Russia continues to try in the Donbas, despite heavy losses

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A soldier carries a Russian flag at the funeral of a member of the Wagner group in late December
NOS News
  • Christian Paauwe

    Foreign Editor

Anyone who scours Vkontakte – the Russian Facebook – will come across one obituary after another. Artyom Machov volunteered for the “special military operation”. This month he was killed in the fighting around Voehledar, in the Donbas. Nikolai Baldakov from the Russian region of Buryatia worked on a farm. In September he was mobilized like thousands of other Russians, in January he was killed in Ukraine.

These are a few individual cases, which tell a broader story of major Russian losses in Ukraine. Journalists from the BBC and Russia’s Mediazona, who have been trying to record how many troops have died in Ukraine since the invasion began last year, have recorded record numbers in recent weeks.

They do this mainly by searching social media, but also by looking at news reports and new graves in cemeteries. Since the end of January, they have collected information on more than 1,500 Russians killed, doubling the number they normally receive.

Hard fought in the east

“There are so many that we are unable to process them all,” data journalist Maksim Litvarin of Mediazona told NOS. He is one of the researchers participating in the project.

Not all the reports that come in are about Russians who have been recently killed. Sometimes it takes months before it is known that someone has been killed. For example, they still receive information about people who died during the storming of Kiev, so at the beginning of the war.

Yet Litvarin also sees many reports of men who have recently been killed and says there is a connection with recent attempts by Russia to force breakthroughs in the Donbas. “The increase started in late December, and now we’ve peaked,” he says. “We see that there is heavy fighting in the east, with attacks from Voehledar and Bachmoet, among others.”

poorer regions

In total, Litvarin and his colleagues have collected the names of more than 14,000 publicly known dead since the start of the invasion. The actual number will be much higher. What is striking is that among the fallen are still many soldiers from poorer Russian regions, such as Dagestan and Buryatia. There, men more often choose to enter the service, because there is no other work.

Below you can see from which Russian regions the most killed in action come. The darker the color, the higher the death toll. Moscow, with almost 12 million inhabitants, colors light:

Journalists from the BBC and Mediazona also keep track of where fallen Russians come from.

The number that the journalists have collected is a lower limit, says Han Bouwmeester, associate professor of military strategy at the Netherlands Defense Academy. “There is a fence with these kinds of figures, you have to be careful with that.”

Ukraine says 10 times as many Russians have already been killed. Russia last gave an official number of deaths in September – it was less than 6,000 at the time.

Bouwmeester sees that the Russians are fighting over the full length of the front. But Ukraine knows how to defend itself well with western artillery – such as the Himars and the armored howitzer. “They are very effective at repelling units. That’s why we see so many casualties.”

Around Voehledar, on the south side of the front, several Russian divisions were decimated and Russia lost dozens of vehicles. “Unfortunately, you can only know for sure afterwards what is true and what is not. It can take weeks before you have a good picture,” says Bouwmeester. “But it is clear that the Russians are attacking quite massively and frontally. They are out to exhaust the opponent, but that also weakens themselves.”

A video of a Ukrainian soldier of the battle in the trenches has been shared on social media. The images can be experienced as shocking:

A Telegram channel affiliated with the Russian mercenary group Wagner shared a video on Friday that also shows this. A man wearing a face mask says: “Every day we lose hundreds of comrades. Twice more than we should if we were well equipped with enough weapons and ammunition,” he says. When the camera pans away, dozens of stripped corpses of fallen Russians can be seen.

Journalist Litvarin finds it difficult to estimate when these losses will really hit Russia. “I read reactions to the obituaries. People say: how many boys from our area have died. But a shock for society as a whole, I don’t see that yet.”

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