An Old, Ugly Russian Habit: Hiding Its War Dead
Dating back to Afghanistan and Chechnya, the Kremlin prefers not to offer an accurate public toll of its military lost on the battlefield. And now in Ukraine, victory at all costs continues to be the approach from Moscow.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry has reported casualties of its soldiers only twice: On March 2, 498 servicemen were reported dead, 1,597 wounded. On March 25, 1,351 soldiers were reported dead, 3,825 wounded.
Western intelligence had estimated in mid-March that 7,000 Russian soldiers had been killed, while Ukraine has recently cited a figure of more than 17,000 dead.
Because of the high intensity of hostilities, verification of these figures is now virtually impossible. However, even if guided by an average estimation of U.S. intelligence, Russian army losses in the war in Ukraine in just one month would exceed those that the Soviet army reported throughout the entire 10-year war in Afghanistan (1979-1989). The Kremlin’s official data for that conflict, from 1979 to 1989 was 14,453 servicemen killed.
A nation’s sacrifice
Separate confirmed data, both on the deaths of individual Russian generals and the counting of damaged Russian military equipment — both far easier to count than foot soldiers — indicate that military losses of the Russian army are always much higher than the government claims.
So what explains the Russian Defense Ministry hiding data on military deaths? Is it for the sake of maintaining morale in the army? Instead, the ultimate explanation is about the concept of victory at any cost. This is the message conveyed for more than 70 years by the Soviets and the later Russian government. Victory in World War II, and the holiday of May 9, grows each year more and more like a celebration than a day of remembrance — more of a carnival, than a time for memorials and mourning — even if the total death count is believed to exceed 26 million, including 12 million soldiers.
There are no individual heroes.
Victory, in the psyche of the Kremlin, is more important than its price in millions of human lives. There are no individual heroes, just the cause of the nation.
The Afghan war, historians agree, helped accelerate the collapse of the Soviet Union, precisely because victory was out of the question. Mothers and wives simply received death notices, without any proud funerals of Soviet soldiers killed somewhere far away for some unknown reason. When these quiet funerals began to multiply by the thousands, it was impossible to hide the failure of the war effort.
A Soviet special operations group prepares for a mission in Afghanistan in 1988
The scars of this war remained with all Soviet people. Everyone had a friend who was a veteran of Afghanistan. The Afghan war became part of Soviet culture, entered the music and cinematography, and lodged itself deep in the memory. It was the Soviet Vietnam.
Russian unions of Afghan veterans are still struggling to recover data on the missing. According to Soviet tradition, the army kept strict records of the dead, even if they were never made public. At the cost of their lives, the surviving soldiers carried the bodies of the dead from the battlefields and sent them back home, giving their relatives a chance to say goodbye.
In Chechnya, we would see more obfuscation on casualties. For the first Chechen war, 1994-96, the Russian edition of Kavkaz.Realii wrote how Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev had vowed to take Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in two hours by employing a single paratrooper regiment. The war dragged on for almost two years and claimed thousands of lives on both sides. Official Russian data says some 5,000 soldiers died, but according to the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, at least 14,000 died.
"Sometimes the discrepancies between the official figures and the unofficial ones are striking in scale. For example, survivors of the Maikop 131st Brigade said that more than 1,000 people from the brigade were killed in Grozny. The monument erected in Maykop lists only 110 names, and the Vkontakte thematic group lists 188 names of the dead," reports Kavkaz.Realii.
The second Chechen war began in 1999, and although active hostilities lasted until 2000, the counter-terrorist operation mode in the region lasted until 2009. Even today there are mass detentions and disappearances of young people in Chechnya, who are later found either in the police and officials' offices, or not found at all.
There is still no exact data on casualties in this war. According to official statistics of the Defense Ministry for 2010, from 1999 to 2008, 3,684 servicemen died in the North Caucasus and according to the Interior Ministry of the Russian Federation, more than 2,000 members of the Interior Forces were killed. According to the estimates of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia, the official figures are underestimated by at least half.
Russian soldiers in Khankala, Chechnya in 2000Presidential Press and Information Office
Putin’s war in Chechnya
As in the Afghan war, in Chechnya, there was no precise victory, great and shining, for the sake of which nothing was spared. Moreover, in Chechnya, the Russian army lost for years to volunteer guerrilla units, former farmers, and students, not to the professional military. Civilian casualties in Chechnya between 1999 and 2009 are incalculable and could amount to millions. The Russian army, especially during the second war, bombed civilian targets en masse, always claiming there were terrorists hiding there.
Russians are in no hurry to take away the bodies of their dead soldiers.
And yes, if this reminds you of the war in Ukraine, the second Chechen war was already being fought by Vladimir Putin.
Having negotiated with the current "director of Chechnya," Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin's first term passed with high popularity ratings, as propaganda broadcast his actions in Chechnya as "stopping the conflict.”
It is logical that in war times, the Ukrainian army is likely overstating enemy losses and downplaying its own in order to maintain morale. Still, in a recent interview with independent Russian media, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reported that Russians are in no hurry to take away the bodies of their dead soldiers, that they pack their remains almost in garbage bags. As awful as this looks, it is too similar to its past history to discount.
The orders from Moscow are that soldiers are expendable material and there is no price too high for final victory.
Alas, we have near daily reports of missiles flying into apartment buildings and shopping malls that kill ordinary Ukrainians — while Russian soldiers die on Ukrainian soil without even being counted.
How many more until the war ends? We may never know.
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