The Russian authorities conceal the number of Russians killed in the war in Ukraine. The Defence Ministry has not reported casualties since September 2022: the last officially reported number was 6,000. And now the Kremlin has “recommended” to governors not to publish obituaries of the Russian soldiers so as «not to alarm people».
None of the official websites in Russia have information about the number of casualties. But some information did end up in the official statistics.
At the end of June, the Federal State Statistics Service of Russia (Rosstat) published preliminary mortality data for the year 2022. Of course, there is not a single word about war deaths. However, Important Stories managed to estimate the scale of military casualties, using statistical methods and taking into account the excess mortality rate.
We show in graphs how carefully concealed data about the military casualties are reflected in the statistics and how we can calculate how many Russians died in the war in 2022. Just scroll the visualization.
To estimate how many war dead might have been included in the statistics, we used the excess mortality method. It is based on the idea that there is an expected death rate and an observed death rate, which is what we see in reality. The difference between the expected and observed number of deaths is the excess death rate. This method has been used extensively, for example, to estimate COVID deaths.
As a demographer who wished to remain anonymous explained to IStories, this method allows us to estimate losses approximately, but not accurately: “We have done a lot of COVID-related work on this topic, and when publishing we deliberately rounded the results to at least thousands, if not tens of thousands. For small losses, the margin of error is quite large. Of course, this method makes it possible to say that it is obvious that the number of casualties is not six thousand, as the Ministry of Defense said [in September], but many times more. We can say about 20 thousand, but this method cannot give exact numbers.”
We tried to estimate excess mortality in two ways.
First, on the basis of the change in mortality from external causes, which logically should include those killed in war, separately for men and women. Women's mortality in 2022 was not directly affected by hostilities. And we can say that by how much female mortality decreased in 2022, by how much male mortality should have decreased, if it were not for the war. The number of excess male deaths thus calculated would be about 18,000.
Second, we estimated the total number of excess deaths in young men 18 to 29 at 7,100 — also based on the difference between the decrease in mortality in women and the increase in men. It is for the category of young men that we can most correctly estimate excess mortality. They were less affected by COVID than others, while older Russians continued to die from it in early 2022.
According to BBC Russian Service and Mediazona, in the first six months of the war, most casualties occurred among young contract servicemen aged 21–23. After the start of mobilization, mass recruitment of volunteers and mercenaries of the Wagner Group, the average age of the war dead became higher.
In 2022, 43% of the dead on the list of journalists were between 18 and 29 years old. If we assume that the same distribution is maintained in the Rosstat data, then the number of war deaths of all ages can be estimated at 16,500 (calculated as 7.1 excess deaths of 18-29 years, multiplied by 100/43). But apparently this ratio has changed, and so we get 18 thousand in an alternative estimate based on trends in external causes of death.
We must keep in mind that the list by BBC Russian Service and Mediazona is based on public reports. And the deaths of young war participants are reported more often by friends, relatives, classmates, and local authorities than the older dead. “The distribution, with 43% of those who died in 2022 being under the age of 29, is based on online publications,” the demographer notes. — “There's the fact that the proportion of people actively using social media declines with age. It's more likely that younger people get more attention and are overrepresented in the sample. So I would expect the percentage of young people in the actual casualties to be somewhat lower.”
If we take the dead from the journalists’ list not only for 2022, but also for 2023, the proportion of dead 18-29 year olds drops to 36.6%. To take into account the fact that the names of the young dead are more often made public, and their share in the 2022 casualties is probably lower than 43%, we took the average between these numbers and assumed that the share of military deaths under 29 years old could be about 40%. The number of excess deaths then turns out to be about 18,000, the same number as in the first method's calculations based on external cause mortality.
Thus, the lower the proportion of young men in the real casualties of 2022, the greater the excess mortality can be calculated.
Demographer (wished to remain anonymous)
First, we do not yet have the final statistics on mortality for 2022; these are preliminary estimates. Rosstat usually publishes the final report in September. This is due to the fact that sometimes a person dies, say, in December, but his relatives may register his death in February next year. It is even more difficult with the causes of death, as the process of establishing them can be delayed. Usually the final statistics do not differ much from the preliminary statistics, but this year I do not know what will happen. If [the statistics are] not shut down at all, as it was in the Soviet Union.
Second, the big question is how deaths during combat operations in Ukraine are included in the statistics. The death certificate should be issued at the place of permanent residence in the region of Russia. But theoretically it could be issued at the place where it happened: [in the occupied territories of Ukraine]. This should not be the case, but theoretically it is possible. Rosstat can't just ignore these deaths. But they can record these people as having gone to, say, Luhansk Oblast and record the deaths on the territory of Luhansk Oblast. But then we will see a strange surge of migration of young men from the regions.
Right now, the Rosstat data are lower than the estimates of casualties according to Mediazona and BBC. There could be two reasons for this. The first is that not all military casualties are included in the current Rosstat data. It is possible that they will be included in the final report. The second is that the number of casualties in 2022 according to journalists' estimates may be overstated, [that is, the number of deaths on their list should be multiplied by a lower coefficient, not by two].
Demographer Dmitry Zakotyansky
[In Russia] we have poor accounting of the mortality by cause of death. In the regions, mortality from various causes is put as performance indicators for officials, and therefore local authorities can “throw” the dead between the causes of death in order to achieve [on paper] the desired results: for example, reduction of mortality from external causes (suicides, murders and others). Therefore, the data on deaths from external causes give us a very rough picture.
But if we take the total number of deaths in the country as a whole, by region, by age group, in general we [demographers] believe that we still have no falsifications here. At least not before, and I have more faith that they would rather stop disclosing statistics than rewrite them so crudely. Most likely, Rosstat's accounting of the dead is generally complete, and the discrepancies with alternative estimates may have a simpler explanation.
First, it is possible that our assumptions about the number of casualties are inaccurate. For example, the estimate by BBC and Mediazona that the number of dead on their list should be multiplied by two is conditional. Most likely, their data should be multiplied by a different coefficient at different ages. It is likely that younger people are more likely to report and raise a fuss about the deaths, so their numbers should be multiplied by less than two. Older people are more likely to die without attention, so in reality there may be three times as many as on the list of journalists and volunteers. So the figure of 30,000 dead in 2022 reflects our assumptions, but the reality may be different.
Second, some underreporting of deaths of young people may have occurred because of mass emigration, when half a million to a million people left the country, and especially many young people left. Someone left and died not in Russia, and this death was not included in the statistics. Also in 2022, a large number of migrant workers left. Their deaths, as a result, were also not included in the data on mortality in Russia, and the limitations of migration records allow only a long delay to understand that migrant workers have left the country.
Third, in the first three months of 2022, the excess COVID mortality rate remained high, and in April-July the overall mortality rate fell sharply and was even 10% lower than in 2019. Why the spring and summer, despite hostilities and hot summers when mortality rates are usually higher, have fallen so much remains to be seen. But because of this abnormal drop in overall mortality, we might not have seen thousands of additional excess male deaths in the Rosstat data.
Visualization, editing: Alesya Marokhovskaya