by James Billot
Wednesday, 25
January 2023
Factcheck
09:30

What’s the truth about casualty numbers in Ukraine?

Inaccurate and piecemeal information has been a fixture of this war
by James Billot
The Ukraine war has reached Napoleonic levels of deadliness. Credit: Getty

The Russia-Ukraine war looks set to be one of the bloodiest in modern history. Even by conservative estimates, both sides are losing hundreds of soldiers per day, putting it within the top 10% of deadliest wars since 1812

Over the past week, two major military figures in the West appeared to confirm the scale of suffering. Last Friday, Norway’s Chief of Defence, General Eirik Kristoffersen, claimed that Russia has endured 180,000 casualties to Ukraine’s 100,000 (plus another 30,000 Ukrainian civilian casualties). Meanwhile, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said on Friday that Russian casualties are “significantly well over 100,00 now” (The Sun reports American intelligence services suggesting this figure is around 188,000).


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Gathering and assessing accurate casualty data, however, is a fiendishly difficult, and fraught, topic. I spoke to five prominent military analysts, some of whom did not even want to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the subject. Most agreed that both Kristoffersen and Milley were likely downplaying the number of Ukrainian casualties while overestimating Russia’s — something that has been a constant fixture of this war.

“There are somewhere approaching 100,000 casualties for Ukraine,” Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at RAND, says. But for the Russians, “the number is somewhere around 100,000-130,000 casualties (wounded and killed)— of that number, conservatively, probably 20,000-25,000 are killed in action”. Massicot believes that Milley is being “provided with the best possible information available to the US government”, but her Russian casualty figure is lower than both the U.S. and Norwegian estimates.

In part, this is because of the way information is recorded and delivered: journalists, intelligence services and governments regularly confuse kills with casualties, the latter of which includes those killed, died-of-wounds in hospital, wounded, missing and captured. It is different from KIA (killed in action). We also tend “to take government claims of other people’s losses at face value,” according to military historian Christopher Lawrence. He refers to the Ukrainian claim that 121,480 Russians have been killed, yet their own announced total losses as of 21 August was only 9,000 killed. 

Russia, meanwhile, has only provided two casualty reports since the February invasion, the last of which was on 21 September when Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that 5,937 Russian troops had been killed. Mediazona, working with the BBC News Russian service and volunteers collecting data based on open source material, puts the figure at 11,662 deaths, with the caveat that it is likely much higher. “Russia underreports deaths to a significant extent and has made discussing combat deaths a state secret,” says Massicot. “To a lesser extent, Ukraine is believed to underreport losses as well”.

Both Russia and Ukraine are clearly incentivised to undercount their losses, both for domestic and international propaganda purposes. But even countries that are not directly involved in the conflict do not want to be seen to be highlighting their ally’s war losses. As such, there is a tendency to emphasise (and even inflate) the statistics that put their enemy in a bad light. “If it’s going to paint a bad picture about Ukraine, the U.S. will downplay the figures or talk about it obliquely,” says Bill Roggio, a military analyst.

Nominally independent institutions aren’t hugely helpful either. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) provides fortnightly updates on Ukraine’s civilian casualties, but it routinely underestimates the real figures. As of January 16th 2023, the organisation says that there have been 18,358 casualties even though it admits that the actual number is ‘considerably higher’.

Casualty reports are often viewed as a proxy for how the war is going. But body counts don’t always give an accurate indication — with or without patchy data. Given that its army is three times the size of Ukraine’s, Russia has more expendable manpower, which it is using to grind Kyiv down in a war of attrition. Roggio draws an analogy with the American Civil War, in which the North ground down the South with its superior equipment and greater number of soldiers. By the end of the war, the Unionists had suffered a higher casualty count despite winning.

Unfortunately, analysts rely on fragmentary pieces of information from multiple sources (Ukrainian, Russian, and Western intelligence) to make their own assessments on casualty data. Many pointed to the BBC Russian Service, which tracks burials and funeral announcements, but even this is incomplete.

It may take years before we get a clearer picture, but without doubt the numbers of killed and wounded on both sides are extraordinarily high for a modern conflict, and increasing by the day.

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polidori redux
polidori redux
3 days ago

I claim no expertise, but if the Russians are using human wave attacks by poorly trained and ill-equipped troops then their casualty rate is likely to be far high than that experienced by the defenders.
One question I have is “Has the casualty rate experienced by both sides changed over the course of the war?” This may seem a ghoulish question but it surely has some significance for the final outcome – Even the Russians run out of cannon fodder eventually.

james boo
james boo
3 days ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Its not the numbers that matter. Its the percentage of available forces lost. The Russian can loose 3 or 4 times more than the Ukrainians and still win. There’s talk of mobilization of another 200,000 Russians. There comes a point where the Ukrainians don’t have the numbers to defend the current line and have to retreat. Similar to Grant’s campaign in the East in 1864-65. If the war continues as a battle of attrition the Russians win because they have a greater population and huge amount of equipment in storage. That’s why the supply of western tanks is so vital. It turns an attrition conflict, which favors Russia, into a manoeuvre conflict, which favors Ukraine.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
3 days ago
Reply to  james boo

Is that still the case where an offensive force is considered? I can see that from the point of view of defensive position but at some point during a war of aggression numbers will have a greater psychological impact.

martin logan
martin logan
3 days ago
Reply to  james boo

Bad analogy. But going in the right direction.
Grant had an overall four-to-one superiority in manpower in 1864. And that was only possible because of three years of attrition warfare.
Remember, the South could only recruit from a free population of 4 million, while the North had 20 million.
Ukraine is a third the population of Russia, but with a million already under arms.
Even with another call-up, Russia will have only a marginal superiority–and now, a clear qualitative inferiority.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 days ago
Reply to  james boo

“huge amount of equipment in storage” most of which is inoperable as they are discovering. Parts sold year ago.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 days ago
Reply to  james boo

This is true, but how many men can Russia throw into the meat grinder before it starts to cause unrest? It’s one thing using prisoners and peasants from Siberia and the Caucuses as cannon fodder, it’s quite different when you start mobilising large numbers from Moscow and St Petersburg

j watson
j watson
3 days ago
Reply to  james boo

The Ukrainians do not have a manpower issue. They’ve up to a 1million mobilised or trained/training. The Russians can deploy more of course if they further enforce conscription, but they haven’t got the Ukrainian’s anywhere near a reinforcements problem. Nor is this likely. Russia may have the theoretical manpower but can’t sustain heavy losses without victories without morale collapsing and risk of social unrest. They already have a ‘go-forward’ problem.
Of course that doesn’t mean losses aren’t tragic and desperate, but one Ukrainian soldier is proving worth a good number of Russians . Fighting on your home soil against a known barbarous invader a force multiplier.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
3 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Why have the lessons of Vietnam, Afghanistan etc still not been learned – even of Russia (invaded by the Germans). Cause a country enough grief and they will NEVER back down – the Kurds -still fighting and will forever etc etc. Learning history, repeating blah blah – the imbecility of psychopathic tyrants and the gormless commoners who let them have their way , blah blah – and round and round we go. I guess this is why the Yanks hang onto their guns – it is kinda making more sense these days…………….thought i would never say that !!!!

j watson
j watson
2 days ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

Difficult to work out what you trying to convey there CS, apols.
But as regards ‘lessons’ I think the v evident lesson demonstrated is NATO/US doesn’t have ‘boots on the ground’. It’s responded to a unified well led population that wants to fight, and fight hard against an invader by arming them and probiding intelligence. That’s quite a different approach. That was much less the case in Vietnam and Afghan. The Tet offensive in 68 showed how riddled S Vietnam was with Vietgong infiltration and supporters of the North. That’s v clearly not the case in Ukraine.
We have been much smarter this time.

Chris Taylor
Chris Taylor
1 hour ago
Reply to  j watson

Probably the biggest load of garbage I have read in a long time.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 days ago
Reply to  james boo

It’s existential for the Ukrainians, so in a population of 40 millions they could easily generate another army from all adult men constituting several millions. Their economy is screwed so they have nothing else to do.
For the Russians it isn’t existential, so Russians won’t accept going on the total war mobilisation required to beat a Ukrainian army of several millions.

Last edited 2 days ago by Ian Stewart
D Walsh
D Walsh
3 days ago
Reply to  polidori redux

If the Russians were using human wave attacks then we would have seen the videos by now

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
11 hours ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Russia has a long history of never giving up no matter what the cost, as was proven in WW2 and in its war with Napoleon. I suspect, sadly, this will be no different. I don’t know what the prison population of Russia is but there will be plenty more troops to be conscripted after the last living Ukrainian is tragically killed. It is the ordinary Ukrainians that are the real cannon fodder with satanic NATO perfectly happy to see them die in their horrible proxy war with Russia.

Peter Spurrier
Peter Spurrier
5 hours ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

They gave up in Afghanistan. ( Your comment about NATO rather undermines your credibility. )

Liam B
Liam B
5 hours ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Read a history book! Russia has lost wars to Japan, Finland, Afghanistan, Germany (WW1). In fact Russia has only “won” one war WW2 and that was with the help of USA and U.K.

Iris C
Iris C
3 days ago

Don’t you ever wonder what the Ukrainian civilians are thinking?
I watch all sort of News programmes on the TV and I learned yesterday that Zelensky’s government had lost five advisers in his intimate circle and a similar number in administrations throughout the country. That doesn’t sound to me as if the war has full support amongst the civilian population.
But how can we tell when we are only given one side. You have an open forum but there is no open forum in the MSM

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 days ago
Reply to  Iris C

You mean those that were sacked due to corruption?

Liam B
Liam B
5 hours ago
Reply to  Iris C

Brave Ukrainians will fight to the last man or woman. Rather dead than red.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 days ago

Not sure the body count means much except when new bodies can’t be found to enter combat. So far neither side has run out of bodies.
What does win war is logistics. In the US civil war as with all wars, the ability to furnish the weapons and materials of war define who ultimately wins. There are exceptions related to the public opinion eliminating support, Vietnam and Afghanistan are notable. But in the Ukraine war the west can supply goods forever, but Russia can’t. Ukraine might face huge destruction but if citizens decide to continue the fight, their supply lines will not falter.

Nancy Austin
Nancy Austin
21 minutes ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

You assume western countries will not grow weary of shouldering the burden of logistics to the Ukrainians. Certainly, the west can continue far longer than Russia, but whether they will or not is an entirely different question. I do agree that logistics wins wars, but I wouldn’t undersell the advantage of fighting in the defense of your home.

james boo
james boo
3 days ago

The Ukrainian war is a war of attrition rather like the Korea war. Both gulf wars achieved success by manoeuvre warfare. The Russians lack the tactical ability to fight manoeuvre warfare and the Ukrainians lack the weapons to fight manoeuvre warfare. That’s why the supply of western tanks has been considered vital. This gives the Ukrainians the ability to breakthrough the Russian lines and destroy Russian logistics. The Ukrainians have demonstrated the ability to breakthrough Russian lines but lacked the numbers and logistics support to fully exploit their tactical success. The Russians are losing at the tactical level but have a marginal win at the operational level because they can sustain attritional warfare. This article doesn’t mention the vital difference between attrition and manoeuvre casualties.

Last edited 3 days ago by james boo
Tom Watson
Tom Watson
3 days ago
Reply to  james boo

I’m not sure it’s a lack of tactical ability on the Russians’ part so much as a different doctrine, based on overwhelming firepower and as you say attrition rather than Gulf War-style manoeuvre (which itself depended on a good deal of firepower preceding it to degrade enemy logistics and prevent defence in depth).

james boo
james boo
3 days ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

This is untrue. The initial Russian timetable was to take Kyiv in 3 days. The use of air assault regiment to take the airfield north of Kyiv the infiltration of special forces and then being relieved by armored columns is straight of the theory of deep operations. It’s exactly what an attack on NATO in 1985 would have looked like. The Soivet plans had them reaching the Rhine by H+48 to H+72. That’s not attrition warfare.

In manoeuvre warfare you achieve a numerical advantage at the point of attack and use huge amounts of artillery to suppres infantry defences. The problem is that they can’t co ordinate between artillery, infantry and armor. So instead of being able to stage a breakthrough they have reverted to tactics of 1917-18. Pre planned artillery barrages followed by limted advances to bite and hold. The Russians tried and failed to implement manoeuvre warfare. That doesn’t matter to them because they can win by attrition.

martin logan
martin logan
3 days ago
Reply to  james boo

Sorry, the Russian Army is in no way the Soviet.
First of all, they lack the wheeled transport to support any deep penetration. Even if the hare-brained Hostomel attack had succeeded, they would only have reached Kyiv, and got no further.
That would have just started a huge irregular war.
True, memories of the Great Patriotic War still delude Russia’s leadership.
But they conveniently (and fatally) forget that without 400,000 American trucks, any Soviet offensives would have been just as barren of success as Germany’s in 1941-2.
Russian officers are just too intellectually isolated to fight a war like this.

Last edited 3 days ago by Martin Logan
Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

The infinite US logistics chain of WWII allowed the Russians to fight on. That same logistics chain ended the war.

james boo
james boo
3 days ago
Reply to  James Billot

The Iraqs were dug in too. Didn’t do them any good. The Egyptians and Syrians were dug in as well, guess what they lost. Its shock provided by artillery to suppress atgm and knock out supporting fire. If you co ordinates combined arms you allow your engineering vehicles to clear static defences. This isn’t rocket science it’s an 80 year tactical ability. The difficulty is in getting all arms to work together. That takes training, planning and good leadership from nco level upwards.

Last edited 3 days ago by james boo
martin logan
martin logan
3 days ago
Reply to  james boo

Of which western armies have plenty, and the Russian Army clearly lacks.
Follow Girkin’s Telegram Channel.
He’s a war criminal from 2014, but the only sane “voenkor” (war correspondent).
You can translate him in Google translate.
https://t.me/s/strelkovii

Last edited 3 days ago by Martin Logan
Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 days ago
Reply to  james boo

Notable absolute dominance in the air. Dug-in means little to a barrage of 2000# bombs on target.

martin logan
martin logan
3 days ago

What a difference a day makes.
The writer is correct about the casualty rates–no one knows, or will know–until well after the conflict ends.
But the dispatch of Abrams and Leopards decisively changes the war’s dynamic. The western tanks won’t be available for months, which seems to create a window of opportunity for Russia.
Sadly, however, something called the “rasputitsa” (the two-month long muddy season) will upset Russia’s war plans permanently. Until May, manoeuvre by vehicles is difficult if not impossible, as the Russians found out before Kyiv.
So Putin will either have to send his ill-prepared and equipped 150,000 “mobiks” against Ukrainian defences now, in the midst of winter, or wait and face a Ukrainian tank force far better manned, organized and led in May or June.
It may yet be a long war. But now it is a war that Russia cannot win, either in the long or short term.

Last edited 3 days ago by Martin Logan
Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

“But now it is a war that Russia cannot win, either in the long or short term.” Given the logistics involved a true statement.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

Why is it sad that the weather prevents a Russian advance before the Ukrainians can replenish their defences? I think most people in the world would argue that’s a good thing

Julian Townsend
Julian Townsend
13 hours ago

Ukraine had more than 2,500 tanks at the beginning of the “Special military operation”. They have all been destroyed by the Russians. Why should a hundred (or even more) miscellanous NATO tanks make any difference to the outcome? The Russians will surely destroy them too. At most they can only delay Russian victory. But most likely, these tanks will not even reach the battlefront until the war is over – if then.

Jeff Andrews
Jeff Andrews
11 hours ago

Does anybody really believe these figures from Norway? Since when we been getting Intel. from Norway, when it suits the narrative. As for Milley, why’s he asking for a ceasefire?
just reverse these figures and they may be about right. We’ll know for certain when they bring back the draft in Germany, they already have done in Poland. NATO is running out of Ukrainians.