The number of people killed in the Russian-Ukraine war continues to rise, but the exact numbers remain exceptionally difficult to determine.
Estimates in August suggested that the war had claimed 500,000 wounded or dead people, reported The New York Times (NYT).
US officials told the paper that they believed Russian casualties had stretched to 300,000, including 120,000 dead, but Russia is "believed to routinely undercount" its wounded or killed in action, making total losses difficult to verify. Officials estimated Ukrainian losses at close to 70,000 killed and 100,000 to 120,000 wounded, said the paper.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
An investigation by Mediazona and the BBC News Russian service said that, as of 19 January, it was able to verify just over 42,000 deaths from publicly available sources but suggested the "actual death toll is likely significantly higher". It said at least 1,600 had been added since 29 December, with an average of 1,100 deaths confirmed every two weeks.
Ukraine is similarly guarded about its total losses, labelling it a "state secret", said Reuters. Members of The Book of Memory project – which aims to keep a record of stories and statistics from the war – said in November it was able to confirm from "open sources" that nearly 25,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed. It estimated the real figure was likely to be more than 30,000 dead, while the number of wounded could be around 100,000.
Russian military casualties
The estimated Russian death toll is very hard to verify, said Le Monde last year.
Indeed, reporting on it in Russia "is so sensitive that it has become an act of defiance", the French newspaper added. Information on military casualties "is being suppressed" and those who report on them within Russia "expose themselves to harassment and potential criminal charges". This makes establishing an accurate number incredibly complex.
Figures about Russian casualties are more likely to emerge from the opposition. The national news agency of Ukraine, Ukrinform, said that, as of yesterday, that Ukrainian forces had "eliminated 377,820 Russian invaders" since February 2022. It also claimed Ukraine had destroyed 6,214 enemy tanks, 331 warplanes, 324 helicopters and 6,961 drones, among other equipment.
However, the official numbers produced by Kyiv "simply aren't credible" and "are generated for propaganda purposes", particularly given how guarded the government remains over Ukrainian casualties, said the Asia Times. The paper estimated that, as of 22 December, there were 60,000 Russian soldiers killed in action and 210,000 wounded. It suggested that, using the available data from open sources, "Ukraine's casualties are higher than Russia's" overall.
Ukrainian military casualties
The Ukrainian armed forces have said several times that their war casualties remain "a state secret", said BBC Middle East correspondent Quentin Sommerville. But if the real death toll is anywhere near the 70,000 killed and 120,000 wounded estimate reported in The New York Times in August, it would be a "staggering figure" for an armed forces that is estimated at "only half a million strong".
Yet the US officials who made their recent estimate admitted that their figures "were speculative and varied widely within the government", said The Guardian. There is an element of uncertainty around the figures, the paper said, in part because they "would mark high killed-to-wounded ratios, with one Ukrainian killed for every two other soldiers wounded on the battlefield".
More conservative figures, including those from the Book of Memory Project, suggest Ukraine casualties may not have yet reached that US estimate, or at the very least, continue to lag behind Russian casualties.
But it is important to consider that both the Russian and the Ukrainian figures may be very far off the actual count, said Responsible Statecraft. Searching for clarity on Ukrainian and Russian casualty figures "will most certainly send the seeker tumbling down a rabbit hole much like Alice in Wonderland", the site said.
One thing even the most casual investigator might query, though, is why purported Russian fatalities and injuries are so high compared to those of Ukraine, the website said.
One possible reason is that "coverage invariably foregrounds and heavily publicises Russian losses, while largely de-emphasising Ukraine's similar and arguably more devastating ones", wrote journalist Branko Marcetic for Responsible Statecraft in March.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as of November, there had been 28,500 civilian casualties in Ukraine: 10,000 deaths and 18,500 injured.
It also estimates that 569 children are among the "at least" 10,000 civilians that have been killed since the start of the war.
The UN's Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said in a report in October that the figures made clear the "ongoing and devastating toll of the war". The mission also warned that the actual toll is likely to be far higher than the number of officially confirmed deaths.
How can we be sure of the figures?
Obtaining accurate information about military deaths is "notoriously difficult", said FullFact, with estimates relying on "a combination of intercepted communications on both sides, satellite imagery and 'contact reports' where troops in battle estimate how much damage they have inflicted on the other side".
All these sources and their calculations also involve "an element of guesswork". And it is important to note that both Russia and Ukraine have a "vested interest" in making the given figures "suit their needs", said the site.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.