Just How Many Russian Soldiers Have Died in Ukraine?
How to understand wildly different estimates from Ukraine, the West, and Russia itself—and what to make of a pro-Putin tabloid claiming it was hacked.
On Monday the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda published some interesting numbers for the total Russian dead and wounded in Ukraine as part of a cut-and-dry rundown of the daily briefing by the Russian Ministry of Defense. According to the initial posting, the Russian military has suffered 9,861 dead and 16,153 wounded in Ukraine since Vladimir Putin expanded his war there on February 24. The last official numbers released by the Kremlin on March 2 claimed just 498 dead and 1,597 wounded.
The article claiming 9,861 dead was quickly taken down and replaced with an almost-identical article without the crucial paragraphs, but not before the information was archived, screen-shotted, and spread through Western social networks. Is this an accurate number for Russian casualties? losIt is certain that Russian casualties are much higher than the Russians have claimed, but we ought to be skeptical about this particular post.
Komsomolskaya Pravda claimed that its site was hacked, and that was where the numbers came from. This is a very real possibility, and a tactic that Russian information warriors have used before themselves. Why shouldn’t Ukraine, or another country, or just some cyber-activists try it on the Russians? It does not take that much skill to socially engineer a low-level writer at a tabloid into giving up his password or downloading malware that would give an attacker access to the publication, especially at a tabloid where one suspects the security practices are less than top-notch.
We must also consider the context of the numbers. They were posted in a section at the end of an article following a peculiar citation of the number of claimed Ukrainian kills of Russian aircraft released by the Ukrainian General Staff, numbers which are quite high. Having a pro-Kremlin publication repeat Ukrainian numbers is already strange, but the following paragraph on the number of Russian dead is framed, weirdly, as a refutation. Here is a quick translation of the two numbers in question from the original Komsomolskaya Pravda article:
According to preliminary estimates of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, since the beginning of the special military operation in Ukraine to March 20, the RF Armed Forces have lost 96 aircraft, 118 helicopters, and 14.7 thousand military personnel.
The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation refutes the information of the Ukrainian General Staff about the alleged large-scale losses of the RF Armed Forces in Ukraine. According to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, during the special operation in Ukraine, the Russian Armed Forces have lost 9,861 killed and 16,153 injured.
This is a strange pairing, referencing damaging Ukrainian claims and then giving a number vastly higher than previously acknowledged as a “refutation.” So, while it is certainly possible that the claim of 9,861 deaths was published by mistake (a sleepy or inexperienced spokesman talking to a green reporter, perhaps), or by some Russian activist journalist, we have to allow for the possibility this was some kind of hack or socially engineered posting. There is even a third possibility, that these are the authentic Russia numbers, and that the Russian command deliberately leaked them in a tabloid with a story about a hack in order to discredit them. So, in the coming week when a foreign journalist asks some Russian diplomat about the numbers they can reply “Oh, that was all a Ukrainian hacking operation, actually everything is going great.”
Now that that hedging is over, let’s discuss the likely number of Russian dead. The Ukrainians are claiming to have killed 15,000 Russian troops since February 24. Of course, they have an incentive to exaggerate, and different units might double-count kills as they pass up reports of their successes. According to the New York Times, as of last week U.S. intelligence estimated “conservatively” that the number of Russian dead at around 7,000, a number not too far from the “fake” numbers from Komsomolskaya Pravda. The Washington Post recently reported that Western intelligence estimates put the number of Russian casualties (dead and wounded) at up to 1,000 a day! Out of a total invasion force of say 200,000 (150,000 soldiers, + Rosgvardiya and irregulars), that is an absolutely punishing casualty rate. To put this in perspective, during the Vietnam war the U.S. had an average casualty rate of about 133 a day (19 dead and 114 wounded).
There is other evidence of massive Russian casualties in Ukraine, outside of leaked intelligence estimates or Ukrainian official statements. First and foremost, there is the evidence of the map: by which I mean the obvious Russian failure to achieve a significant battlefield victory. Russian attacks in the directions of Kyiv, Chernigiv, Mikolayiv, and Kharkiv have spluttered, and the Ukrainians are even starting to take back some ground near Kherson and outside of Kyiv. The most intense fighting is taking place in Mariupol, the industrial city on Ukraine’s southeast coast. Russian forces have surrounded the city and are in the process of reducing it Grozny-style, using overwhelming firepower to pound the place into oblivion. Still, the Ukrainians are fighting back fiercely there and there are multiple reports of very high Russian casualties.
Another important piece of evidence for high Russian casualties is the number of dead generals. The Ukrainians have killed at least five Russian generals in less than a month. This is not just a few lucky sniper shots, this is an absolutely unprecedented pace of death for such high-ranking officers. If the Ukrainians are able to take out these generals, they are probably also killing large numbers of their staff, and the loss of generals and trained staff officers would make Russian forces even less coordinated, which would lead to even more Russian casualties.
Lastly, there is evidence of rushed attempts at replacing Russian losses. There are videos of Russian troops moving out of South Ossetia (in Russian-occupied Georgia), likely bound for Ukraine, and reports of even more troops getting sent from the Russian far East or Chechnya, also bound for Ukraine. The Pentagon stated that Russia is recruiting troops in Syria, a notion proudly trumpeted in Russian propaganda, with a claim that 16,000 Syrian fighters have already volunteered. Even though Putin has declared that Russia will not use conscripts in Ukraine, it is difficult to see how this promise can be kept, except by forcing Russian conscripts to sign “contracts” before they are shunted into the fight—a practice that Russia reportedly engaged in during the 2014 fighting.
So, there is some of the evidence for high Russian casualties, but how are the Ukrainians doing this? There is no single reason, but to mention a few: a great deal of credit must be given to Russian stupidity. They thought the war would be a very quick one, and they put troops into the fight that were unprepared for fierce Ukrainian resistance. That Ukrainian resistance is the overarching reason for these Russian casualties. The Ukrainians just refuse to give up and their whole-of-society resistance means that a lot of Russians who may have expected to be greeted as liberators are now dead. The Ukrainian military has been training hard since 2015, and it looks like that training is paying off. Also, Ukrainian fighters have no illusions about what awaits them and their families under Russian occupation, something that motivates them to stand their ground and take risks that Russian soldiers just can’t replicate.
Finally, it looks like Russian communications are almost an open book to Ukrainian intelligence. Many Russian forces appear reliant on cell phones and civilian radios to communicate, even for sensitive communications. Their vaunted encrypted communications system may not be functioning, possibly because it relies on civilian comms infrastructure. This means that Ukrainian signals intelligence analysts (all of whom speak Russian) can probably listen in on very sensitive Russian conversations: about upcoming attacks, about the locations of unit headquarters and of generals and their staffs, about which units have experienced the biggest losses or have supply problems, etc. There likely hasn’t been a Russian military counterintelligence disaster of this magnitude since 1914, when Russian radio operators basically told the Germans everything. Wireless radios were a new technology then, and the Russian operators seemed to be unaware that the Germans could listen in on their telegrams. The Russians broadcast their battle plan, uncoded, straight into the sky. This led to the disastrous battle of Tannenberg, where the Germans crushed two Russian armies and inflicted more than 100,000 losses. Asked later about who “won” this amazing German victory, Gen. Max Hoffman replied “Nobody won the battle. It developed entirely by itself. The Russians sent out their wireless ‘in clear.’” The slaughter of Russians we are witnessing now may be a repeat of this disaster from a century ago.
This war is not even close to being over, and some Western estimates measure its length in decades, others say a few years or even months. No matter what the actual Russian and Ukrainian casualty rates are, or how long the Ukrainians can hold out or the Russians can keep up the pressure, it is clear that the Russian war is not going as planned and Russia is losing a lot of men. The war can be over in a week if the Russian people decide that they have sacrificed enough of their sons for a ridiculous war waged incompetently.
Andrew Fink received his Ph.D. from the law school at Leiden University in 2020 on the history of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and violent extremist ideologies.