The Kremlin’s widely reported efforts to conceal combat losses in Ukraine have made estimating these deaths difficult but not impossible. Alternative indicators to Moscow’s official reporting are available, many of which have been widely used, and all of which have generated controversy.
The results are both unofficial and varied (see EDM, March 1, 31, 2022; Idelreal.org, March 2, 2022; Kavkazr.com, October 28, 2022; Baikal-journal.ru, June 20). It turns out that the Russian government’s official statistical agency, Rosstat, has released data on the number of combat losses in the one place it had been suppressing such reporting. This provides valuable information on Russian combat losses during President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.
After Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine, Rosstat stopped reporting deaths in the military as a special sub-category. The government’s statistical agency, however, had little choice but to continue to report total deaths and deaths from other causes, given the government’s need for relatively accurate data to craft policy. In doing so, Rosstat released the data it thought it was blocking.
Before the war, Rosstat divided the causes of mortality into two categories: those from illness and those from “external causes.” The illness portion remains unchanged, but the “external causes” category has been altered. For decades, that category listed deaths from accidents, suicides, and in the military individually. After February 2022, it dropped the separate sub-category of deaths in the military.
It is still possible, however, to calculate the number of “deaths in the military” by subtracting the deaths from other external causes from the total number of deaths. That is what the independent Russian investigative portal Important Stories did last summer to calculate overall combat deaths on the Russian side for 2022. The outlet has now also completed this process for combat deaths among young Russians region by region over the same period (Istories.media, July 6, October 13).
The new report concluded that, in 2022, deaths in the military became the leading cause of death in Rosstat’s “external causes” category. Among Russian men from 18 to 29 years old, combat deaths represent 40 percent of all deaths among those classified as the result of “external causes.” As deaths from illness in that category are relatively small, this likely means that combat deaths became a disproportionate cause of death for all Russians in that age group, one typically characterized by better health than older age groups. This rendered the government’s efforts to conceal these deaths ineffective.
Perhaps even more significant is what Important Stories discovered regarding the fraction of combat deaths in the non-Russian republics and poorer Russian regions. Recruits have been disproportionately mobilized from these regions. Up to 70 percent of deaths among young men from five of the non-Russian regions—Buryatia, North Ossetia, Dagestan, Mordovia, and Mari El—and two of the poorer Russian regions—Rostov and Orenburg—come from “external causes.” Thus, from the possible causes, they were most likely the result of combat in Ukraine, a pattern that tends to confirm the claims of those who argue that Moscow is using the non-Russians and those from poor Russian regions as cannon fodder (see EDM, April 20, 2022).
The Rosstat data that Important Stories has assembled on this point is unlikely to end the debate on the size of Russian combat losses. On the one hand, as the portal itself admits, the real numbers of deaths from combat are likely larger than even it is reporting, given the many ways Russian officials have tried to hide deaths (Istories.media, July 6, October 13). On the other hand, Rosstat now appears to be taking steps to eliminate the window this portal has opened so that it will be even more difficult, though not impossible, to learn the truth. The agency has already eliminated the gender divisions in its reporting on premature deaths, thus folding in women with men and reducing the share of unattributed deaths. It may very well eliminate this way of reporting mortality altogether.
The 2022 data that Important Stories has mined is likely to have three important consequences. First, precisely because this data comes from an official Russian government source and is within the range of other estimates, it will be far more difficult for anyone to claim that the various figures now being offered are at odds with reality. Suppose the Kremlin concedes such losses, albeit likely in a shamefacedly way. In that case, it will likely be forced to do the same, or at least reduce the volume of its objections.
Second, this data will presumably intensify nationalism among non-Russians, who will conclude that Russia is using them as cannon fodder and that they are suffering disproportionately. It may also intensify anti-Moscow feelings in poorer Russian regions where many soldiers are drawn (Sibreal.org, May 20; see EDM, March 1, 2022).
Third, the results of the Important Stories investigation will highlight something many are still denying: Putin’s war in Ukraine is coming home to Russia in ways that Moscow may try to use to mobilize the population. This would certainly raise questions in the minds of more Russians about whether what Putin promises to gain in Ukraine is worth the lives of their fathers, husbands, and sons.
These findings should prompt Western researchers to pay more attention to the holes in Moscow’s obfuscation of official statistics. The late American specialist on the Soviet Union, Murray Feshbach, routinely displayed in his research a model for how to apply such an approach in Soviet society. His work showed that, once Moscow starts releasing data, it may discover, or at least others can, that what Kremlin officials think they are keeping secret may be revealed elsewhere if those interested take the time to look. In today’s context, this means that, unless Putin is prepared to go back to draconian restrictions on the release of such data, he will not succeed in shutting down information about what is happening in Russia. This means Western policymakers can cultivate a clearer view into the proverbial “black box” that has traditionally characterized the Kremlin’s reporting on official statistics to inform more effective policies on Russia in the future.
This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 162