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Counting the dead: confirmed Russian losses in Ukraine now exceed 20,000
BBC Russian's tally of Russia's war dead reaches a grim new milestone of more than 20,000 confirmed names, with record numbers of deaths among prisoners and newly mobilised recruits.
By Olga Ivshina. Published on 14 April 2023.
BBC Russian, using open sources, has confirmed the identities of 20,451 Russian soldiers killed in the war in Ukraine, as of mid-April. Although the active phase of the Russian offensive has passed, the rate of casualties continued to grow. Our data suggests that prisoners fighting in Bakhmut incurred the highest losses, and there were many deaths amongst units of mobilised soldiers.
Over the recent two weeks, BBC Russian, together with journalists from the independent media outlet MediaZona and a team of volunteers, has managed to confirm 1820 casualties - the highest number in any single period of the war.
Since January 2023, the names of around 700 Russian casualties have been recorded weekly. During the first year of the invasion, Russian sources reported between 250 and 300 dead a week.
BBC is blocked in Russia. We’ve attached the story in Russian as a pdf file for readers there.
As we only include data from open sources, and not all deaths are reported or acknowledged, the actual death toll is likely to be much higher.
As of mid-April, we have managed to confirm the deaths of 20,451 Russian soldiers. A third of these losses are people who had no connection to the armed forces prior to the start of the war in February 2022: volunteers, mobilised soldiers, prisoners, and newly-recruited mercenaries.
We estimate that our list takes into account around half the casualties who are buried in Russia. Our conclusion is based on the monitoring of graveyards in over 65 locations across Russia over a period of 14 months. Subsequently, even the most conservative figure indicates that 41,000 Russian soldiers have died in the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s “irrevocable” losses – soldiers who are missing, injured, or dead – may be as high as 184,000.
This figure is based on data from the US Center for Naval Analyses, which estimates that for every Russian soldier killed in Ukraine, around 3.5 are wounded. The data does not include soldiers who fought on the Russian side with the “people’s militias” of Donetsk or Luhansk, and the number of missing soldiers is impossible to estimate.
Cemeteries for convicts
One reason for the unusually high weekly death toll is the recent appearance of numerous graves of soldiers who may have fought on Ukrainian territory as part of the Wagner Group.
Currently, the BBC is aware of seven such graveyards, which contain in total the bodies of at least 995 people. According to open sources, many of those buried were prisoners who still had time left to serve in penal colonies.
All the graveyards were discovered at a slight distance from civilian churchyards. Each grave bears an identical cross and wreath with the red, black and yellow emblem found on the Wagner Group flags.
Relatives of at least 42 of the deceased had not been informed of the deaths and had spent months trying to establish the fate of their loved ones.
To date we have established the identities of 3080 Russian prisoners killed during the invasion of Ukraine. The true figure is probably much higher. The convicts recruited by the Wagner Group from penal colonies are being used as frontline assault forces in the prolonged battle of Bakhmut.
From March onwards, confirmed losses amongst convicts exceeded casulaties in any other Russian group fighting in the war.
We used open sources to verify the deaths of 1900 mobilised Russian soldiers. 60 percent were killed after January 1st. Again, judging by open sources, the rate of losses amongst mobilised soldiers continues to grow.
This figure is the most conservative estimate of losses among the mobilised, since we only count deaths that have been publicly confirmed, where the status of the combatant can also be established.
The true figure may be much higher, since many records of the soldiers killed in Ukraine since October do not indicate their status. Therefore, it is impossible to prove whether a person served as a contractor, a volunteer, or a mobilised recruit.
According to reports from the front, newly mobilised recruits formed the backbone of the Ministry of Defence’s forward detachments, who participated in offensives in various regions of Donbass. Survivors assert that they were often sent into assaults on Ukrainian fortifications without prior training. Mobilised soldiers send regular complaints to President Putin about such decisions from the command, which have little effect on the overall picture.
There have also been cases where mobilised soldiers have been sent to fight under very different conditions from the ones they were trained for. Taking into account the lack of coordination between units and the frequent shelling, this leads to heavy losses amongst new recruits.
At least 53 mobilised soldiers are also known to have died on Russian territory, either at rally points or in their military units. The cause of death was often health problems or delayed medical care. There were eight suicides and several more deaths from excessive alcohol consumption
Civilians and the elite
Over the last 14 months, the composition of the Russian army has changed. The reform began in 2008, aiming to gradually shape the troops into a professional army. Small mobile units of well-trained contractors were to form the bulk of the army.
At the beginning of the war, Moscow was gambling on the supremacy of its elite units: airborne forces, marines, GRU special forces, and the units of the National Guard. As a result, these units incurred the highest losses.
Judging by confirmed data, Russia has lost over 3230 elite specialists since the beginning of the invasion: soldiers and officers of special forces units, paratroopers, and marines. Their training took years and cost millions of dollars. Amongst the dead were 134 military pilots. This is a rare specialism, calling for at least seven years of the most intense training.
Since June, the burden has shifted to hurriedly-recruited volunteer units (largely composed of men over 40 who were trained for three to seven days.) These volunteer units – and the motorised infantry units – suffered the highest losses from early summer to late autumn 2022.
After October, mobilised soldiers joined the fighting. The regional distribution of losses began to change significantly. In the opening six months of the war, the majority of confirmed casualties were from Dagestan and Buryatia, where many young people joined the army under contract due to a lack of employment prospects. In the first eight months of the invasion, regions with a low average salary incurred higher losses than the wealthier regions.
However, after the announcement of partial mobilisation, Russia’s industrialised regions overtook the poorer regions in terms of losses. Here, many people were recruited via the call-up system.
Despite serious losses, the special forces and airborne units remain the most important Russian military groups on Ukrainian territory. We continue to record a steady growth in losses among paratroopers, marines and the National Guard.
According to data from the front line, the special forces, marines and airborne units have been replenished using new recruits, and these inexperienced troops are now actively involved in fighting.
Deaths of officers
Russia is continuing to lose highly-qualified personnel at the front, including senior officers. Overall, 1947 officers are known to have died since the start of the invasion. 525 of them held the rank of Major or above.
Losing high numbers of officers – especially lieutenants and captains – significantly affects the combat capability of a unit. Junior officers in the Russian army usually decide exactly how the orders from the command will be carried out. Their decisions can rescue or destroy dozens of soldiers and sergeants. It is junior officers who spend the most time with soldiers in their units: they train recruits, and coordinate the training of the whole team.
Soldiers brought in to replace the slain officers tend to be poorly trained and inexperienced. This has a knock-on effect on the level of preparation within the units of volunteers and conscripts, and lowers the quality of decision-making on the battlefield.
What do we know about losses in the so-called DPR and LPR?
The sum of casualties on the Russian side increases significantly if we count soldiers who fought in Ukraine as part of the “People’s Militias” of Donetsk and Luhansk “republics”.
After December 22nd 2022, the authorities of the self-styled DPR stopped releasing data about casualties in their forces.
Using open sources we estimate losses in excess of 8000 soldiers in the “People’s Militias” of the so-called republics of the Donbass.
Furthermore, the BBC has found more than 5300 messages and posts on social sites whose authors were searching for male relatives serving in DPR and LPR “armies” who had not been in touch for some time. Some of those who went missing in the first months of the war have already returned home in coffins [known by army code – ‘Cargo 200’.] Even if we only include publicly available data, cumulative losses on the Russian side may exceed 54,000.
Taking all of this into account, it is possible that the overall number of dead and wounded on the Russian side over the last 10 months could be more than 243,700.
The Russian Ministry of Defence last published casualty figure on 21 September at which time it said the death toll was 5937.
How we keep the count
New lists of the dead and photos from funerals are published in Russia every day. Most often, the names are announced by the heads of Russian regions, or by representatives of district administrations, local media and educational institutions where the deceased once studied. Sometimes relatives announce names.
The BBC, MediaZona, and a team of volunteers are studying this data, adding it to the list we have kept since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Read this story in Russian here.
Translated by Pippa Crawford.
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