hinders society’s ability to adequately assess the true cost of the war. As a result, when attempting to determine how many people have lost their lives in Ukraine, even indirect data can serve as a crucial source of information. According to the UN mission, as of January 30, 2023, the number of confirmed civilian casualties was 18,657, with 7,110 people killed. However, these figures do not account for casualties in territories currently under Russian military occupation, and, perhaps most importantly, they do not include casualties of the siege of Mariupol. Even the most conservative estimates put the total number of civilian deaths in the range of at least 30–40 thousand, which is significantly higher than the figures published by the UN. This means that the civilian death toll in Ukraine has already exceeded that of the Yugoslav wars, and is most likely comparable to the aftermath of the Syrian civil war.

Re:Russia’s analysis of both public data and expert assessments has allowed us to formulate a likely estimate of the minimal number of Russian military personnel who have died during 11 months of war. The figure stands at around 30,000 dead from a total of more than 100,000 killed, wounded, missing in action, or taken prisoner. However, this figure may be as high as around 90,000 killed in action. Nonetheless even if we were only to take into account the lower estimate, this figure is staggering.

The most alarming aspect of the war in Ukraine is the high number of civilian casualties. On January 30, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published their latest report summarising the confirmed losses among the civilian population. Between February 24, 2022 and January 29, 2023, the UN mission was able to confirm 18,657 casualties, accounting for 7,110 killed and 11,547 injured. Among the dead were 438 children. 842 were wounded.

During his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 17, 2023, Andriy Yermak, head of the Presidential Office of Ukraine, gave a similar estimate regarding the number of casualties. According to Yermak, there have been more than 80,000 registered war crimes committed by the Russian army, including more than 9,000 murders of civilians, among these were 453 children. Finally, the Investigation Department of the National Police of Ukraine, in their response to a request from the human rights centre ZMINA, reports that, according to their data, between February 24, 2022 to January 3, 2023 16,502 dead bodies have been discovered across Ukraine. This figure includes the exhumation of 1,033 civilians and military personnel from burial sites in de-occupied territories, but does not include bodies found in buildings or on the streets of these territories.

This puts the death toll within the rather narrow range of 7–16 thousand, a figure which has been extrapolated from the available data regarding confirmed deaths (despite the fact that many bodies are yet to be identified) and mainly concerns Ukrainian government-controlled territories. The UN mission has also continued to operate in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which are controlled by various Russian armed groups. In these territories, the number of confirmed deaths currently stands at 500 civilians, with 1,695 more civilians wounded. It must be stressed, however, that it is currently impossible to report on or investigate civilian deaths in territories that have been seized by the Russian army and are currently under occupation. 

A monthly breakdown of the UN mission’s data shows that roughly half of all recorded deaths occurred in the first months of the war (February–April). This can most likely be explained by the fact that, during this period, the frontline was located in territories that were later liberated by the Ukrainian army. After the Russian soldiers had fled, it became possible to systematically record the number of civilian deaths. However, these figures in no way reflect the overall scale of civilian casualties.

Confirmed civilian casualties in Ukraine, data taken from the UN mission 

While giving a speech on the war in Ukraine at the end of November, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was quoted as saying that approximately 20 thousand civilians had been killed or wounded between February 24 and November 30, 2022. This number is similar to data published by both the UN and the Ukrainian government, and most likely relies on both those sources. According to General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, 40,000 civilians had died in Ukraine by November 2022. In an interview for TV2, Eirik Kristoffersen, the head of the Norwegian Armed Forces, put this figure at 30,000.

These military estimates, which are three to four times higher than the number of confirmed deaths, adopt not only the aforementioned statistics as their source, but also satellite images of burial sites in areas occupied by the Russian army, as well as other indirect data. One such example is that the International Commission on Missing Persons gives a conservative estimate of 15,000 missing civilians in Ukraine, most of these are presumed to be deceased.

The tragedy of Mariupol remains the main difficulty when determining the actual number of deaths. The city, which had a population of approximately 450,000 people before the invasion, was attacked by Russian troops early on, and a significant portion of the civilian population did not have time to evacuate. As a result of bombardments and fierce battles, Russian troops established control of the city only in the second half of May. At the same time, according to estimates made using satellite images, nearly half of the city’s buildings had been damaged or destroyed by the time Russia gained control over Mariupol. In April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was quoted as saying that tens of thousands of people had died in Mariupol. According to the mayor of Mariupol, as of June 2022, more than 22,000 thousand residents had died. In August 2022, data from the Ilyichevsk morgue placed the death toll at 87,000, although this number was not officially confirmed. In November 2022, with the use of satellite imagery, 1,500 mass graves were reportedly identified in the city. It is without doubt that the Russian siege of Mariupol created one of the largest humanitarian disasters in modern history, the true scale of which is yet to be determined. Relatives of the victims have been sharing memories of their loved ones on the Telegram channel ‘The deceased. In memory. Mariupol.’

Mark Milley’s estimates of 40,000 civilian casualties are not only most likely true, but may even be a conservative estimate of the actual civilian death toll. The majority of deaths occurred during the first months of the war, when Ukrainian society had not yet fathomed the horrendous cruelty of the events unfolding in front of their eyes. 

If we are to compare the number of confirmed civilian deaths and estimates regarding the total number of civilian casualties over the course of 11 months of war, it becomes apparent that this war has targeted civilians with particular brutality. During the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995) among the 15,007 dead and missing, 6,322 were civilians; in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–1995), according to the Bosnian Center for Research and Documentation, 101,040 people died between 1991 and 1996, of whom 38,239 were civilians. Finally, during the decade-long civil war in Syria, according to the Syrian Human Rights Monitoring Center (SOHR), almost 161,000 civilian deaths were recorded. Thus, even if we are to consider only the confirmed number of deaths in Ukraine, the devastatingly high number of civilian casualties makes it apparent that this conflict far more closely resembles the exceptionally brutal war in Syria than the Balkan wars.