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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Casualty Count Passes 1994-96 Levels

Even as their troops pushed into the sniper-infested streets of Grozny in mid-December, Russian commanders stressed that one of their chief goals was to be stingy with their soldiers' lives.

But the difficulty of routing determined Chechen defenders from the city's ruins is making that goal harder and harder, the government acknowledges.

According to the official count, the monthly casualty rate for Russian troops in Chechnya is now running ahead of the death rate in the 1994-96 war by almost 10 percent - and skepticism about even those figures appears to be spreading.

In the 21-month war during 1994-96, 3,963 soldiers and officers were killed, working out to 188 deaths a month. This time, after almost six months of renewed fighting in Dagestan and Chechnya, 1,173 have died, or 204 a month. There have been 3,487 wounded, and 53 people are missing, according to senior military officials cited by Interfax.

But that's only part of the story, say military analysts, journalists and members of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees. They say the real rate may be as much as several times higher, in part due to the way the military does its count. And even soldiers say they don't believe television reports on casualties. Figures from the previous war have also been questioned.

News media reports disputing official figures have come more and more frequently, and the government's information center, Rosinformtsentr, appears to be making an effort to demonstrate official openness. The center's new director, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said Thursday that the government will now issue an official toll every Friday.

Yastrzhembsky also gave new figures for the number of troops now serving in the North Caucasus region: 57,000 from the Defense Ministry and 36,000 from the Interior Ministry, for a total of 93,000.

Yastrzhembsky, previously a spokesman for former President Boris Yeltsin, last week returned to the Kremlin administration to take over the government's public-relations effort on the war. Public support for the campaign has been a key contributor to acting President Vladimir Putin's rise in presidential polls ahead of a March 26 special election to replace Boris Yeltsin.

On Tuesday, the government raised its estimate from 900 dead to the 1,173 figure, with officials attributing the higher number to close-quarter street fighting in Grozny and other towns.

Doubting official statistics is no longer confined to veteran government critics such as human rights groups. Even hawkish former Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov has joined in.

"I watch television just as you do," he said in an interview with the Segodnya newspaper earlier this week. "One officer says that in the past day the losses are five dead, 10 wounded. Another - 10 dead, 12 wounded. But I haven't lost professional connections. I talked with an officer who came here for vacation and he says that in such and such brigade 26 people actually perished."

"That is why I am seriously afraid that the information on losses is intentionally understated."

Colonel Viktor Baranets, former spokesman for the Defense Ministry and now a journalist for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, in a Jan. 14 report estimated the number of casualties to be at least 1,300 troops killed, 5,000 wounded and 300 missing in action and kidnapped.

Valentina Melnikova, spokeswoman of the Moscow-based Soldiers' Mothers Committee, said Tuesday night on the "Glas Naroda" program on NTV that "the number of the perished and those who died of wounds the military reduces by at least three times. The number of wounded is being reduced by at least two times.

"I am sure about this because every day we get back questionnaires from our regional branches." The committee assists parents of dead and missing soldiers.

Official statistics have been murky since Chechnya-based militants invaded Dagestan in August. The government has sometimes reported casualty figures separately for Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry troops; sometimes it has given a figure beginning with the August fighting in Dagestan; and sometimes with the invasion of Chechnya proper by Russian troops in late September.

The official death toll grew to 400 in mid-December, and on Dec. 28 General Valery Manilov, first deputy head of the general staff, said in comments televised by NTV that 465 had died.

Just two weeks ago, the number of casualties was officially reported to be only a little more than 700. On Monday, Interfax quoted sources in the security forces as saying that 29 had been killed in Chechnya in December alone, with the offensive to take Grozny beginning Dec. 14.

Lieutenant General Alexander Mikhailov, a spokesman at Rosinformtsentr, said he does not believe that official figures on casualties are being distorted.

However, he said some military procedures in counting might account for differences between outsiders' counts and the official count.

"There is a special technology for reporting on casualties," Mikhailov said. "A person who is being put in a helicopter just barely alive is not considered dead but wounded. If he dies in that helicopter he is registered as being a hospital loss."

"I can't tell you whether and how those losses are counted, and whether they are added to the lists of the dead," Mikhailov said.

"The numbers skyrocketed because we started to fight in the cities - Grozny, Argun, Shali. It is different to fighting in fields. That is why the Americans had only about 90 people lost in the Persian Gulf War. In cities every house, every street is shooting."

Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said inexperienced conscript soldiers sufficed to take the open northern part of Chechnya, but not to defeat experienced rebels in street fighting. "When the same force that was planned to only occupy the northern part of Chechnya was sent to storm Grozny and the mountains, catastrophe became inevitable," he said.