War in Ukraine: the difficult count of civilian and military victims

Can we really know the human toll of the war in Ukraine? The figures vary greatly depending on whether they come from Ukrainian, Russian or international sources, and make the number of victims uncertain.

With regard to civilians, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) publishes daily the count of casualties in Ukraine. The latest reports 474 civilians dead, including 17 children, and 861 injured between February 24 and March 7. The actual numbers are “significantly higher”says the OHCHR.

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While the number of civilian deaths is recorded by NGOs, this is not the case for military losses, which are published by the States themselves. “It is very important for NGOs to keep as far away as possible from military and political issues, hence the fact of only counting civilian deaths”says Isabelle Davion, lecturer at the Sorbonne University and co-author of battles (1).


Thus, the latest assessment of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced Wednesday, March 9 on Facebook reports 12,000 Russian soldiers killed. Figures 24 times higher than those put forward by the Russians. A rare report from the Ministry of Defense – the only one published to date – reported on March 2 that 498 Russian soldiers were killed.

A large gap that can be explained by the use of numbers as a weapon in information warfare. “For the Ukrainians, it is a form of re-establishment of the truth: since Russia denies being a war, they are there to affirm that there is indeed one with the deaths that go with itexplains the historian. The fact that Russia publishes a balance sheet, on the other hand, is quite new and certainly due to the fact that coffins are returning to the soil of the homeland”.

According to the Pentagon, it is rather between 2,000 and 4,000 Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine since the start of the invasion. These figures, drawn up from several different sources, are those that appear the most credible, believes the historian.

Will we be able to have a balance sheet one day?

Finally, until now, Kiev has not published any data on deaths in its own ranks. One way, for Isabelle Davion, “not to inculcate defeatism, to show that there is a Ukrainian resistance and that it works”. According to figures from the Russian Defense Ministry, 2,870 Ukrainian soldiers have died since the start of the invasion.

→ CHRONICLE. “War, invasion, casualties”

If the difficulty of counting the dead during the conflict is not new, “States’ use of the loss figure exceeds a threshold that had never been known before because of a war that is taking place in front of social networks, under the eyes of the Internet”analyzes the historian.

Will we be able to have an assessment of the war one day? “We will never have an absolute figure that gives historical truth, but the most precise estimate possible, and that will take a lot of time”, analyzes Isabelle Davion. The historian highlights in particular the difficulty of distinguishing civilian deaths from military deaths. “In the meantime, the urgent thing is to take care of the living”she concludes.


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