'Fog of war' obscures death toll in Ukraine

How many lives have been lost in Ukraine’s war so far? We may never know, due to the very uncertain nature of war. After almost five months of silence about casualties, the Ukrainian government has pointed to a number: between 2005 thousand and 2005 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers died, according to presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.

The number seems underestimated. Weeks earlier, the Pentagon had estimated that the number of Ukrainian casualties (dead and wounded) would reach 100 thousand. Russian casualties would reach the same figure.

But not even the American military managed to make a distinction within these 100 thousand casualties of how many people died and how many were injured. Common sense says that the number of wounded must be much higher than the number of dead.

There is also the daily statistics released by Ukraine on dead Russians. In the last week, the number was close to 20 one thousand. But the figure needs to be analyzed with caution, as it is used by Kyiv within a wartime propaganda package aimed at boosting the morale of soldiers and the war effort of the civilian population.

Moscow does not has released estimates of casualties neither from the enemy nor from its own ranks. This is understandable within the Russian political strategy, which classifies the invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation”.

Since its beginning, in 24 of February, the Kremlin tries to push the everyday war away from the Russian population. The idea is not to break a kind of tacit agreement, in which the government undertakes to deliver stability and prosperity in exchange for a society that does not contest its political decisions.

Therefore, disclosing the number of Russians deaths, or even Ukrainians slaughtered, would be to admit to its internal public that the country is involved in a war of great proportions – the largest on European soil since the Second World War.

In addition to military casualties, there are also the deaths of the Ukrainian civilian population. The official number released by the UN is just over 6,500 people. But this figure is extremely conservative. To get an idea, investigations of satellite images identified mass graves in the Mariupol region alone that may contain more than 20 thousand bodies.

It never hurts to remember that killing the civilian population during a conflict is considered a war crime. The European Union is working to create a court to investigate crimes of this nature committed by Russian troops.

There are also the disappeared, who are not included in these statistics. Their stories are among the most tragic, as their families have to live with the uncertainty of their whereabouts.

This last week, I interviewed the young Ukrainian Alesya Aulina, who is part of a group of wives and mothers who do not have news of their relatives. Alesia’s husband, Damir Aulin, was the captain of a Ukrainian navy vessel that sank in March. He was not among the rescued sailors and his body was not found by rescue teams. Alesya thinks he is alive in a Russian prison.

“I was in the third month of pregnancy. He still doesn’t know he’s a father”, the girl told me in tears. “I will raise my son like a man. Like his father, he will be a defender of the family and of our country”, he said.

According to the International Commission for Missing Persons, an organization supported by several countries, based in the Netherlands, at least 15 A thousand people have disappeared since the beginning of the war.

Among them are dead whose bodies were never found, Ukrainians forced to migrate to Russia who were unable to return or make contact with relatives and combatants and civilians taken to Russian clandestine prisons.

Thus, it is likely that the death toll in the war in Ukraine will only be computed years later of the conflict, by historians, and in the form of an estimate and not a proven figure.

The real number must be lost in the “fog of war”. The expression is in common use by scholars of conflicts. It is inspired by the work “On war”, by the Prussian thinker Carl Von Clausewitz (1780-1831).

He classified war as the “realm of uncertainty”, as most actions in conflict are shrouded in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. He said that it is in this environment that combatants need to judge the little information they have at their disposal and make the best decisions they can.

What I observe here in Ukraine is that the colossal proportion of the conflict – in which combatants in battles number in the tens of thousands – it is one of the factors that most contribute to this uncertainty.

Note on Brazil

Since 24 February, I have been dedicating this space in the War Games column to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I think this is the most important conflict in recent decades and its consequences are already changing the world’s geopolitics and will dictate the course of future wars.

However, even here in Ukraine, I cannot fail to follow the Brazilian reality. Last week, a commentator named Paulo Figueiredo claimed that there would be a political division between right and left within the Army High Command. He cited the names of three generals and stated that they would be preventing the other 11 members of the collegiate from intervening in the Brazilian electoral process.

I have been covering Army affairs since 2005 for various media outlets. The request of my editors to “find out how the climate is in the Army” has always been recurring. In practice, this means trying to find out what the

High Command generals are debating.

Journalists are able to gain access to some of these generals and talk to them informally – as these military personnel cannot officially speak out. There is a certain turnover of members of the High Command, which makes the work of journalists even more difficult.

I don’t know any journalist colleague who has access to even half of these generals (I include myself in that estimate) and I think unlikely that the commentator who raised the controversy did. That’s why, over the years, I’ve learned that it’s possible to determine trends and raise issues that were dealt with by the High Command – but never give a kind of scoreboard. If we try to do that, we end up portraying a partial view of the whole and can unfairly damage reputations.

This is what happened, for example, with General Richard Fernandes Nunes, who has an irreproachable career, both in the academic sector of the Army and in the command of troops. He was the Public Security Secretary of Rio de Janeiro during the intervention period in 2018. The commentator pointed out that Nunes would act with political partisanship within the Army. I don’t have data on the others cited, so I won’t comment on their cases.

But I don’t believe there is political partisanship in the High Command. I believe that the generals must have discussed the request for intervention made by thousands of demonstrators in front of the barracks. It is possible that there were opinions favorable and contrary to an eventual action by the institution, but the position that counts is that of the commander of the Army and the institution has not been involved, at least until now.

I write this note to recommend to the War Games reader that, regardless of being favorable or contrary to what the demonstrators in front of the barracks are asking for, they should carefully analyze the alleged vote counts of the Army High Command. This type of information tends to be a reporting error or an attempt by some source to force a situation.

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