The war in Ukraine has already cost the lives of nearly 50,000 Russian soldiers, according to a first independent assessment of the human toll of that conflict by two Russian independent media outlets and a statistician.
This estimate, which clearly exceeds the official Russian balance – set at only 6,000 losses – is based on an unprecedented method: the analysis of the “surplus” of heritage archives opened since February 2022.
Almost 50,000 Russian soldiers died since the start of the major offensive in February 2022. This is the conclusion of the first independent estimate – and so far only – of the human cost of the war for Moscow. The survey was published on Monday, July 10 by independent Russian media Meduza and Mediazona, in collaboration with statistician Dmitri Kobak from the University of Tübingen.
“Adding the seriously wounded fighters who were unable to return to combat, Russia’s total losses, according to our calculations, amount to at least 125,000 soldiers,” write the authors of the study for Medusa. These fifteen months of hard fighting have thus cost three times more in men than the ten-year war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), supports the Russian independent investigative site.
“As a Russian citizen, I would have liked to refrain from doing this, I would have preferred that there was no war”, laments Dmitri Kobak, who has worked for several years to reveal the hidden face of official Russian data, on election results or the census of victims of Covid-19.
The war’s death toll remains largely shrouded in mystery. Officially, Russia has acknowledged just under 6,000 dead since the start of the war. That was in September 2022. Since then, Moscow has maintained strict radio silence. But the figures presented by the Ukrainian or American authorities – between 35,000 and 60,000 for the year 2022 alone – must also be taken with a grain of salt, Meduza believes.
So far, the only independent effort to assess Russian combat losses has been carried out by Britain’s BBC. Working with Mediazona, these journalists tracked death reports on social media and in local media. They could thus certify 26,801 deaths. A figure probably well below reality, they point out.
This is where the real finding of the new revelations comes in. Meduza and Mediazona “have been able to access truly unique data: inheritance claims,” points out Ilya Kashnitsky, a demographer at the University of Southern Denmark.
They have been able to review more than 11 million files since 2014 and thus deduce the excess mortality from February 2022, the start of the major Russian offensive in Ukraine. They limited themselves to cases involving men of military age.
This excess mortality calculation is based on proven statistical techniques. They have been used to estimate deaths caused by pollution, deaths related to natural disasters and more recently to get a more accurate idea of the number of victims of Covid-19.
But this approach had so far not been of much use in wars. “I am aware of only one other example, which concerns the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, where a colleague of mine used the excess mortality to try to estimate the real number of casualties on the Armenian and Azerbaijani side”, emphasizes Dmitri Kobak.
Comparison with excess mortality in women
The pandemic has been an important accelerator for the use of these techniques. “In particular, it made it possible to refine the methods for determining what a normal mortality scenario is,” explains Ilya Kashnitsky. Indeed, it is not easy to determine what might be a “normal” number of deaths associated with accidents, suicides or crimes. The proliferation of studies on this topic during the health crisis has made it possible to obtain a more solid basis for getting an idea of ”mortality in normal times”.
But in the case of the war in Ukraine, Covid-19 was above all an obstacle. “At the beginning of 2022, the virus was still circulating in Russia, and we had to find a way to separate war-related deaths from those attributable to Covid-19”, notes Dmitri Kobak.
So they turned to women. By observing the excess female mortality at the start of 2022 and assuming that the virus killed as many women as men, they were able to derive the excess deaths in the male population. This surplus corresponded to the casualties of the war, concluded Meduza and Mediazona.
“Of course, it is possible that because of the war there was an increase in the number of suicides or violent deaths among men of fighting age,” recognizes Ilya Kashnitsky. But the expert believes that their number could not have been large enough to distort the conclusions of this study.
Especially since Dmitri Kobak was able to obtain official data, which indirectly confirms the conclusions of the analysis of the inheritance cases. He was able to analyze death reports in Russia between 2016 and 2022 by gender and age group. Again, he was able to estimate the excess mortality of men under 50 compared to women in 2022, giving an idea of the number of casualties of the war between February and December 2022.
His findings – about 24,000 Russian soldiers killed – agreed with the figures obtained through the analysis of the surplus legacy files for 2022 (about 25,000).
The big unknown concerns the first half of 2023, as there is still no official death register for this year. Therefore more difficult estimate. “Since every deceased does not necessarily give rise to an inheritance case, and since not all inheritance cases are linked to the war, corrections must be made, Dmitri Kobak clarifies.
“It is difficult, especially without the official register to compare. And that is why they ultimately expect a total death toll of between 40,000 and 55,000 dead”, he concludes. A figure that is nevertheless impressive, as it means that since January 2023 there would already be at least 15,000 Russian soldiers. killed in action.