Russia’s War: Weighing the Human Cost in Ukraine

small arms survey
10 min readMay 15


By Gergely Hideg, with Callum Watson

The Russian Federation’s war of aggression against Ukraine has exacted a devastating toll on the Ukrainian civilian population. Mounting an adequate humanitarian response will hinge on properly quantifying its scale and nature — never an easy task in a war zone, and immeasurably harder amid the fog of disinformation.

The Small Arms Survey has experience of generating policy-relevant data on armed conflict, most notably with its Global Violent Deaths database. In December 2022 and January 2023, the Survey turned its attention to gathering solid data on the Russian invasion’s impact on the Ukrainian population. We commissioned Ipsos Ukraine to conduct a telephone survey and used an innovative ‘network scale-up method’, where respondents recounted their own experiences and those of siblings and cousins also living in Ukraine at the war’s outbreak. This method generated a uniquely reliable and complete picture of the war’s differential impacts on women and men. (See ‘Notes on the Study’ section for more details.)

In this blog, we lay out our initial findings around key issues, including the gendered effects of the invasion on civilians, whether it has influenced the availability of firearms, and its impact on pre-existing security concerns, such as violent crime.

Casualties of war: deaths, injuries, and disappearances

Predictably, neither Ukraine nor the Russian Federation has been disclosing its losses transparently. In addition, available estimates frequently use the ambiguous term ‘casualties’ without clarifying if it refers to deaths only, or also wounded, captured, and missing soldiers. The number of Ukrainian combat deaths¹ from our survey is higher than semi-official Ukrainian figures, which remained below 13,000 in November 2022. They are also higher than the 15,500–17,500 estimate in the leaked Pentagon documents, which also reported that Ukrainian attrition figures were of ‘low confidence’ due to ‘potential bias in UKR information sharing’. However, our survey’s results remain well within the range of some Western sources and are close to independent Ukrainian estimates.

We estimate that about 88,000 Ukrainians lost their lives during the first year of the conflict (87,400, 95% confidence interval (CI): 47,100–127,700). Three quarters of these fatalities were combatants (65,400, 95% CI: 35,100–94,700), while the rest were civilians (22,000, 95% CI: 12,000–33,000). Overall, 94% of Ukrainians killed were men, and about one in five civilian deaths (22%) were women (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Estimated Ukrainian conflict deaths and injuries in 2022

Note: Error bars show 95 per cent confidence interval. Projections use the 30.5 million adult population count prior to the invasion in the government-controlled territories. Due to lack of direct observation, female combatant death data are imputed at a fraction of female civilian deaths.

Despite relatively high female participation in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and some documented and reported deaths of female Ukrainian combatants, our survey identified no such fatalities, suggesting that direct combat zone forces are almost exclusively men, while their female counterparts generally receive less deadly postings.

The survey-based estimate of civilian fatalities exceeds the number documented by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR),² which also acknowledges a high likelihood of significant undercounting.

Our survey identified a higher proportion of male civilian deaths (78 per cent) than OHCHR (71 per cent). The results also indicated that men were more likely to be injured, killed, captured, or abducted: 89 per cent of abductees and 75 per cent of disappearances in the family networks were male.

We caution that our figures might underestimate civilian fatalities, especially among older civilian victims in Russian-occupied territories (for example Mariupol) who had no (surviving) siblings or cousins living in regions within the survey’s reach. We may assume, however, that this has little influence on the estimates of combatant deaths, since soldiers are drawn from across the whole country.

Counting the bodies

When it comes to Russian losses, the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) publishes a figure in its daily report and Western military officials also give somewhat vague assessments that are typically more conservative than the UAF’s. Media outlets, such as Mediazona and Istories, keep track of identifiable Russian Federation-affiliated combatants killed in the war with the proviso that their figures likely represent a significant undercount. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has issued an estimate of about 60,000–70,000 Russian combat deaths, while a senior US general suggested that Ukraine’s total casualties were likely to be in the same range as those of the Russian Federation. For their part, the leaked Pentagon documents put Russian combat deaths at 35,500–43,000.

Although several sources speculate that Russian combat deaths may outnumber Ukrainian losses, combining the conservative CSIS estimate of Russian fatalities with the survey-based estimate of Ukrainian civilian and military losses puts the total deaths in the first year of the full-scale war above 150,000 (see medium estimate in Figure 2). This rate dwarfs most modern conflicts and ranks the first year of the war among the five deadliest ever, even when applying the lowest survey-based estimate of Ukrainian fatalities.

That said, this comparison is not completely balanced because estimates from other conflicts have been arrived at through different methodologies. A more suitable comparison — using the ACLED-sourced fatality count — puts the first year of the full-scale war in Ukraine in the top 20 of the most lethal conflict years since 2000 (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Deadliest years of conflict since 2000 (selected countries)³

Sources: Conflict fatalities for other countries are from the Global Violent Deaths database, which relies primarily on public tallies of documented, verifiable deaths captured by event-based conflict monitoring services. Small Arms Survey low and medium estimates for Ukraine are based on reports by general population respondents about their close kinship network in December 2022 and January 2023.

Abuse of civilians: who’s doing what to whom?

Our findings suggest that abuses by armed actors against civilians (such as harassing or humiliating the population or terrorizing them with threats and/or violence) also targeted men (ten per cent) more than women (five per cent), except when it comes to demanding or accepting sexual favours from the civilian population, where women were more at risk.

Seven per cent of respondents assessed that abusers in their local area targeted civilians of their own sex (women were asked if women were subjected to abuse by combatants, while men were asked about abuse against men). Among these, the majority (61 per cent) identified Russian Federation-affiliated armed personnel as the perpetrators, which tallies with widely documented alleged international humanitarian law violations by Russian forces. Ten per cent attributed similar practices to combatants affiliated with Ukraine, while 29 per cent didn’t know or declined to identify the perpetrators in their vicinity.

Russian forces reportedly engaged in abusive behaviour against civilian women more than men. Seventy per cent of women who were aware of abuses against women in their area blamed Russian Federation-affiliated troops, while 55 per cent of men said civilian men had been abused by Russian forces.

Abusive behaviour by Ukraine-affiliated combatants was less commonly identified. It mostly entailed harassing, assaulting or threatening civilians, and seemed exclusively to involve territorial defence force personnel or other UAF-affiliated troops. Survey respondents didn’t name any regular service personnel of the Ukrainian Armed Forces as abusers, nor did they claim any UAF-affiliated personnel had sexually abused civilians. Corresponding to some reports about misconduct by Ukrainian security and military personnel, reported abusive behaviour by Ukraine-affiliated forces was more focused on the male population. Fourteen per cent of men aware of abuse of other men said UAF-affiliated troops were involved, while in the case of women, only four per cent held Ukrainian forces accountable.

Lives in turmoil ­­– the wider impacts of the Russian invasion

Table 1 Effects on livelihoods

Note: ‘W’: women; ‘M’: men; ‘G’: girls; ‘B’: boys.

Fewer than 20 per cent of Ukrainians have not been impacted by displacement or the other consequences of the war listed above.

Following the guns to the front line and back

Despite widespread concerns and disinformation about the risks of diversion of Western lethal aid, our results suggest Ukrainian households are less armed now than before the war. In fact, not only is there no observable proliferation of firearms among Ukraine’s civilians, but the opposite is true. The general mobilization has almost certainly seen some combatants to take privately held firearms to the front lines, so it is likely some will bring them home again.

Figure 3 Percentage of households with a weapon kept at home

Note: The percentage for 2019 was retrieved from Schroeder, Florquin, Hideg, and Shumska (2019).

While the ‘conventional’ crime victimization rate of the population (not including Russian activity) is unchanged since 2019, the proportion of crime victims reporting the involvement of a firearm has fallen from 14 to six per cent, and civilians report that it’s now much harder to acquire them.

In addition, while armed conflict in the previously occupied regions of the Donbas hampered the state’s ability to provide fundamental services, including those related to security, public confidence in law enforcement in government-controlled territories of Ukraine has increased since the declaration of martial law in March 2022, which extended police powers.

Figure 4 Perceptions of crime and security institutions


The Small Arms Survey research provides valuable new insights into the civilian experience of the Russian Federation’s war of aggression in Ukraine, and how that experience varies by gender. Predictably, most people killed or injured in the conflict are men, although women have reported high levels of intimidation by Russian forces in civilian areas.

While the war has not triggered a rise in armed crime, current and future support for Ukraine should seek to mitigate the potential dangers of ex-combatants bringing weapons home. It should also consider historical trends, where armed conflicts have resulted in large numbers of indirect deaths and have cumulative, lifelong repercussions on the population even after the hostilities end.

Finally, while this research confirms that women and men experience this conflict differently, further investigation is needed to better understand gender differences in contributing to the war effort, and how the conflict affects women, men, girls, and boys differently — something that might change over time, including once the fighting stops.

Notes on the study

Ipsos Ukraine surveyed 2,000 Ukrainian adults in December 2022 and January 2023. To augment the sample size for estimating low-incidence phenomena like injuries, fatalities, etc., the survey used the network scale-up (NSUM) method accounting for the experiences of respondents’ networks of siblings and cousins who lived in Ukraine at the time of the full-scale invasion. Amplifying the sample size allowed for more accurate estimates by more than tripling the number of contributors (6,268 individuals—2,994 men and 3,274 women—were identified in the respondents’ sibling/cousin networks). It is probable that this group mostly comprised adults, since they are of the same generation as the respondents. Hence NSUM results are projections of the approximate adult population of Ukraine.

While these estimates bring us closer to understanding the war’s devastating effects on the Ukrainian people, we acknowledge a risk of bias, the most significant being: (1) credibility of reporting (truthfulness of responses); (2) some respondents may not know the fates of their siblings and cousins, and (3) possible survival bias. Even if the NSUM approach was used to overcome these issues, some casualties may have no siblings or cousins left alive or in the country to report on their victimization.

The survey rigorously captured the separate experiences of men and women allowing for a detailed gendered analysis. All individuals surveyed identified as men or women when asked about gender identity.

The survey did not directly cover territories under Russian occupation at the time of the data collection, including Crimea, part of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions, excluding nearly 20 per cent of the population. The sample also had blind spots in areas affected by temporary but widespread power and mobile phone outages during the research period, the extent of which is indeterminable.

The survey was conducted within the framework of the Gender and Small Arms Project, which is co-financed by Germany and Switzerland. The findings expressed in this blog are those of the research authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the German or Swiss governments.

[1] ^ In the survey, a ‘combat death’ is defined as a person killed by the enemy as a combatant, as reported by the survey respondent. A ‘conflict death’ includes combat deaths as well as people killed by the enemy as a civilian, as reported by survey respondents.

[2] ^ The OHCHR definition includes deaths due to a weapon of war, including bombs, firearms, landmines, and explosive remnants of war.

[3] ^ This table does not include figures for the Tigray War, which may be one of the deadliest since 2000.

[4] ^ Schroeder, Matt, Nicolas Florquin, Gergely Hideg, and Olena Shumska. 2019. ‘Small Arms Trafficking: Perceptions of Security and Radicalization in Ukraine: Assessment for the Ukrainian Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons.’ Background paper. Geneva: Small Arms Survey. This study includes research contributions and data analysis by the Donetsk Law Institute and the Centre for Social Indicators, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

Gergely Hideg is a Survey specialist at the Small Arms Survey, and Callum Watson is Gender Coordinator at the Small Arms Survey.

This blog post was produced within the framework of the Gender and Small Arms Project, which is co-financed by Germany and Switzerland.

Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss small arms- and armed violence-related issues, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Small Arms Survey or its donors.



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