How many Russian soldiers have died in the current Chechen war? Russian officials issued dramatically conflicting accounts on February 17, with the Defense Ministry in Moscow contradicting figures released earlier in the day by the military headquarters for the Northern Caucasus. In a chilling example of Soviet-style news management, the country’s best-known news agency changed its report to keep up with the change in the official line.
Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported on February 17 that some 4,739 were killed in Chechnya in the year 2002, with another 13,108 wounded and 29 missing. The agency cited the North Caucasus Military District, which is in command of federal troops in the breakaway republic. The figures, which were for just the one calendar year of 2002, vastly exceeded previous official tolls. For example, the Interfax news agency quoted the Russian military in December as putting the number of deaths of Russian serviceman at a cumulative total of 4,705 since the current war began three years earlier in late 1999.
But when Associated Press correspondent Sergei Venyavsky contacted the North Caucasus headquarters on February 17, a spokesman, Major Igor Kaverin, denied that the casualty report had come from that headquarters. Kaverin refused to provide any figures. Another denial came from the Defense Ministry, which claimed that only 4,572 Russian troops had died in action in Chechnya from the autumn of 1999 to December 23, 2002.
According to the Associated Press account, Itar-Tass at first responded to these denials by stating that it stood by its initial account. But within hours, the Russian agency replaced that report with another story providing the same figures as the Defense Ministry’s. Venyavsky reported that “A duty editor at Itar-Tass, which considers itself the state central information agency, refused to provide any explanation of the contradictory reports.”
The Associated Press reporter also telephoned Valentina Melnikova, head of the Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, an organization that works to protect Russian military draftees from official and unofficial abuses. Based on her own group’s sources, such as soldiers’ families, she said they estimate that about 11,000 servicemen have been killed in Chechnya and more than 30,000 wounded since the current war began. Their estimate for the earlier Chechen war, which lasted from 1994 to 1996, is 14,000 dead as compared with the official figure of 5,500.
The Russian website Gazeta.ru noted of the contradictory reports that “many things remain ambiguous. Whether or not the official figures include those who died in hospital of wounds, or just those killed in action is unclear. There are no statistics on those who were wounded and then returned to the ranks, and no reports on the seriousness of the wounds and injuries that the military servicemen have suffered in Chechnya.”
Also, these figures do not include civilian deaths of either Russians or Chechens, which a team led by human-rights activist Sergei Kovalev has estimated as exceeding 50,000 in the first war alone.