Mapping reports of Russia’s war fatalities using Telegram data
Data crawled from a Telegram channel dedicated to sharing death announcements offers valuable insight into Russian fatalities since the beginning of its 2022 invasion of Ukraine
Banner: A Russian serviceman mourns next to the coffin of Savely Shashkov, at a cemetery in the town of Krasnoslobodsk in Volgograd Oblast, Russia, April 15, 2023. (Source: Reuters/Kirill Braga)
Assessing Russian casualty data has been a challenge for researchers throughout the war in Ukraine. In a September 2022 address, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu reported that Russia had lost 5,937 soldiers since the beginning of its so-called “special military operation” in February of that year. This figure has not been officially updated by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). A May 2023 US intelligence report suggested Russia may have suffered as many as 100,000 losses. Meanwhile, Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin posted a video in May 2023 in which he estimated that around 20,000 of his soldiers had perished since the beginning of the war, and later claimed during his June 2023 mutiny that 100,000 Russian forces had been “destroyed” in Ukraine. The DFRLab has also noted satellite imagery evidence showing the expansion of cemeteries where Russian soldiers were likely buried.
Questions regarding the reason behind the Russian MoD’s silence were reinforced by the alleged discovery of facilities storing bodies of Russian soldiers fallen in the battlefield, according to the Ukrainian General Staff. All things considered, estimates of the number of Russian soldiers killed, as well as those among Wagner Group forces, other private military companies (PMCs), and conscripted prisoners, are difficult to come by.
In an effort to gain further insight on Russian combat fatalities, the DFRLab collected information posted on the Russian-language Telegram channel НЕ ЖДИ меня из Украины (“DON’T WAIT for me from Ukraine”), also known by its handle @poisk_in_ua (“Search in Ukraine”). The channel posts reports on individual Russian soldiers who have died or become prisoners of war, including their names, photos, birth dates, and places of birth. Although the administrators operating the Telegram channel remains unknown, it appears to compile data from official published reports, obituaries, and other open-source reporting regarding Russian combat deaths.
The DFRLab analyzed 23,217 messages posted to the channel from March 11, 2022 through June 6, 2023. To exclude reports dedicated to prisoners of war, we focused specifically on messages containing the keyword “погиб” (“deceased”). From this subset, we then noted messages that contained “ЧВК Вагнер” (PMC Wagner) or “зек” (“convict”), in reference to recruited convicts drafted by Wagner and the Russian MoD to fight in Ukraine in exchange for pardons. The DFRLab also analyzed them for information on military rank, as well if there was evidence of affilation with a militia faction from the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In addition, we also applied an automated geocoding algorithm to map 13,195 messages to geographic data points using the OpenStreetMap geocoding project Nominatim. Geocoding refers to the transformation of geographic text indications, including addresses, names of cities, villages, or regions, into specific GPS coordinates that can be projected onto a map. The obtained data was mapped across Russian regions, highlighting provinces that reportedly have contributed disproportionally to the war effort.
The DFRLab compared its dataset to other open-source projects and media outlets to verify its comprehensiveness. Coding algorithms sorting and geolocating the messages can be found on GitHub, along with an Excel spreadsheet of the extracted messages, and the figures named in this piece.
Composition of fatality reports
Out of the 23,217 posts analyzed by the DFRLab, we assessed that 19,377 of them reported on the death of Russian soldiers. Among these, 14,467 posts referenced soldier deaths within the Russian army and militias from self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples’ Republics (LNR and DNR), while 4,217 posts cited deaths among Wagner recruits. An additional 542 reports did not include the dead soldier’s affiliation.
The channel also included 117 reports of convicts who died in the war, 116 of whom were enrolled in Wagner. Additionally, reports by the BBC suggest the drafting process in penitentiary facilities was partially taken over by the Russian MoD alongside LPR’s and DPR’s defense ministries. The Telegram dataset does not provide further data corroborating this information, however.
The Telegram channel also occasionally tagged its posts with the Russian keyword “доброволец” (“volunteer”), referring to military personnel who enrolled in Russian volunteer formations. Only 38 messages mentioned this keyword, with little indication about the volunteer corps to which they belonged.
The data provided by the Telegram channel frequently included the ranks of fallen Russian soldiers in its messages. The DFRLab aggregated 3,560 reports mentioning military ranks in front of the soldier’s name. The DFRLab organized these messages in several classes of ranking officers operating within the Russian Armed Forces.
Out of the 3,560 reports, approximately two-thirds of them comprised of sergeants and junior officers, including captains, lieutenants, and senior lieutenants. Appearing the most were reports on senior lieutenants (514 reports) and the sergeants (470 reports). If accurate, the channel’s reports of alleged deaths would indicate that the officer corps of Russia’s regular army and militia divisions may have suffered severe losses during the war, as many captains often acted as company commanders. This in turn would suggest that ground forces divisions, including artillery forces, comprise a majority of Russian Armed Forces losses.
Senior officers, including majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels, comprised the third most represented category of death reports by the Telegram channel, including 56 colonels and 164 lieutenant-colonels. Notably, the independent Russian outlet Mediazona also reported the death of 58 colonels and 178 lieutenant-colonels in its monitoring of Russian army deaths. The similar results of these independent assessments suggest significant losses among high-ranking personnel in command, notably regiments and battalions commanding officers.
The Telegram channel also referenced fatalities among Russia’s highest-ranking officers, including seven generals. It reported on the alleged death of General Major Dmitri Ulyanov, which was also noted in several Ukrainian news outlets. The channel also mentioned Gen. Yagov Rezantsev, whose death was not confirmed at the time of writing.
Separate from the reports focusing on ranking officers within the Russian Armed Forces, an additional 27 records mentioned Wagner. Nearly half the Wagner officer corps fatalities reported by the channel were also attributed to senior officers, including ten majors and four lieutenant-colonels. Junior officers were also represented, including five senior lieutenants, two lieutenants, and four captains.
It is unclear whether these officers commanded Wagner forces or regular Russian Armed Forces divisions. The DFRLab previously reported on the controversy surrounding Wagner officers commanding Russian regular armed forces in the April 21 installment of our Russian War Report.
Telegram reports of fatalities over time
The DFRLab also analyzed the frequency of death reports posted to the Telegram channel over time. Given that the dataset likely includes deaths previously published in obituaries and elsewhere, some of these reported deaths may have occurred much earlier than the channel’s publishing date would suggest. (The channel also posted infrequently on Sundays, resulting in data gaps that day of the week.) Taking that into consideration, the bar chart below displays the number of reports over time, which may give insight of an approximate timeline of Russian fatalities based on public reports.
The bar chart captures how reports of Russian fatalities increased significantly in the first months of 2023, then decreased, but at levels generally higher than most of 2022. These spikes may partially be interpreted as higher fatalities during certain periods, but also likely represent an increase in the amount of reporting taking place, especially when compared to 2022.
It is still notably, however, that the number of death reports on the Telegram channel tripled over the winter of 2022 and 2023, peaking in late February and early March. For example, while the channel released 61 fatality reports on February 3, by February 24 it published 187 fatality reports. These figures coincide with Russia’s winter offensive, which reportedly suffered heavy casualties.
Reports of losses among Wagner forces appeared en masse during the winter of 2022, peaking during the three first months of 2023. In May 2023, Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin cited a total 20,000 Wagner fatalities, comprised in equal parts of professional soldiers and recently recruited convicts. Later, during his June 2023 mutiny, Prigozhin stated in an audio clip that the Russian defense ministry “destroyed” (“уничтожили”) around 100,000 soldiers, though it is unclear if he was suggesting 100,000 killed or a combination of killed and wounded. In either case, the total number of Wagner-related death reports (4,217 reports) would represent a fraction of Prigozhin’s claims.
As previously noted, the BBC and Russian opposition media outlet Mediazona also track public reports of Russian casualties. As of June 6, 2023, the two outlets had documented 25,000 deaths. This figure is consistent with the order of magnitude seen on the Telegram channel, which featured 19,519 fatality reports during the same period.
Neither the BBC nor Mediazona have confirmed the number of Wagner-related deaths; the Telegram channel published 4,217 of these reports. On April 11, 2023, the BBC revealed the existence of “mass burial sites” comprised of Wagner soldiers, which makes the task of identifying individual Wagner soldiers more complex. If anything, the Telegram channel’s statistics suggests the dividing line classifying soldiers as regular Russian armed forces or Wagner forces is porous and inexact. Additionally, verifying whether these soldiers enrolled willingly with Wagner or whether they had been drafted as convicts is sometimes impossible; Mediazona, for example, often relies on information provided by visitors of cemeteries across Russia.
Geographic analysis of Telegram data
The DFRLab also attempted to classify the Telegram channel’s fatality reports by geographic origin, transforming the reports into spatial data to compare them to Mediazona and the BBC’s reporting on fatalities by Russian region. Many of the Telegram reports contain textual information on the birthplaces of fallen soldiers born in Russia, but also from occupied Crimea and the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Among the 23,217 Telegram posts, analysis using Openstreetmap’s Nominatim algorithm resulted in 13,194 geographic data points. Of these, 12,784 were located within the legal boundaries of the Russian Federation.
When mapped by region, the Telegram data is relatively consistent with figures presented by Mediazona and the BBC. In their June 2 assessment, Mediazona reported the regions that suffered the highest alleged losses included the Sverdlovsk Oblast, with 917 fatalities, followed by Krasnodar Krai (914 fatalities), the Republic of Bashkortostan (764), and Chelyabinsk Oblast (781). Similarly, the regions most represented in the Telegram data included 653 reports for Krasnodar Krai, 579 for Sverdlovsk, 518 for Bashkortostan, and 483 for Chelyabinsk. Among other regions Mediazona determined as having heavy fatalities were the Republic of Buryatia, Volgograd Oblast, and the Transbaikal region, which is also in line with the Telegram data. The significantly higher figures for Krasnodar Krai may be attributed to visits of cemeteries by volunteers who provided data to Mediazona, which is likely represented within the Telegram data.
The map also attempts to calculate fatality reports per city. Statistics were obtained by creating a ten-kilometer radius around administrative centers of Russian regions, then calculating the overlapping geocoded reports, thus proving an approximation of the number of death reports per city.
The Telegram channel also published reports on fatalities of men allegedly originating from Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (103 reports) , as well as the occupied territory of Crimea (176 reports). No further information was provided which could confirm whether the Donetsk and Luhansk soldiers were enrolled in LPR’s or DPR’s militias; for Crimea, many of the reports appear to be Russian lieutenants, sergeants, and lower-ranking officers who were born on the peninsula.
Overall, data in the Telegram channel @poisk_in_ua appears to be consistent with deceased Russian military personnel as reported by the BBC and Mediazona. While not intended as a calculation of the total number of Russian fatalities per se, the nearly 20,000 Telegram messages that reported fatalities contain relevant indicators of potential Russian losses which would reaffirm fatality data reported by the two outlets, including the number of fallen Russian officers, their ranks, affiliations, and region of origin.
Cite this case study:
Valentin Châtelet, “Mapping reports of Russia’s war fatalities using Telegram data,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), June 29, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/06/30/telegram-channel-russian-war-death-reports.