While analysts can agree that the fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces has been bloody, there is no consensus on the exact number of troops killed. Russian and Ukrainian officials often claim death tolls inflicted on the opposing side, but accurate figures are hard to come by. Both countries treat their casualty counts as state secrets. Additionally, Western media outlets have extensively covered the impact of the war on Russia’s military apparatus, yet Ukraine’s losses are rarely discussed.
Competing Estimates on Ukraine Dead
Moscow and Kyiv both downplay personnel losses. Russian TV outlets recently reported that as many as 157,000 Ukrainians have perished during Russia’s military intervention. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, however, said in December that only around 10,000 to 13,000 have died. Western officials have placed the estimated death tolls on both sides of the conflicts much higher.
Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in November estimated that around 100,000 Russian and 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers had either been killed or injured. Additionally, Milley indicated that over 40,000 civilians had been killed, and many more injured. Last month, Norway’s defense chief corroborated the American estimates. Gen. Eirik Kristoffersen told Norwegian TV that intelligence estimates that Ukraine has lost roughly 100,000 soldiers and more than 30,000 civilians throughout the conflict.
As the New York Times explains, Western estimates for Russian and Ukrainian losses are based on social media, satellite imagery, communication intercepts, and state-run media reports, as well as governmental reports. Obviously, state-run media and governmental reports are not very reliable.
Both countries want to downplay deaths for propaganda purposes. Social media has certainly played an instrumental role in the war. Widely circulated footage covering tank destructions, missile launches, and weaponry stockpiles have helped analysts ascertain more reliable pictures of Russia’s offensive efforts and Ukraine’s defensive tactics and capabilities.
Bakhmut Is the Bloodiest Battle
Following the recent spike in warfare in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, casualty estimates for both Russia and Ukraine will likely skyrocket. Over the last two months, the Russian army has thrown thousands of men into battle — troops that are augmented by the Wagner Group paramilitary organization. Newsweek estimated that for every kilometer gained by Russian forces in Bakhmut, 800 soldiers are killed.
These staggering numbers coincide with high death rates for Ukrainian forces. One Ukrainian soldier told The Kyiv Independent in an interview that “when they drive us to Bakhmut, I already know I’m being sent to death.”
While the exact number of Ukrainian soldiers killed is unknown, the country has certainly faced heavy losses, and probably way more than Zelensky’s government claims. In late February, a senior official in the general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said that at least 5,000 missile strikes, 3,500 airstrikes, and 1,000 drone strikes have been launched by Russian forces over the last year. Given the situation in Bakhmut, the numbers are likely even higher.
The assumed casualty rates that coincide with these numbers also highlight Ukraine’s underreporting of personnel and civilian losses.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.