How many Russian soldiers have died in the war in Ukraine?


It has been three weeks since Russia updated the official death toll to its invasion in Ukraine, leaving open the question of how many of its soldiers have been killed or wounded in the chaotic opening stages of its war.

In early March, the Russian defence ministry admitted that 498 Russian soldiers had been killed in action and 1,500 wounded, a large number after just 10 days of fighting that pointed to the danger of its attempts to take Kyiv in a lightning raid.

Critics said the official government numbers should be treated with scepticism. And US and Ukrainian officials have since claimed that Russia has suffered 10, 20 or 30 times as many casualties, claiming that Russian losses could rival the wars in Chechnya or Afghanistan. And amid an information vacuum in Russia, rumours have spread over the hundreds, or thousands more, who have been killed in the ensuing weeks.

“It’s almost a state secret,” said a Russian military commentator who asked not to be quoted by name to discuss the issue. “We don’t know exactly [how many people have died] … at the given moment, it’s better to discuss other questions.”

Russian news outlets continuing to operate inside the country have largely stopped reporting on the death toll from the war, as censors have forbidden any discussion that calls the conflict a “war” or “invasion”.

But on Monday, the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, which frequently posts pro-Kremlin news reports, published a bombshell buried deep in a news story about the war: “According to Russian defence ministry data … 9,861 Russian soldiers had been killed in action and another 16,153 had been wounded.”

Just minutes later, the line was gone. No other Russian news agencies reported the remarks, and it was not clear why Komsomolskaya Pravda alone would have access to that information.

Screenshots and archived versions of the deleted report quickly went viral, as critics pointed to the article as evidence that the Kremlin was suffering catastrophic losses in the month-old war.

The paper later claimed that its site had been hacked. “Access to the administrative interface was hacked on the Komsomolskaya Pravda website and a fake was made in this publication about the situation around the special operation in Ukraine,” the website wrote. “The false information was immediately deleted.”

With little official information, journalists have had to sift through local funeral announcements or search out morgue directors for clues as to the Russian death toll, while officials have accused anyone covering the topic of disinformation.

“The collective west is trying to divide our society,” Vladimir Putin said in a speech late last week. “Speculating on military losses, the socio-economic consequences of sanctions, to provoke a civil rebellion in Russia. And is using its fifth column in order to achieve this goal … the destruction of Russia.”

BBC Russian on Monday published a report that said it had confirmed the deaths of 557 soldiers. That report was based on soldiers whom it could confirm by first and last name had been killed in the fighting. It remains the most authoritative account of the Russian death toll from the war.

Earlier this week, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the US state-funded news agency with dozens of journalists in the region, reported that Belarusian hospitals had been filled with Russian war dead after weeks of war. It quoted one employee of the Homel regional clinical hospital, who said that more than 2,500 soldiers’ corpses had been shipped from the Belarusian region back to Russia as of 13 March. But it could not independently confirm that account.

Police detain a man during an anti-war protest in front of the Kremlin in Moscow last week. Hundreds people were held during the rally. Photograph: /Getty

Other estimates are far higher.

US intelligence officials this week gave a “conservative” estimate that more than 7,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in fighting in Ukraine since late February, a number that would exceed the official death toll among Russian servicemen for the two years of the first Chechen war, which is remembered as a particularly brutal and haphazard campaign.

And Ukrainian officials on Monday evening estimated that more than 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, a number close to the official estimates of Soviet soldiers killed in the decade-long war in Afghanistan. That war marked a considerable decline in the prestige of the Soviet military abroad and the pullout came just months before the fall of the Soviet Union.

Analysts have warned about taking that information at face value during a war where western countries want to emphasise the toll of the war on the Russian military while the Kremlin wants to downplay its losses.

In its edited story, Komsomolskaya Pravda also deleted a line saying that the Russian defence ministry has denied Ukrainian reports of “supposedly massive” losses in Ukraine.

It is a particularly perilous moment to report on the topic, as Russia threatens all publications that release information about the war. Several military analysts and NGOs declined to comment on the Komsomolskaya Pravda story because of concerns about a legal backlash and possible punishment for discussing unofficial numbers. But there are indications, including from open sources, that Russia is sustaining heavy losses during the fighting.

The Oryx Blog, an open-source site that tracks military-equipment losses, has reported that Russia has lost 1,666 vehicles in Ukraine, of which more than 800 have been destroyed during the conflict. Those confirmed destroyed include 111 tanks, 74 armoured fighting vehicles, 123 infantry fighting vehicles, and 312 trucks, vehicles and jeeps.

“This list only includes destroyed vehicles and equipment of which photo or videographic evidence is available,” the bloggers wrote. “Therefore, the amount of equipment destroyed is significantly higher than recorded here.”

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