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With so many Russian fighters dying in Ukraine, a team trying to count the deaths needed more volunteers

A team of volunteers and journalists is trying to keep track of the number of Russian soldiers and Wagner fighters being killed in Ukraine. 

Journalists confirm 15,000 Russian fighters have been killed, but say number is an underestimate.

A worker places a portrait at the grave of Dmitry Menshikov, a mercenary for the private Russian military company Wagner Group, killed during the military conflict in Ukraine, in the Alley of Heroes at a cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia December 24, 2022.

For months, Vitaly Votanovsky has been walking through rows of freshly dug graves in Russia’s southern western Krasnodar region, filming and photographing evidence of the country’s mounting military deaths, which he accuses the Kremlin of trying to conceal.

His images, which Votanovsky has posted to his Telegram channel, show some cemeteries lined with plots honouring what Russia’s calls its fallen heroes.

Many mounds are adorned with large bouquets of flowers, coloured portraits of soldiers and regimental flags.

Others are only marked by a wooden cross sticking out of the dirt, without even a name on it.

What angers Votanovsky the most are the graves where the soldiers killed were only 19 or 20, barely older than his daughter.

“They are healthy men of childbearing age who could benefit the state, build houses, factories and raise children.”

“They end up lying in the ground now.”

Vitaly Votanovsky has been visiting cemeteries in Russia's Krasnodar region to try and shows the country the "scale of the catastrophe" Russia is experiencing.

Counting the dead

The former air force officer-turned-activist is part of a small network of volunteers and journalists working to document Russia’s war dead by visiting cemeteries, talking to family members and scanning social media and news publications for obituaries.

They are trying to quantify a death toll that has been estimated by Ukrainian and Western officials but Russia’s has rarely acknowledged.

In September, as it was announcing “partial mobilization,” the Russian Defence Ministry said that just under 6,000 soldiers had been killed since Feb 24, 2022.

In December, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, estimated that as many as 13,000 of its troops died.

Russia hasn’t provided a more recent update, but last month, U.K. officials estimated that as many as 200,000 Russian fighters have been injured or killed in Ukraine since the war began.

Even before the war, Russia had classified military deaths as state secrets.

After it launched its full invasion against Ukraine last year, it enacted increasingly punishing censorship laws.

Votanovsky has previously been detained and told CBC news he is currently under criminal investigation. He received a picture of a grave with his photograph on it, but he says the death threat hasn’t deterred him. He is continuing his activism in Russia, but others are working from the safer surroundings of abroad.

Vitaly Votanovsky received this image with his picture and name on a grave at a cemetery. He has received death threats for posting videos to social media of crowded burial grounds filled with Russian fighters killed in Ukraine.

An underestimate

A team of journalists from the independent media outlet Mediazona, along with journalists from BBC’s Russian service and the help of volunteers, have created a database and confirmed more than 15,000 Russian military deaths since the war began.

“We believe the real number is two or three times higher,” said data journalist Maxim Litavrin in an interview with CBC news from Riga, Latvia.

Litavrin says they believe the toll is much higher because they are only counting deaths that can be confirmed through open-source information online.

Their tally doesn’t include the missing, nor does it include some of the graves that Vontanovsky has photographed, because the team could not find any other additional details.

Votanovsky says he has documented 700 graves in the Krasnodar region, and estimates that about 40 per cent of them are not part of the journalists’ count.

Some of the graves are for fighters with Russia’s Wagner Group, which Votanovsky was the first to photograph at the end of December.

He saw a truck delivering bodies to the site and a worker told him that the bodies had come from Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city near the border.

When Reuters journalists visited the site in January, they witnessed security cameras and fences being installed.

Graves of Russian Wagner mercenary group fighters are seen in a cemetery near the village of Bakinskaya in Krasnodar region, Russia, January 22, 2023.

Wagner recruited thousands of convicts from Russia’s prisons to fight in Ukraine, and many were thrown into deadly battlegrounds around the eastern city of Bakhmut.

For months, Russia has been sending more men and weapons to attack Bakhmut and that is one of the reasons why Litavrin says his team has recently noticed an uptick in the number of deaths.

There are so many obituaries and social media postings, that he says they had to recruit additional volunteers to help.

The journalists post infographics to help illustrate some of their findings, like the fact that 121 Russian pilots have been killed in Ukraine, and nearly 200 officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel and above.

However, they are not currently publishing the names of the soldiers.

“We believe the Russian invasion isillegal and cruel, but we are not ready to reveal the names of the soldiers,” he said.

“We don’t think that is correct right now. We should do it when the war is over.”

Despite the escalating death toll, Litavrin doesn’t think the numbers are enough to sway public opinion about the war in Russia.

He says “Russian propaganda is working” and in most of the social media posts he is reading, people aren’t angry, but see the deaths as a necessity and part of a greater fight.

In November, a poll conducted by the Levada Center, an independent Russian public opinion firm, found that 75 per cent of respondents support the actions of Russia’s military in Ukraine.

Maxim Litavrin, a journalist with the Russian independent outlet Mediazona, is part of a team of volunteers and journalists compiling a database of Russian fighters killed in Ukraine.

The fact that number hasn’t decreased, given the mounting deaths, leaves Carina Pronina with dismay.

She is a journalist with the Russian newsmagazine the “People of Baikal” and was forced to leave the country at the end of January after being tipped off that the police would be coming to her house.

She told CBC News that she had previously been arrested at a cemetery in Buryatia, while reporting on the high number of military deaths in the eastern Siberian region.

“I guess from the beginning there was a feeling that the death toll, which would increase, would lead to some kind of public reaction,” she told CBC news via a video interview by Zoom.

“The number of coffins doesn’t seem to have an effect.”

‘Evidence of an era’

She believes if anything, the mobilization campaign might have boosted Russian’s sense of patriotism and cultivated a sense of belonging because people who have lost their sons, husbands or fathers, want them celebrated together as heroes.

In the two regions she is focusing on, Buryatia and Irkutsk, she and her team have confirmed 700 deaths and she will keep doing the work even though they are all outside the country.

“We have to have some figures — the specific people who died,” she said.

“This is all evidence of an era.”

As for the database, Litavrin says it can be turned over to researchers after the war. He says even if the government changes, he doubts the true tally will ever be released.


Briar Stewart is a correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart

With files from CBC’s Corinne Seminoff and Reuters

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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