Counting the Russian war dead in Ukraine
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, BBC Russian has been tracking and trying to confirm the names of Russian soldiers killed in action.
By Olga Ivshina
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, BBC Russian has been tracking and trying to confirm the names of Russian soldiers killed in action. We are focusing on deaths which have been announced publicly, and which we have been able to double check and confirm. The information we are piecing together does not reflect the full extent of the Russia’s war losses, but offers an important insight into the current state of the armed forces.
As of the 8th July, the BBC has been able to confirm the deaths of 4515 soldiers and officers. We are keeping track of them alongside the Russian news outlet ‘Mediazona’ (a publication branded a foreign media agent by Russia) and a team of volunteers. It is impossible even to estimate how many more Russian soldiers are missing in action, so this figure does not include them.
Our analysis of Russia’s losses is based on announcements made by local authorities in various parts of Russia, and also on local media publications, and testimonies from relatives of the deceased. In each instance we know at least the first name and surname of the soldier in question, and in many cases we have also identified what type of unit they were serving in, and where they are buried.
This is not a comprehensive list of every death. During the course of our ongoing investigation we have found many new war graves in cemeteries across Russia. Many of these deaths have not been officially acknowledged or reported.
According to British intelligence assessments, by the middle of June, Russia had lost approximately 20 thousand men in Ukraine.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces puts that number at more than 36 thousand.
The last official Russian Ministry of Defence casualty figures were released on 25th March and reported the deaths of 1351 servicemen.
Of the 4515 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine, 205 were senior officers (such as generals, colonels, lieutenants, and majors). In total 773 people, or 17% of confirmed deaths, were officers.
Five months into the war, the percentage of officers among the overall losses remains more or less the same as the start. In March and April it was at 20%, and from June onwards, 17%.
Ukrainian officials claim as many as 11 Russian generals have been killed in Ukraine so far.
The deaths of four of them have been confirmed. They are Major General Andrei Sukhovetsky, Major General Vladimir Frolov, Major General Roman Kutuzov and 63 year-old Kanamat Botashev, a retired Major General in the air force.
The death of Botashev stands out from the rest. On the 22nd March he was piloting a low-flying SU-25 over Luhansk and was shot down by a Ukrainian solider using a handheld rocket launcher. Exactly how Botashev himself ended up in Ukraine is not clear, but the fact that someone who had previously retired was taking part in aerial combat operations at all, speaks volumes about the shortage of highly-qualified specialists in the active ranks of the Russian armed forces.
Three of the people named by the Ukrainians (Vitaly Gerasimov, Magomed Tushayev and Andrei Mordvichev) have subsequently turned up in a video footage very much alive and continuing to fight in Ukraine. The fate of the other four remains unknown.
So why are so many officers being killed?
“Russian officers really provide the backbone of the Russian armed forces,” says Samuel Cranny-Evans, a research analyst working on defence and security at the Royal United Services Institute.
“The Western equivalent would be non-commissioned officers. NCOs are simply there to man systems rather than taking any form of leadership. This means that officers must assume more combat leadership roles on the front line and their death is consequently more likely than would be the case for officers in a lot of other armies.”
The number of officer deaths is further complicating the Russian army’s current challenges in Ukraine. Russia is already having to form new tactical battalions out of other units in order to continue the attack on Donbas. According to British intelligence assessments, these will be made less effective as a result of the shortage of capable commanders.
As an example, going by just the last two weeks’ worth of verified data, Russia has lost 84 officers. The casualties include the deputy commander of the 11th guards’ landing-assault brigade from Ulan-Ude, the commander of a reconnaissance company from Volgograd, the head of the command post of the Chernyakhovsk Guards’ rocket brigade, and a special-forces officer from the General Intelligence Department.
Losses within the airforce
Fighter pilots figure quite significantly in BBC Russian’s lists of officer losses.
In any army, specialist fighter pilots are seen as the elite. The training of a single sniper-pilot can take 15-17 years and costs 12-14 million dollars.
As the war stretches into its fifth month, Russia has lost at least 49 fighter pilots (including navigators and flight engineers). In 80 per cent of these cases, entire combat aircraft crews were lost.
According to assessments by British intelligence, the Russian air force has not achieved what was expected of it during the first four months of war in Ukraine. Its failure to meet targets for the first stage of the conflict can be explained chiefly by the inconsistency and instability of its aerial operations.
“They simply cannot gain full control of the airspace,” one intelligence briefing notes. “They act recklessly, and they only occasionally penetrate Ukrainian defences to any significant degree.”
For many years, most of Russia’s army training followed a strict, pre-planned programme designed to impress high-ranking officials. British intelligence suggests that this could actually impede the development of combat skills among the trainee aircraft crews. Furthermore, such a system likely discourages taking initiative, and hinders the development of independent, split-second decision-making in evolving situations.
These observations tie in with what the BBC has discovered from data gathered about the pilots who have been killed. At least five of them were officers over the age of 45 (including the 63-year-old retired Major General Kanamat Botashev). This could be indicative of a shortage of highly-qualified, motivated pilots in the Russian air force.
Every cemetery tells a story
It’s clear that the casualty figures announced by local authorities, and reported in the local media, do not include every single death that’s occurred in a particular area – even though funerals have taken place and bodies have been laid to rest.
In order to work out just how many dead are left off the official lists, the BBC continues to monitor cemeteries in various cities across Russia.
In some city cemeteries, entire rows have been set aside for the bodies of those killed in Ukraine.
As of the 8th July, the BBC has been able to check out 33 cemeteries across Russia, from Kaliningrad to Khabarovsk. Almost every single one contains new graves of soldiers killed after the start of the invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022.
In just the last two weeks, we have been able to identify the graves of 20 soldiers whose names were not publicly announced. In each case many factors pointed to the fact that these were military graves. All of the dead were men aged between 18 and 60. Many graves had photographs showing men in military uniform, and some also had wreaths from the Russian Defence Ministry.
In the Arkhangelsk cemetery, near Ulyanovsk, 42 fresh graves of servicemen have appeared since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Half of these were deaths which had not been announced publicly, or mentioned on social media.
At the ‘Kurgan’ cemetery in Kazan, we found that 30% of the names were new to us. The same goes for the Mikhailovsky cemetery near Stavropol. At the Kopansky cemetery near Krasnodar, not a single name on the graves in the military row had been announced previously.
Based on these findings we can assume that the BBC’s ongoing list of names of soldiers killed is at least 40 per cent short of the actual death toll.
A notice in the paper and off to war
Some of the highest death rates are happening in the group of fighters that Moscow refers to as ‘volunteers’.
These are people who join up on short-term contracts. They are mainly men over the age of 40 from rural areas where average incomes are low. Many have no previous combat experience. Read more about the ‘volunteers’ here:
By the end of June, BBC Russian’s list of volunteer deaths contained the names of 267 people. Every week around 30-40 new names are added. No other unit in the armed forces is losing personnel at such a rate.
Two sources reporting from the Russian side of the frontline told BBC Russian that it is these volunteer divisions, together with fighters from the so-called “Wagner Group” (a private security firm), who are now doing most of the frontline fighting.
BBC Russian has discovered that the ‘volunteers’ usually only get three to seven days of training before they are dispatched to the front.
They also tend to be older than other new recruits.
Over 40% of the volunteers killed were aged over 45 (and half of these were aged over 50). This starkly contrasts with the rate of losses from other units of the Russian forces, where 47% of the confirmed dead were aged between18 and 26.
It is possible that the volunteer status was initially used as a way to get round the requirement that no-one over 40 could sign up to join the army on a contract basis. This rule was scrapped at the end of May.
The army: deployer and employer
Dagestan is the region that has been the most open about announcing casualty figures.
We have documented 231 deaths, but the actual figure is likely to be higher.
A considerable death toll has also been announced in Buryatia, at 207 people, and Krasnodarsk Krai, at 153. This does not necessarily mean that it was a deliberate choice for more people from certain regions to be sent to war in Ukraine, as has been suggested by some experts and journalists.
“The majority of the Russian army’s contractors are people from the periphery,” says Professor Natalya Zubarevich, a specialist in socio-economic development issues.
“They’re not necessarily from southern Russia, or the north Caucasus,” she continues. “But they are people living on the edge, in medium-sized and smaller cities, towns and villages.”
Many people join the army from regions like Buryatia, which have experienced an economic slump in recent years.
Mikhail Garmayev from Ulan-Ude in Buryatia, was one such person. After leaving school he went to engineering college, but he didn’t complete his studies, and instead joined the army. At the end of his military service, Mikhail returned to Ulan-Ude and started working at an alarm installation company, but after a few years he went back to the army and signed up on a contract basis. On the 6th March, just outside Kyiv, Mikhail was ambushed and shot dead. On the 21st March he was buried in Ulan-Ude. His is a well-trodden path: school, military service, trying and failing to earn a living in a civilian job, and then eventually returning to the army. Many Russian soldiers now being killed in Ukraine have a similar backstory.
“The army is a key employer for people in areas where earning a living is almost impossible,” say Professor Zubarevich.
“Enlisting into the army gives you a stable income and benefits.”
Very few of the military deaths we have documented so far are from Moscow. Despite the fact that almost 9 per cent of the Russian population live in the capital, we have found just ten soldiers on our list who are from the city.
Graves in neighbouring countries
Another source of casualty figures which the BBC has been monitoring are the deaths announced in neighbouring post-Soviet countries.
At least eight people from Kyrgyzstan are known to have been killed fighting with the Russian army in Ukraine. One of them was 49 year-old Kurbanbaev Amanbek. In Kyrgyzstan, he had served in the army and reached the rank of major before retiring and moving to Russia. According to his brother, the retired officer “willingly went to Ukraine on a contract”. Kurbanbaev was wounded at the end of May and died on 5th June.
We have also been able to identify ten Tajik nationals, three Moldovans and four men from the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia. In total, twelve people from South Ossetia are known to have been killed, but we have not been able to ascertain the precise capacity in which eight of them were serving in the army.
Veteran Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina told BBC Russian that the Russian army was be a very attractive employer for migrants from some former Soviet countries.
Military service is particularly appealing to low-skilled workers, and people with little formal education, she told the BBC. And it is often these people who are most susceptible to what she called “Russian propaganda”.
Losses by unit
So which parts of the military are sustaining the heaviest losses?
As outlined above, the Russian airborne troops are continuing to sustain heavy losses, accounting for 20 per cent of the overall losses we have been able to confirm.
Soldiers in motorised rifle units make up another 20% of confirmed losses. Experts note that this could be linked with the type of military action the Russian army is currently involved in. Soldiers are drawn into intense battles in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where Ukraine has a developed system of fortified areas.
In this kind of fighting it is vital to have a well-trained infantry. The Russian army doesn’t have enough highly-trained motorised rifle units, and so paratroopers often take on infantry tasks instead.
Such high losses amongst the paratroopers and motorised rifle units could also be linked to supply chain problems for soldiers who need medicines and modern first-aid equipment. Poorly-functioning systems for evacuating the wounded from the frontline could also be a factor.
There are 162 soldiers from the National Guard of the Russian Federation on the list of deaths that we have managed to verify, including some from the elite “Vityaz”, “Rusich” and “Typhoon” units.
And finally our list includes at least 111 members of the General Intelligence Department special forces, and three officers of the “Alpha” Federal Security Service (FSB) special forces.
These units are all seen as some of the best in Russia.
How exactly are we counting?
Every day, Russia publishes new names of the deceased with photographs from their funerals. Normally, surnames are published by regional authorities or by representatives of regional administration, by local media and centres where the deceased had previously trained, and indeed by friends and relatives.
The BBC and a team of volunteers study this data, and have been collating it into a list since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We do not take into account the tens or even hundreds of deaths announced by Russian media unless there is concrete information about names and surnames. Likewise, we do not take into account the announcements of the deaths of Russians serving in the armies of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk prior to the 24th February, nor losses from the so-called Wagner group.
Translated by Elsa Haughton
Read this story in Russian here.