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Why it’s so hard to know how many Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine

This much is clear: Russia has a manpower problem.

Last week, after Ukraine’s dramatic and deadly strike on a Russian air base in Crimea, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had a particularly blunt message for the Kremlin.

“If almost 43,000 dead Russian soldiers do not convince the Russian leadership that they need to find a way out of the war,” Zelenskyy said, “then more fighting is needed, more results are needed to convince.”

We don’t really know how many Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine. But there is no shortage of estimates.

What are we really counting?

According to Ukrainian media reports, the Ukrainian military bases its own estimates on a combination of reports from troops in the field, intercepts of Russian communications, open-source visual data and estimates based on the amount of equipment destroyed. If a particular vehicle is destroyed, the military has a decent idea of how many troops were likely inside it.

The U.S., of course, does not have its own personnel on the ground in Ukraine. (Not officially, anyway.) So what’s the basis for the American estimates? A senior Defense Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Grid only that “casualty estimates are derived from a variety of open-source and classified collection methods.”

Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Grid it wasn’t clear where the Pentagon was getting its numbers but speculated that they “may come from analysis of the Russian forces unit by unit, based on what can be discovered of the unit strength. They may also come from intelligence and intercepts of internal Russian discussions.”

Jeffrey Edmonds, an expert on the Russian military at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Grid that the challenge reminded him of the work he used to do compiling data on Pakistani insurgent groups at the CIA. “You had to take a number of disparate reports with varying credibility and try to come to some estimation,” he said. “Even if you had firsthand knowledge of what the Russians believe they have lost, that would also not be perfect given the Russian bodies that were left behind.”

Russia’s people problem

If the higher end of the U.S. estimates is accurate, it would mean that the Russian death toll in Ukraine has been greater than the Soviet Union’s during its 10-year war in Afghanistan. It far exceeds the number of U.S. service members, around 7,000, killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those assessments would also mean that of the estimated 150,000 troops Russia massed at Ukraine’s borders prior to the invasion, more than half have been lost to death or injury. Even if the real numbers are lower, it is clear that Russia is having trouble keeping troops in the field.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has refrained so far from calling the conflict in Ukraine a “war” — for the Kremlin, it’s still a “special military operation.” This may be a politically safer way to describe the invasion, but it also limits the Russian government’s ability to conscript troops. Absent a formal war declaration, Putin cannot order a mass mobilization of forces.

Who is dying?

Ukraine’s toll

The numbers on both sides can often blind observers to the reality that each death is of course a tragedy for the (usually) young life snuffed out and for those who mourn back home. The grim logic of attrition warfare will almost certainly mean a long procession of these individual and family tragedies.

“Both sides are suffering attrition rates that from a U.S. perspective are pretty incalculable since the days of maybe the Korean War,” Chris Dougherty, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Grid. “I don’t think one side or the other has a significant manpower advantage, but if you were to hold a gun to my head, I would say the Ukrainians have a very slight advantage because I would imagine their individual soldiers and individual personnel are probably more motivated than their Russian counterparts. It’s different when you’re fighting for your house, your wife, your kids. On the other hand, the Russians do have a deeper manpower pool. The question is, how deep?”

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