Nearly 50,000 Russian soldiers have died since the start of the major offensive in February 2022. This is the conclusion of the first – and so far unique – independent estimate of the human cost of war for Moscow. The survey was published on Monday (July 10th) by the independent Russian media Meduza and Mediazona, in collaboration with statistician Dmitry Kobak of the University of Tübingen.
"Adding the seriously wounded fighters who were unable to return to combat, Russia's total casualty toll rises to at least 125,000 troops, according to our calculations," the survey authors write for Meduza. These fifteen months of fierce fighting have cost three times more in men than the ten years of war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), argues the independent Russian investigative site.
"As a Russian citizen, I wish I didn't have to do that, I would have preferred there to be no war," said Kobak, who has been working for several years to reveal the hidden face of official Russian data, whether it is the election results or the census of Covid-19 victims.
The death toll of the war remains largely shrouded in mystery. Officially, Russia has acknowledged just under 6,000 deaths since the war began. That was in September 2022. Since then, Moscow has maintained a strict radio silence. But the figures put forward by the Ukrainian or American authorities – between 35,000 and 60,000 for the year 2022 alone – are also to be taken with tweezers, says Meduza.
So far, the only independent effort to assess Russian combat losses has been conducted by Britain's BBC. Working with Mediazona, these journalists tracked down mentions of deaths on social media and in local media. They were able to certify 26,801 deaths. A figure probably well below reality, they point out.
This is where the real discovery of the new revelations comes in. Meduza and Mediazona "were able to access some really unique data: inheritance claims," said Ilya Kashnitsky, a demographer at the University of Southern Denmark.
They have been able to examine more than 11 million files since 2014 and thus deduce excess mortality from February 2022, the beginning of the great Russian offensive in Ukraine. They restricted themselves to cases involving men of fighting age.
This calculation of excess mortality is based on proven statistical techniques. They have been used to assess deaths caused by pollution, deaths related to natural disasters and, more recently, to get a clearer picture of the number of victims of Covid-19.
But this approach has hitherto served little purpose in wars. "I am only aware of another example that concerns the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, for which one of my colleagues used excess mortality to try to assess the real number of victims on the Armenian and Azerbaijani side," Kobak said.
Comparison with excess female mortality
The pandemic has been an important accelerator for the use of these techniques. "In particular, it has made it possible to refine the methods to establish what a normal mortality scenario is," explains Ilya Kashnitsky. It is not easy to determine what a "normal" number of deaths related to accidents, suicides or crimes can be. The multiplication of studies on this subject during the health crisis has made it possible to acquire 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 mostly 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 that can be attributed to Covid-19," Kobak said.
So they turned to women. By observing excess female mortality in early 2022 and assuming that the virus killed as many women as men, they were able to deduce the additional deaths in the male population. This excess corresponded to the victims of the war, Meduza and Mediazona concluded.
"Of course, it is possible that because of the war there has been an increase in the number of suicides or violent deaths among men of fighting age," Kashnitsky said. But the expert believes that their number could not have been large enough to distort the conclusions of this investigation.
Especially since Dmitri Kobak was able to obtain official data that confirm, indirectly, the conclusions drawn from the analysis of inheritance files. He was able to analyze death registers in Russia between 2016 and 2022, by sex and age group. Here again, he was able to assess the excess mortality of men under 50 compared to women in 2022, which gave an idea of the number of victims of the war between February and December 2022.
Its conclusions – about 24,000 Russian soldiers killed – corresponded to the figures obtained through the analysis of the excess number of legacy files for 2022 (about 25,000).
The big unknown concerns the first half of 2023, since there is not yet an official register of deaths for this year. This leads to more difficult estimates. "Since not every deceased person necessarily gives rise to an inheritance file and not all cases of inheritance are war-related, corrections must be made," says Dmitry Kobak. It is difficult, especially without the official registry to compare. And that's why, ultimately, they expect a total death toll of between 40,000 and 55,000 dead," he concludes. A figure that is no less impressive since it means that since January 2023, there would already be, at least, 15,000 Russian soldiers killed in combat.
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