23.05.23 War Review

Bloody Bakhmut: How have the past four months of battle for the city altered the picture of Russian military losses?

The number of confirmed losses of the Russian army in Ukraine has doubled since mid-January, while the total losses (killed and wounded) since the beginning of the war, by a conservative estimate, may amount to around 260,000 people, with at least 60,000 of these fatalities. The most intense losses suffered by the Russian army have occurred during the recent months of fighting for Bakhmut, from early January to the beginning of April. It should be noted that one-third of all confirmed losses are attributed to individuals who had no prior affiliation with the army before the invasion — including volunteers, conscripts, prisoners, and recently enlisted mercenaries. However, the casualty rate among highly skilled personnel, such as officers, military pilots, paratroopers, and others, is also alarmingly high, accounting for approximately 10% of all confirmed deaths.

Despite military experts repeatedly stating that Bakhmut holds a predominantly symbolic significance for Russian and Ukrainian forces, and its capture would not exert strategic influence on the course of the war, the battle for the now devastated city, especially over the past few months, has likely become the bloodiest period of the Russian-Ukrainian war. It is possible to draw this conclusion from the latest data presented by a joint project between the BBC and 'Mediazona,' which relied on open source information about specific casualties.

Although the losses captured by this project does not provide a comprehensive picture, it indirectly indicates their intensity. The increase in the number of confirmed losses began in January of this year: while prior to that, information of 250-300 deaths was reported each week, over the past four months, there has been an average of 700 known fatalities per week. In just the last four weeks, 'Mediazona' was able to confirm the deaths of 2,367 individuals, accounting for approximately 10% of the total number of identified casualties (23,286 people as of May 19). This surge is associated with the processing of information from mass grave sites of Wagner PMC soldiers. So far, the BBC has managed to locate seven such cemeteries where 995 individuals have been buried ( according to publicly available data, a significant number of these were supposed to be serving prison sentences; moreover, sometimes the relatives of deceased Wagner personnel have no prior knowledge of their fate — at least 42 such cases have been discovered by the BBC).

Nevertheless, ‘Medeazona’s’ the daily losses chart presents a distinct 'hump', starting around the New Year and peaking at the end of January to early February, before gradually declining. At its peak, over 100 'confirmations' were collected per day.

​​The investigators note that the total figure of 23,286 people represents approximately half of the actual military burials within Russia's territory — this conclusion was drawn from a random visual examination of cemeteries in 'over 65 Russian settlements over the past 14 months.' Therefore, it is possible to make a reasonably justified estimate that Russian fatalities are in excess of 45,000 individuals. In addition to this, the deaths among the 'people's militias' of the so-called Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) should be taken into account: publicly available sources report at least 8,000 deceased military personnel from these self-proclaimed republics. However, even this estimate is not final as it does not account for those missing in action. The BBC has discovered over 5,300 messages and posts on social media by people searching for their relatives who were among the ranks of the LPR and DPR armies. It is highly likely that there are many more missing in action — those whose bodies were not buried within Russian or in the Russian-controlled territories — especially during the early months of the war and during the chaotic retreat by Russian forces in August-September. Accounting for these fatalities would significantly increase the overall number during the war.

The conservative figure of 60,000 can be considered a reasonable estimate. Taking into account the number of wounded per fatality (3.5), the total Russian losses (killed and wounded) should amount to somewhere in the range of 260,000 to 270,000, which is over a quarter of a million individuals. This is also a conservative estimate, but it is double the figures known in mid-January. Intelligence data cited by various media outlets contributes little to this overall picture, and more accurate information, undoubtedly held by the Ministry of Defence and other Russian agencies, remains classified.

According to calculations by experts from the University of Exeter, who have normalised the total number of confirmed losses by region to the number of men aged 22 to 37 residing in those regions, the highest losses have been suffered by Buryatia and Tuva — 28.4 and 27.7 fatalities per 10,000 men, respectively. The Pskov, Kostroma, Sakhalin, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Zabaykalsky Krai, and Altai Republic have experienced 12-17 fatalities per 10,000 men.

The greatest losses have been incurred by those who had no previous military experience before the invasion, particularly among prisoners: the BBC reports 3,080 such fatalities, while 'Mediazona' reports 4,059. Volunteers come next in terms of fatality rate (2,333 fatalities), followed by motorised infantry troops (2,313) and mobilised individuals (2,153 fatalities according to the BBC, and 2,229 according to 'Mediazona'). The high proportion of losses among non-military personnel can be explained by the numerous testimonies which have indicated that mobilised individuals and volunteers are often sent into frontal assaults on Ukrainian fortifications without proper training. Mobilised individuals have regularly and publicly complained about such practices, but this has not altered the overall picture.

Moreover, if we are to look only at confirmed data, Russia has lost over 3,230 elite specialists since the beginning of the war — soldiers and officers from special forces units, paratroopers, and marines. Years of training and millions of dollars were invested in their preparation. Among the deceased are 153 military pilots — highly skilled specialists requiring at least seven years of complex training. Additionally, since the full-scale invasion last year, Russia has lost 3,300 officers according to the BBC (over 2,000 according to 'Mediazona'), with 236 of these holding a rank no lower than lieutenant colonel. These losses significantly impact the combat readiness of the Russian army and the level of training among volunteers and mobilised individuals.