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Explainer: What we do and don't know about the number of Ukrainian troops killed

by Andrea Januta March 8, 2024 10:02 PM 6 min read
Medics evacuate a wounded soldier who tripped on a petal mine as evacuation takes place in darkness in the middle of a damaged forest on Jan. 27, 2024 in Kupiansk area in eastern Ukraine. The Edelweiss Brigade (also spelled Edelveys), a specialized unit within the Ukrainian ground forces, is trying to fend off near-constant Russian attacks on Kupiansk, which is mere kilometers from the front line. Ukrainian soldiers, mountain assault infantry, hold the front in the winter forest. (Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images)
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President Volodymyr Zelensky announced recently that 31,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed in the war against Russia, the first official release of military personnel losses in over a year.

"Every person is a very great loss for us. 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers died in this war," Zelensky said on Feb. 25, speaking in Kyiv at the “Ukraine. Year 2024” forum. "It is very painful for us."

The figure is significantly lower than some recent estimates published by sources outside the government in the absence of official data.

“I think we should look at (the announcement) as a sign that Zelensky is trying to be transparent with his people, that he's trying to be transparent with folks who might give him aid,” Emily Harding, director of the Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Program at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Kyiv Independent.

Releasing sensitive information about troop losses can have benefits and dangers, Harding said. “It's a calculated risk for Zelensky, trying to think through what aid they need right now and how urgently they need it.”

Secrecy and sensitivity

Until now, Ukraine has kept the number of troops killed a tight secret.  

“It makes a lot of sense to want to keep some of those numbers kind of quiet, both to not provide any kind of succor or encouragement to the enemy,” Harding said. “And then also to be sure that the country's morale stays high and that you're able to continue fighting.”

Since Zelensky’s announcement, the Ukrainian government has been reluctant to provide additional details on how the new figure was calculated.

Zelensky did not explain how the government defines troops killed, such as whether the number includes later deaths from injuries after evacuation from the battlefield. Depending on which deaths are included, the actual number could be higher.

When contacted by the Kyiv Independent, Zelensky’s spokesman Sergii Nykyforov referred questions to the General Staff. The General Staff’s press service declined to provide any further details on how the number is tallied, citing the need to protect sensitive military information.

Medics of the Edelweiss Brigade evacuate a wounded soldier on Jan. 27, 2024 near Kupiansk in Kharkiv Oblast. (Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images)

Military sources told the Kyiv Independent that the figure refers to those killed since Russia began its full-scale invasion in 2022, and doesn’t include the Ukrainian soldiers killed between Russia began its war in 2014 and launched a full-scale invasion in 2022. According to an estimation by United Nations, Russia’s war against Ukraine killed 4,400 Ukrainian soldiers between 2014 and 2022.

At the Feb 25. event, Zelensky said, “I will not say how many are wounded, because Russia will then know how many people have left the battlefield.”

Zelensky separately referred to missing Ukrainian troops. Around 7,000 to 8,000 Ukrainian troops are missing in action, Ukraine’s chair of the parliamentary Defense Committee Roman Kostenko told RFE/RL on Feb. 26.

Kostenko said the information was presented to parliament by the General Staff.

Ukrainian officials said in December that Russia held at the moment at least 3,500 Ukrainian POWs, although the number was thought to be higher.

Ukraine’s commissioner for missing people has previously stated that about two-thirds of missing troops are likely to be captured.

Medics carry a wounded soldier who hit a mine on Jan. 27, 2024 near Kupiansk. While President Volodymyr Zelensky has recently revealed the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed in action, he said that the number of wounded soldiers will remain secret. (Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images)

A shift in communications

Zelensky’s announcement was in part a response to public speculation that Ukraine’s troop losses are higher.

Zelensky’s announcement comes at a pivotal time in the war, with Ukraine facing severe ammunition shortages as military aid funding from the U.S. remains stalled by the country’s Republicans. These shortages contributed to Ukraine’s forced withdrawal from the key front-line city of Avdiivka on Feb. 17 and several nearby villages, handing Russia its first major territorial gains since May of last year.

“Recently, there have been voices in the radical part of some of the American audience, the political community, that are not on our side. They said, how many more victims do you want? (They said) Ukraine lost 300,000 dead,” Zelensky said.

Evacuation of a wounded soldier takes place in darkness in the middle of a damaged forest on Jan. 27, 2024 near Kupiansk. Wounded soldiers are usually evacuated to the nearest stabilization point, from where they can be taken to a hospital. (Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images)

Zelensky noted that Russian sources have also suggested more than 100,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed, adding, “All this is completely delusional.”

The timing of Zelensky’s announcement is important not just for international partners, but also for his domestic audience.

This year, Ukraine is planning to begin a new mobilization campaign to replenish its ranks, which has caused tensions among Ukrainians. And in February, Zelensky appointed General Oleksandr Syrskyi as commander-in-chief, replacing the popular General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who had headed Ukraine’s Armed Forces since 2021.

Previous estimates in the absence of official data

While no official figures were released until now, other organizations have attempted to fill in the gap with their own estimates.

One commonly-cited estimate of Ukraine’s battlefield losses is 70,000 killed, which was published in the New York Times in August. The Times cited unnamed U.S.officials and a former senior Ukrainian official. The same article noted, however, that estimates within the U.S. vary and other officials said the number could be lower.

In November, the civic organization Memory Book collected names of more than 24,000 killed Ukrainian soldiers using publicly available information and concluded that the true number is likely more than 30,000.  

The organization UALosses has tallied nearly 47,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed since the beginning of the war in 2014, with more than 42,000 since 2022, based on public death announcements. The organization notes that the number is likely higher because deaths are not always publicized.

The Kyiv Independent was unable to independently confirm these groups’ estimates.

Comparison with Russian troop losses

While Russian losses far surpass Ukraine’s, Russia has a much larger military and a much larger population to recruit from.

Estimates of Russian losses vary depending on the source, and the Russian government has not released its own data.

At the same Feb. 25 press event, Zelensky stated that 180,000 Russian fighters have been killed.

Ukrainian infantrymen of the Edelweiss Brigade sit on an armored personnel carrier and return to their base in darkness on Jan. 28, 2024 near Kupiansk in eastern Ukraine. (Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images)

Ukraine’s General Staff publishes regular updates of Russian losses, though these figures include wounded troops. In its update on March 8, the General Staff reported a total of 422,310 losses since the full-scale invasion began in 2022.

Independent media organizations in Russia have attempted to calculate their own numbers. In late February, Meduza and Mediazona reported that an estimated 83,000 Russian soldiers had died in the past two years. The organizations used obituaries, government mortality statistics, records from the Russian Probate Registry, and a restricted database of inheritance cases.

The U.K. Defense Ministry reported on Feb. 24, in one of its regular updates, that according to its estimates, approximately 350,000 Russian fighters have been killed or wounded.

The Ukraine government did not indicate whether it plans to continue releasing figures of killed Ukrainian troops.

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