Counting the Dead in Ukraine
No one knows just how many have died in the first year of the Ukraine war.
By most accounts, the war in Ukraine is the largest war on the European continent since the end of World War II. But just how calamitous the conflict has been in human terms, those killed and wounded, remains unknown.
The United States military now estimates that 180,000 Russian soldiers and more than 100,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed or wounded in the invasion of Ukraine. Officials say there is a sizable margin of error attached to the striking figures, though they did not elaborate on just how large that margin is. Pinning down an exact number is difficult given the U.S. military’s estimate is calculated from satellite imagery, social media, and on-the-ground reporting.
But if Ukraine is essentially the United States’s benefactor in this war, why have the U.S. and other Western nations turned to satellite imagery and combing the internet to determine how each side is faring in the conflict? Because the piecemeal data coming from the Ukrainian and Russian governments cannot be trusted.
The West expects as much from Russia. A half-century long Cold War made sure of that. The last official tally of Russian fatalities in Ukraine from the Russian government was announced by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in September. According to Shoigu, only 5,937 Russian military personnel had been killed in the invasion. Internally, Russia probably has more accurate data that puts its casualties much higher.
But this is an ugly but expected practice. Countries lie about the number of dead soldiers in an attempt to make their position seem stronger than it is in reality. When a country is more or less fighting a conflict alone, as Russia is in Ukraine, their fudging the numbers is not nearly as problematic as when a country relies on the backing of other countries to continue fighting does so.
The U.S. is not the only Western nation to put forward these estimates. In late January, General Eirik Kristoffersen, head of the Norwegian Armed Forces, went on television and said that Russia’s casualties number about 180,000, while Ukraine’s casualties number about 100,000. Another 30,000 civilians have perished in the conflict, Kristoffersen claimed. After his television appearance, however, Kristoffersen told the New York Times that there is “much uncertainty regarding these numbers, as no one at the moment are [sic] able to give a good overview. They could be both lower or even higher.”
Previous estimates by Western nations for casualties on both sides have been in the six figures dating back to last fall. In November 2022, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said each side had sustained about 100,000 casualties, though U.S. officials thought privately it was closer to 120,000 at the time. In January, Milley again told members of the media during a presser in Germany that “well over 100,000 now,” have been killed or wounded for each side.
Furthermore, in November, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen posted a video address on Twitter, in which the E.U. head claimed “it is estimated that 20,000 civilians and more than 100,000 Ukrainian military officers have been killed" since the invasion began in February.
The Ukrainian government was outraged. Simultaneously, Ukraine claimed the death toll of Ukrainian soldiers was “classified information,” and that von der Leyen’s figure was wrong.
Quietly, the video address was edited to remove von der Leyen’s statement on Ukrainian losses.
In the aftermath, Bohdan Senyk, a spokesman for Ukraine’s armed forces, told a Ukrainian media outlet that the armed forces could not confirm the figure and “emphasize that the losses of the Ukrainian army are classified information and are subject to restrictions on publication."
Sergey Nikiforov, a spokesman for President Volodymyr Zelensky, told Suspilne that, "the information about the losses is 'sensitive,' so it can only be disclosed by the commander-in-chief, the minister of defense, or the president himself."
In response, European Commission Deputy Chief Spokeswoman Dana Spinant thanked “those who pointed out the inaccuracy regarding the figures in a previous version of this video,” via Twitter, and added “the estimation used, from external sources, should have referred to casualties, i.e. both killed and injured, and was meant to show Russia's brutality."
Despite the silent edit to von der Leyen’s address, the news of 100,000 dead Ukrainian soldiers simply wouldn’t go away. In an attempt to seemingly put the story to bed, Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak claimed, “official estimates of the General Staff … lie between 10,000 and 12,500-13,000 deaths.”
The American Conservative reached out to the Defense Department, the State Department, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense for clarification on the currently available figures of Ukrainian casualties within a few minutes of one another. Not long after TAC sent out its queries, the State Department replied and deferred to the DOD. The DOD told TAC to take it up with the Ukrainians. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense did not respond in time to comment.
Maybe von der Leyen simply misspoke—that she meant to say casualties and not fatalities. Nevertheless, there is still a large gap between the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed confirmed by the government (between 10,000 and 13,000)—a number that has certainly grown since that data was released in November—and the estimated 100,000 plus Ukrainian casualties, a metric which includes killed and wounded. There could be a simple enough explanation for this seemingly large discrepancy. Maybe the ratio of wounded to killed is ten to one or even higher. But data from the Donetsk People's Republic in June of 2022—again, data that deserves a healthy amount of skepticism—showed about a ratio of wounded to killed at around four to one. The DPR's ratio of wounded to killed more closely mirrors the modern historical average. In war colleges, students are taught the expected wounded to killed ratio is between three and four to one.
Certainly, one should pray that the real number of casualties for both sides is less than current U.S. estimates, and that the wounded far outnumber the dead. Yet, tragically, it is a double-edged sword.
If the current U.S. estimate drastically overstates the Russian losses, then more men are alive today than previously thought. That is a good thing. But it also means the U.S. government is overestimating the success of the Ukrainians fight against the Russians. More money and weapons continue to flow to Ukraine based on a misconception on just how well Ukraine is faring in this war.
And there is good reason to believe this might be the case. The most recent U.S. estimate of 180,000 Russian casualties is about 50,000 higher than the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s estimates of Russians killed or wounded. As of February 4, the Ukrainian government claimed Russia had sustained about 130,590 casualties.
Since the conflict first broke out, Ukraine has seemingly greatly overestimated the number of Russian casualties. In the first ten days of the conflict, for example, Ukraine claimed 11,000 Russian soldiers had perished, and thousands more were injured. If that rate of Russian fatalities—excluding wounded soldiers—kept pace, then the number of Russian fatalities should number above 380,000. Certainly, the fighting in the first few days of the invasion was especially intense, and it is true that protraction, in most cases, means less fighting in the open and a slower rate of casualties.
Nevertheless, the fighting has remained dynamic. Ukrainian counteroffensives have taken back territory in the Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts after Russian sallies. Russia has made its way through the Zaporizhzhia oblast with intense fighting in Melitopol. As mentioned, Ukraine has gotten its hands on more sophisticated weapons from the West, and the Russians have employed more inexperienced soldiers and reservists to maintain the offensive.
Are these scenarios that lead one to believe the rate of Russian fatalities has fallen to the point where the total number of Russian fatalities is about a third to a quarter of what the rate of Russian fatalities in the opening days of the war would predict?
What seems more likely is that the Ukrainian government has been overstating the amount of Russian losses since the beginning. This would not be surprising. Just as countries are incentivized to lie about the number of casualties they have sustained, they are also incentivized to lie about the number of casualties they have inflicted.
In fact, Ukraine’s history of lying about casualty numbers is well-documented prior to the Russian invasion.
In 2014 to 2015, the Ukrainian government regularly understated the number of Ukrainian casualties sustained in the Donbas war, to the ire of medics, soldiers, and humanitarian workers on the ground, according to the Kyiv Post. In just over a three week period in August to September of 2014, the Kyiv Post estimated that more than 200 Ukrainian servicemen were killed in the Donbas war.
The Ukrainian government continued to deny the reports, as well as figures recorded by Ukraine’s National Museum of Military History, until February of 2015, when the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense was forced to admit 1,750 Ukrainian troops had been killed up until that point.
From 2014 up to the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, the United Nations estimated that at least 4,400 Ukrainian troops had lost their lives.
From casualty numbers, to the Ghost of Kiev, to the myth of Snake Island, to the assertion that it was a Russian missile not a Ukrainian one that killed two Poles in November, Ukraine’s wartime lies continue to stack up.
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America’s political leaders know Ukraine has lied and continues to lie. So, why hasn’t President Joe Biden or any powerful western leader called out Zelensky and Ukraine and demanded answers?
Do our leaders consider these Ukrainian tales to be noble lies for the sake of democracy? Perhaps. Are they willing to tolerate Ukraine’s lies as long as the Ukraine war pads the pockets of the military-industrial complex? Conceivably so. Do they excuse Ukraine because it gives the U.S. an excuse to demilitarize Russia and send thousands of Ivans home in pinewood boxes? This is surely how some on the right in Washington, D.C., have come to view the conflict. Or maybe the truth, and reality on the ground, simply doesn’t matter. Maybe the same detached political elite that have overseen carnage and decline here at home just don't really care about causing it elsewhere.
Regardless of the exact number of killed or wounded Ukrainian troops, one thing remains certain. America has already poured more than $100 billion—in weapons, munitions, combat vehicles, tanks, and missile systems—into Ukraine’s defense. And that spending is expected to continue, even though the United States cannot be certain how Ukraine is faring in the war.