The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies has found that there were more Russian casualties in the past year in Chechnya than there had been in the previous year. Nevertheless, a spokesman for the institute told Chechnya Weekly in an October 21 telephone interview that the past year was “not necessarily” the worst of all years for the Russian army in Chechnya since the second war began in 1999. The spokesman said that it was difficult to compare one year with the next, since the institute has changed its criteria for counting casualties.
The institute’s finding undermines Kremlin claims of “normalization” in Chechnya, but it is not as dramatic as some news media reports have made it seem. The institute’s figure of 4,749 Russian casualties in the period from August 2002 to August 2003 includes not only deaths but also injuries. If one applies the widely accepted rule of thumb that troops suffer roughly three combat injuries for every one fatality, the number of Russian deaths for that period would be about 1,200. That order of magnitude is actually closer to the figures provided for past years by the Russian government than to those provided by the independent Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia. (In February the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that a cumulative total of only 4,572 Russian troops had died in action in Chechnya from the autumn of 1999 to December 23, 2002; that would be an average of about 1,500 deaths per year. The Soldiers’ Mothers estimate of the cumulative total is almost three times the official figure.)
The Russian government has refused to comment on the British institute’s recently released report, and has not issued any new casualty reports of its own since the beginning of 2003. In February the Russian news agency Itar-Tass quoted the Russian military headquarters for the North Caucasus as having calculated that some 4,739 troops had been killed in Chechnya in the year 2002. But the headquarters soon denied having made such a calculation, and the state-controlled news agency failed to stand by its initial story, though it never formally withdrew it (see Chechnya Weekly, February 20, 2002).
Chechnya Weekly also spoke directly on October 21 with the British institute’s Col. Christopher Langton, editor of its annual report “The Military Balance,” who requested that he not be quoted on the record about the institute’s methodology. But from other sources it is clear that estimating casualties is a tricky challenge, especially in Russia. Does one include only soldiers who died on the battlefield, or also those who died of wounds after being evacuated, or even those who died many months later from their wounds? Does one include casualties from accidents, disease and suicide? (The latter is an especially sore point for the Russian military, with its brutal hazing of new recruits.) Does one include casualties of servicemen not directly under the command of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, such as some (but not all) of the units of the Interior Ministry fighting in Chechnya? Does one include elite commando units? Does one include officers of the FSB and other special services? Does one include casualties of units subordinate not to Moscow but to the Kadyrov administration in Grozny? Does one include casualties from battles and terrorist attacks that took place near but not actually inside Chechnya, for example in Ingushetia?
On October 16 the radio station Ekho Moskvy hosted Valentina Melnikova of the Soldiers’ Mothers and Aleksandr Khramchikhin of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis for a live, on-the-air discussion of the new report from the British institute. According to the transcript available via the Ekho Moskvy website, Melnikova stressed that “when we [the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers] speak about the losses of the federal forces, we are speaking about all the losses, including those in the police, the OMON, and those serving in the special services….Our estimate as of today for the second war comes to about 12,000 dead on the battlefield or subsequently….And there are also more than 35,000 wounded, traumatized, shell-shocked….When our authorities release official figures, they never make it clear whether these are losses only of the Ministry of Defense, or only of the interior troops, or only of police units, or combined figures.”
Melnikova said that her organization has tried to be conservative about the lists of names that it receives from its local affiliates. Earlier the committee struggled to maintain a list of specific names, but in early 2000 abandoned that attempt “because physically we could not cope with the task of efficiently collecting and compiling data from our regions….My colleagues in our regional organizations have drawn up lists which now include a total of about 20,000 names, but it is simply impossible for us to systematize them. We fear that there are duplications.”
The radio station’s other guest, Khramchikhin, said that he was more inclined to believe the official data, which he insisted did indeed include casualties among the police and the internal troops and not only those of the defense ministry’s servicemen. But then he seemed to contradict himself by saying that “undoubtedly it is necessary to introduce some multiplying coefficient…approximately one and a half times.” If one applies such a multiplier to the official Russian figures, increasing them by 150 percent, one gets a revised total of more than 11,000 deaths for the second war. That is much closer to the Soldiers’ Mothers estimate than to the official data.
Khramchikhin introduced another subtlety by suggesting that the ratio of injured to dead “depends on the type of military action. If the enemy has heavy arms and is using them to the full extent–that is aviation, artillery, tanks–that means one level of casualties. In that case, there will naturally be more deaths. But if the enemy is using only small arms, like the Chechen guerrillas at present, then there will be far fewer deaths among the general losses; that is, there will be a ratio of one to ten [as distinct from one to three]. These calculations, of course, are conditional.”
If one applies this revised rule of thumb to Khramchikhin’s other calculations, one comes up with an estimate of more than 100,000 Russian wounded for the second war–a figure far more gruesome than any suggested by the Soldiers’ Mothers.
Even more gruesome, however, is the Russian government’s manifest cover-up of the truth about the country’s battle losses. Melnikova reminded the Ekho Moskvy listeners that Russia has a system of life insurance for military conscripts. “If a soldier’s death is connected with his military duties, then naturally his family receives an insurance payment, and then a pension and so on–the same amount whether or not he died in actual combat.” Because of this system, she said, “Russia has two absolutely reliable sources, with absolutely clear, precise numbers, about how many have died on the battlefield and how many have died subsequently from wounds. These are two insurance companies; one is called the Military Insurance Company, the other the Insurance Company of the MVD [the interior ministry]. But unfortunately, all of their numbers–the amount of insurance payments, the causes of death, the categories…are treated according to their contract as commercial secrets of the defense ministry and the interior ministry. At this point it is impossible to find out these data.”