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Reliable death tolls from the Ukraine war are hard to come by – the result of undercounts and manipulation

A snow-covered body in boots and fatigues lies next to a tree with a destroyed Russian vehicle in the background.
The body of a serviceman near a destroyed Russian military vehicle. Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

Those who initiate wars often begin with an overly optimistic assumption that the fighting will be quick, controllable and that casualties will be low. When many bodies start coming home or are left on the battlefield, it is a sign that the war is none of those things.

The Kremlin’s first statement on Russian military casualties in their invasion of Ukraine, on March 2, 2022, noted that 498 soldiers had been killed and 1,597 wounded. And for weeks Russian media continued to suggest, without giving actual figures, that very low numbers of their soldiers have been killed and wounded in Ukraine.

But on March 21, Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that 9,861 Russian troops have been killed and 16,153 wounded. The report only appeared for a short time before it was removed, and the pro-government newspaper said the numbers were not real but rather the result of a hack.

Nonetheless, just days after that report came out, the Kremlin came out with its own new tally, stating that 1,351 soldiers had been killed and 3,825 injured.

Meanwhile, on March 24, NATO officials estimated that there have been between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian military deaths. Ukraine officials suggest the true figure is 15,000.

While these estimates vary widely, what isn’t in doubt is that people – both in the military and among the general population – are dying and suffering wounds in the fighting. We just don’t know how many.

This is not unusual in war. Indeed, there is often nearly as much argument during and after a war about how many soldiers and civilians have been killed and injured, as about any other aspect of a war – including its causes.

So why is it difficult to get an accurate figure for how many people have been killed and injured? And is tracking casualties in this war different from other wars?

Undercounting the dead

Even though the immediate tactical aim of war is to kill and injure members of the other side’s military while avoiding harming civilians in accordance with international law, it is rarely easy to get accurate, timely figures about civilian and military harm. Estimates often remain just that, estimates. This is true even when militaries keep good records of their own killed and wounded.

The number and the perpetrator of civilian casualties is also often contested. Nongovernmental and international organizations have, since the early 2000s, developed methods and attempted to count and sometimes name every civilian casualty.

The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner gives regular reports of the number of civilians killed in Ukraine. It reported that in the first month of the war – from Feb. 24, 2022, to midnight on March 23 – 1,035 civilians were killed, and 1,650 injured.

But the U.N. notes that “the actual figures are considerably higher, as the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities have been going on has been delayed and many reports are still pending corroboration.”

As the U.N. suggests, its figure is an undercount. In late March, the mayor’s office in Mariupol, the place where Russia bombed a maternity hospital on March 9, said that nearly 5,000 people had been killed there alone.

Who is a civilian, who a combatant?

It is often difficult in the conditions of a hot war zone to count the dead — their bodies may not be recovered in a timely way or even at all.

And when it comes to counting dead, there are many other reasons the numbers may be off. For instance, it may be the case that some soldiers who have been presumed dead – because they could not be accounted for – had actually deserted, were captured or have been wounded and are being cared for in hospitals or in the field.

Then there are questions of who belongs in which category. Civilian deaths are sometimes simply denied, as Russia did in its campaign in Syria, and civilians are sometimes counted as combatants.

In fact, countries that are seeking to avoid the appearance that they have been reckless or committed a war crime – which involves deliberately targeting civilians – may claim that all those killed and injured in a particular strike were combatants.

During the war in Afghanistan, for example, international and Afghan forces sometimes said that all those killed in an attack were militants, although later investigation showed that some or all of those killed were civilians. One of the most famous of these incidents occurred in September 2009, when German forces called in a U.S. airstrike on two fuel tankers surrounded by people attempting to siphon the fuel that had been stolen by the Taliban. NATO said all or most of those killed were militants: “A number of Taliban were killed and there is also a possibility of civilian casualties.”

It later emerged that 91 civilians were killed, and compensation was paid to their families.

Why Russia is hiding military casualties

While there are some genuine reasons for uncertainty or inaccuracy in reporting casualties, there are also strategic or political reasons governments might have for publishing misleading figures.

In order to maintain morale, countries have an incentive to say that they lost few and the other side lost many. And there are reports that the Russian military, suffering fuel and food shortages as well as stiffer than expected resistance, are struggling with morale.

It isn’t just the total number of Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine but who is being killed that may be of concern to Russian officials. At a recent count, of the 20 or so Russian generals who were sent to Ukraine, at least six have been killed, a devastating blow to the Russian ability to command its forces in the field.

Ukrainian military casualties have likewise varied. Earlier in the war, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested that around 1,300 Ukrainian fighters had been killed. More recently, a Ukrainian government spokesperson suggested that the military death toll would not be disclosed until after the conflict ends.

Counting indirect deaths

There is another, more subtle, problem with understanding the wages of war: the difference between counting direct deaths in war and counting indirect deaths. Direct deaths are those that occur when people are killed by violent means — such as bombs, bullets and the collapse of buildings that result from an attack.

Indirect deaths occur when people die because their access to essentials such as food, water, medicine and medical care has been disrupted or lost in a war zone, or when power has been cut or they have been forced to flee and they are left exposed to the elements.

People in Ukraine have been displaced at the tail end of winter and left with little food or water. Hospitals appear to have been targeted. Yet, because the causal pathways are sometimes not obvious, or because the chain of events that lead to the harm is long –deaths may occur well after the cessation of fighting – it can be hard to estimate how many indirect deaths have resulted from a particular war.

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The ratio of direct to indirect deaths in war varies, but it is increasingly clear that, in most wars, especially where infrastructure is heavily damaged and destroyed, indirect deaths tend to outnumber direct war deaths.

As the war in Ukraine progresses, there will be a lot of casualty numbers floating around, with varying degrees of accuracy. But for every person killed or injured by bombs, bullets and fire, more will die because of the effects of war on the country’s infrastructure. And that harm will continue well after the end of the fighting, whenever that might be.

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