The Kremlin’s 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 generated controversy.
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, providing valuable information on Russian combat losses during President Putin’s war against Ukraine led to Rosstat discontinuing reporting military deaths as a special sub-category.
However, the government continued to report total deaths and deaths from other causes, so Rosstat released data it thought it was blocking. Before the war, Rosstat divided mortality causes into illness and external causes. After February 2022, it dropped the separate sub-category. However, it is still possible to calculate the number of “deaths in the military” by subtracting the deaths from other external causes from the total number of deaths.
In 2022, military deaths became the leading cause of death in Rosstat’s “external causes” category, with combat deaths accounting for 40% of all deaths among Russian men aged 18 to 29. This disproportionate number of combat deaths for Russians in that age group, typically characterized by better health than older age groups, made government efforts to conceal these deaths ineffective.
Important Stories discovered that recruits were disproportionately mobilized from non-Russian republics and poorer Russian regions, with up to 70% of deaths among young men from five non-Russian regions and two poorer Russian regions coming from “external causes.” This pattern confirms claims that Moscow is using non-Russians and those from poor Russian regions as cannon fodder.
The Rosstat data collected by Important Stories is unlikely to end the debate on the size of Russian combat losses. The real numbers of combat deaths are likely larger than the portal admits, given the various ways Russian officials have tried to hide them. However, Rosstat is taking steps to eliminate the window this portal has opened, such as eliminating gender divisions in its reporting on premature deaths and potentially eliminating this way of reporting mortality altogether.
Important Stories has gathered 2022 data from an official Russian government source, which could have three significant consequences. Firstly, the data will make it harder to argue that the figures offered are in conflict with reality. If the Kremlin concedes these losses, it may be forced to do so or reduce its objections.
The data may intensify nationalism among non-Russians, who may perceive Russia as using them as cannon fodder and suffering disproportionately. This could also intensify anti-Moscow feelings in poorer Russian regions. The data could reveal that Putin’s war in Ukraine is coming home to Russia, raising questions about the worth of the lives of Russians.
The findings suggest that Western researchers should pay more attention to the discrepancies in Moscow’s misrepresentation of official statistics. Murray Feshbach’s research showed that once Moscow starts releasing data, it may discover that what Kremlin officials think they are keeping secret may be revealed elsewhere if those interested take the time to look.
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 could help Western policymakers develop a clearer view into the Kremlin’s reporting on official statistics, which could inform more effective policies on Russia in the future.