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In Ukraine and other conflicts, measuring the human cost is important. It’s also very difficult.

The battle over casualties in the Ukraine war is just beginning

- March 11, 2022

Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady, claimed this week that Russian forces were engaged in “the mass murder of Ukrainian civilians.” In her open letter to the media, Zelenska focused on child casualties of the war, some of whom died as a result of Russian shelling of Ukrainian cities.

Zelenska argued that Ukrainian civilian casualties proved that Russia’s narrative of a military operation launched to save civilians from “genocide” was false.

The competing claims being made by Ukraine and Russia about the war’s casualties don’t end there. Casualty estimates have varied widely since the war began about two weeks ago. The government of Ukraine claims that at least 11,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the war. Russia has admitted that 498 Russian troops have died and 1,597 more have been injured. The United States also weighed in, estimating that between 2,000 and 4,000 Russian military personnel may have been killed. For its part, Ukraine has not reported any military casualties, despite international media coverage of soldiers’ funerals.

In any conflict, the outside world relies on the participants — both victims and perpetrators — to report casualties. Both have reasons to distort those numbers to support their view of events. And it is practically impossible to tell whose numbers are accurate. Governments can manipulate information about casualties because there are ambiguities built into how we define whose lives matter in wartime.

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Who counts as a casualty of war?

As of March 10, the United Nations reports that 549 civilians have been killed in Ukraine, with an additional 957 people verified as injured in the conflict.

“Casualty of war” is an all-encompassing category, including people injured or killed as a direct result of armed conflict. Casualty counts include injuries as well as deaths, which means that the overall number of civilian casualties in Ukraine is going to be significantly higher than fatalities — the number of people killed as a result of the conflict.

There are limits to what we can learn from casualties of war data. Casualty counts, for example, don’t tell us how badly any one individual is injured. Sustaining a long-term disability impacts someone differently than recovering from a superficial wound. Counting individuals physically affected by war also ignores invisible harms, such as post-traumatic stress, and cannot capture the experiences of those who are affected in multiple ways, such as displacement following injury.

What is a civilian casualty?

It’s also difficult to distinguish between military casualties — members of the armed forces who are killed during the course of the conflict — and civilian casualties. The 1949 Geneva Conventions define “civilians” as “people taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause.”

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Essentially, under international law anyone who is not actively participating in the conflict by bearing arms is a civilian, even if they are or were formerly members of a military. An injured soldier, not capable of fighting back, would qualify for protection as a civilian, for instance.

But in Ukraine, as in many conflicts, the distinction between military and civilian is not straightforward. The term “civilian” is often used interchangeably with “noncombatant” — but in many contexts civilians can provide important support for combatants, such as shelter, food and intelligence.

Thousands of Ukrainians who are not official members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are now taking part in this war. In Kyiv alone, the government distributed more than 25,000 automatic rifles and 10 million bullets, raising questions about who has civilian status.

Assumptions about gender complicate the military-civilian distinction as well. Women have historically been excluded from armed combat and analysts typically assumed all female deaths were civilian casualties. This is rapidly changing around the world, as my book explains. In Ukraine, many women have joined both the Ukrainian Armed Forces and various militias since 2014.

In past conflicts that saw widespread civilian mobilization, like the current situation in Ukraine, the concept of “men of military age” was used to identify whether an individual was a legitimate military target. Ethnic Serb forces killed roughly 8,000 people, primarily men and teenage boys, in Srebrenica, Bosnia, and justified these deaths according to this logic.

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Why are casualty counts so political?

Civilian casualties matter — these counts are part of the evidence of potential war crimes occurring in the Ukraine war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described a Russian airstrike that killed at least three people in a Mariupol hospital as proof of genocide. However, as I discuss in my research with Izabela Steflja, documenting civilian casualties requires sometimes difficult decisions about the roles that different individuals play in conflict.

Ukraine and Russia are likely to differ on how they define an individual who mobilizes for self-defense in response to the Russian invasion. Are the women who made Molotov cocktails in the city of Dnipro civilians or legitimate military targets? What about the 79-year-old grandmother receiving weapons training? Differences in how people and institutions on opposite sides of the conflict answer these questions leads to the politicization of competing civilian casualty numbers and the overcounting or underestimation of casualties.

These numbers are important. Pledges to minimize the impact on civilians or allow safe passage for civilians through a humanitarian corridor, for instance, rely on a very clear definition of who is a civilian. Casualty counts can also greatly affect the amount and types of resources devoted to shaping postwar outcomes. For example, putting the psychological effects of war on par with physical injuries would not only capture more of the long-term consequences of wartime violence, it would likely greatly expand the amount of funding for mental health services in post-conflict countries.

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Jessica Trisko Darden is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and a non-resident fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation. She is co-author of Women as War Criminals: Gender, Agency, and Justice (Stanford University Press, 2020) and Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars (Georgetown University Press 2019).