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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Growing Chorus Doubts War's Toll

After four months of war in the north Caucasus, serious doubts have been raised about the Russian military's official death count - by the media, by experts, by soldiers' families and by Russian soldiers themselves, who have taken to yelling out higher death tolls to reporters visiting sites of recent battles.

At this sensitive phase in the latest Chechen war, when popular support is being tested by the letdown that comes from a delayed but still anticipated victory, new voices are joining the usual chorus of skeptics challenging the truth of Moscow's accounts of the war.

Alexander Rutskoi, a hawkish former Soviet general who, as vice president, led a mutiny against the Kremlin in 1993, said that "judging by what is happening there, the losses are much greater" than reported.

Officially, the death toll stands between 740 and 800, including both soldiers and militiamen serving under the Interior Ministry. But a detailed analysis, conducted by a former Defense Ministry press secretary and published Jan. 14 in Komsomolskaya Pravda, claims that the real figure is almost twice that, or 1,300.

And then there is the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, a group that is a tireless advocate for conscripts and says the real number of Russian dead in this Chechen war is more like 3,000. The Defense Ministry says that figure is absurd.

In a television interview broadcast Sunday, General Anatoly Kulikov, the commander of federal troops during the 1994-96 war, said a recent surge of behind-the-lines attacks by guerrilla forces had surely produced more losses than had been officially reported.

"When I see on a TV program one official saying 10 killed and 15 wounded and another saying five killed and 12 wounded, as a professional, I can tell this is not true," Kulikov, a former interior minister, said.

If anyone knows how casualty figures can be camouflaged, it would be Kulikov. According to the recent Komsomolskaya Pravda article, a declassified report put the total number of troops dead in the first Chechen war at close to 4,000, but the author, in an interview, said he reckons that even that figure is low by as much as 1,500.

Kulikov, in his interview, even named various techniques, like listing dead soldiers as missing, or spreading out casualties over a long period, so as to hide devastating losses from a single day of fighting.

Some underreporting is built into the military's accounting system. For instance, wounded soldiers who later die in hospitals are not counted as killed in action. And soldiers whose bodies are not recovered also go uncounted.

But as Kulikov noted, there is a danger to playing games with the numbers for too long. "At the first attempt to analyze the situation, heads may roll at the very top," he said. "This should not happen. By no means should the real situation with losses be concealed from society."

The official version of the war has been challenged by a new nongovernment news agency dedicated to military affairs, run by a former army general who once headed the Defense Ministry's press and information department.

When he left the ministry job in 1995, halfway through the last Chechen war, General Vladimir Kosarev realized that his hopes of bringing the military's information policy in line with modern, international standards was a losing battle. "When I came to the ministry, I saw that there was a wall between the army and society that was higher than the Chinese Wall," he said. "It is still there."

Kosarev's Military News Agency, which employs 16 correspondents, all former military officers, and dozens of stringers inside the armed forces, has collected evidence in scattered cases where the official death count and reports from the field do not tally.

According to Yury Gladkevich, the agency's Caucasus specialist, a recent report listing 26 dead and 30 wounded during a day's fighting in Chechnya was in fact the death toll from a single guerrilla attack on a single column of Interior Ministry troops near the village of Dzhkalka. The total number of deaths in other fighting around Chechnya that day was not known, he said.

Lieutenant Viktor Baranets, a correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda and former press secretary to a defense minister, has been following the official casualty figures since troops first went to fight the Chechen guerrillas in Dagestan in August. The invasion of Dagestan was eventually repelled by federal forces, which then moved onto Chechen territory.

According to Baranets, official casualty figures, reported twice daily by both the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry, never quite add up and in some cases, were obviously stretched over several months to minimize losses from particular battles, particularly in Dagestan.

"When big losses are reported, then heads fly, and our generals want to be able to eat well," Baranets said. "I look at all these things with a great deal of cynicism."

To come up with his own figures, Baranets collated thousands of statistics drawn from draft boards, hospitals, the military insurance company and even from orders for the zinc coffins used to transport dead soldiers. The research, which took months, produced the figure of 1,300 dead and almost 5,000 wounded. And that was before the battle for Grozny heated up and began to claim even heavier casualties.

Spokesmen for the Defense Ministry refused to comment on the Komsomolskaya Pravda report. But General Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of the Russian general staff, has on other occasions attacked those who have challenged the official casualty figures.

"Such data misinform the Russian and international public with regard to parameters of the operation for eliminating hot spots of international terrorism in the North Caucasus," he said on Jan. 14, using the official parlance that portrays this war overwhelmingly as a fight against Islamic insurgents. "Moreover, it might alter the vector of support for the Russian troops' actions."