19.07.23 War Review

Death Toll: The number of Russian soldiers killed in the war with Ukraine is likely in the range of 50,000-65,000 individuals

In the absence of information regarding the exact number of casualties in the war in Ukraine, journalists and researchers have begun to develop various methodologies to estimate the scale of the losses based on available data. Among the available sources are obituaries on social media and in the media, data from Rosstat on mortality rates, burials in cemeteries, lists of recipients of war-related disability pensions and payments to families that have lost their breadwinner, registers of open inheritance cases, and search queries on 'Yandex’. The most likely range of estimates is 40,000 to 55,000 individuals, excluding those 'missing in action,' i.e. those not buried in Russia. Estimates from Western intelligence and military sources indicate a higher range of 60,000 to 80,000 individuals.

The Russian authorities are attempting to conceal information about the most important social processes related to the war. Neither the data on losses suffered by Russian forces, the number of mobilised troops, nor the number of those who have left the country are known. Journalists, investigators, and statisticians are striving to fill these gaps and provide estimates based on extrapolation of various indirect data. What do we know about the scale of the losses in Ukraine? (The total number of casualties is usually obtained by extrapolating the number of killed using known coefficients)

A definitive and reliable piece of information is the list of individuals who have been named as deceased, which volunteers from 'Mediazona' and the BBC’s joint project have been compiling since the start of the full-scale invasion based on open source data, including photographs from military burial sites, obituaries, and death announcements on social media. As of the beginning of July 2023, this approach has enabled the collection of information on 26,800 fatalities. The database allows for an examination of the dynamics of losses, the distribution of the deceased by age, region of residence, and military branch. However, this represents only the tip of the iceberg. According to the project volunteers who have selectively compared this database with military burials in cemeteries, the project accounts for only about half of all losses. As a result, their estimate of losses is a figure derived from the named list of deceased individuals, multiplied by 2, which yields a figure of approximately 53,000 people. Moreover, this figure does not include those whose remains have not been repatriated to Russia for burial.

In its investigation, The Insider has discovered that the dynamics of thematic queries about deceased servicemen on the 'Yandex' search engine correlate with the dynamics of the number of casualties recorded by the 'Mediazona' and BBC project. However, the increased flow of information about the deceased in early 2023 has led to a lag in updating the database, according to experts from Mediazona-BBC. The 'Yandex' data also indicates this lag. Thus, the actual death toll may be higher than the one reflected in the database as of the end of June, and as such the final estimate will also be higher.

The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) project estimates that the 'Mediazona-BBC' list accounts for 40-60% of the buried dead. Based on the list of those who have been named as deceased and making adjustments for the proportion of the dead and wounded that may escape the notice of obituary collectors, CIT stated in February of this year that the losses of Russian military personnel may range from 130,000 to 270,000 killed and wounded. Among them, 22,000-33,000 have been buried, 65,000 includes the buried plus those missing in action, and 100,000 to 200,000 are the wounded.

Somewhat lower estimates are given by researchers who base their estimates on available statistics and use various extrapolation models. The publication ‘Important Stories’ analysed Rosstat data on the mortality of the Russian population and found that, in 2022, there were 18,000 more male deaths from external causes than expected. The journalists propose using this figure as a lower estimate for the number of those killed in the war in Ukraine from February to the end of December 2022.

The same Rosstat data was used by Dmitry Kobak, a researcher at the University of Tübingen, but his conclusions differ from the estimates of 'Important Stories’. According to Kobak’s calculations, which compared the number of male and female deaths in 2022, the excess mortality of men under 50 was 24,000. He uses this data to verify the analysis of another data source, the Registry of Inheritance Cases (RNC), which has allowed the authors of a joint investigation by Meduza and Mediazona to estimate the losses of the Russian army as of the end of May 2023 at 47,000 individuals. More precisely, the result of this estimate is a range of 40,000 to 55,000 individuals, with 47,000 the average within that range. However, this does not include deceased citizens of the self-proclaimed LPR and DPR and those missing in action (only a portion of these are accounted for).

The latter investigation appears to be the most meticulous and thorough extrapolation of open source data. However, it should be noted that it is based on an assumption — the calculated coefficient of opened inheritance cases relative to the total number of deaths. Any bias in this coefficient may lead to inaccuracies. For example, the probability of opening an inheritance case is likely higher for more affluent individuals. At the same time, known data on the course of mobilisation indicates that it predominantly affected rural areas in Russia. Therefore, the actual number of inheritance cases opened as a result of the war’s death toll may be lower than normal.

In any case, the available estimates indicate a range of 40,000 to 55,000 deaths without taking into account the majority of those missing in action, or 40,000 to 65,000 if they are included.

Estimates of the number of deaths and overall losses which reference Western intelligence data are somewhat higher. For example, a leaked classified White House document noted 42,000 Russian soldiers killed as of February 2023. According to US intelligence estimates, in just four months — from December 2022 to April 2023 — the Russian army lost 100,000 personnel, with 20,000 killed and an additional 80,000 wounded. According to an estimate from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), based on interviews with Western military officers and officials, as well as available data, by February 2023, Russia's losses could have reached 200,000 to 250,000 individuals, with 60,000 to 70,000 killed and the rest wounded or missing in action. This figure not only includes members of the Russian Armed Forces but also personnel from the National Guard, FSB, and FSO, as well as fighters from pro-Russian militias in Donetsk and Luhansk, and mercenaries from private military companies. Given the intense fighting over the past four months (the ongoing battle for Bakhmut and Ukrainian counteroffensive and Russian offensive attempts), this number could have increased by approximately a third, i.e. to more than 80,000 individuals.

However, nothing is known about the methodology used by Western military and intelligence to make their calculations. It may be possible to clarify information from open sources with data on the number of bodies and burials of Russian soldiers which remain in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as well as data from the Russian command, which has more accurate information on losses thanks to unit command reports. However, it is currently unknown whether the intelligence agencies and military rely on these specific sources.