Politics of Distorted Numbers: How Russia is Counting Displaced Ukrainians and Why?

By Lidia Kuzemska

“If it is not measured, it doesn’t exist. If it is not counted, it doesn’t count”.[i] Creation, selection, promotion, and proliferation of data are political processes, yet we need data for a problem to be recognized, defined, prioritized, and debated by policymakers and societies.[ii]  Reliable data is certainly difficult to obtain in a situation of war and unclear realities on the ground. Discrepancies, omissions, and mistakes in numbers collected can occur for a multitude of reasons: poor training, lack of technological infrastructure and local knowledge, human error, lack of access to certain areas, urgency of intervention, the breakdown of institutions. But, as Glasman & Lawson (2023) argue: “they can also be due to manipulation. A whole series of studies shows that states often have an interest in disguising humanitarian statistic.”[iii]

The scales of displacement and return have symbolical meanings for state actors, either of political failure (massive outflow of population) or political success (high number of returns). Hosting the displaced/returnees is also a political gesture to demonstrate the country’s humanitarian effort and argument in seeking international assistance. Countries often use the exaggerated number of incoming displaced to embarrass the country of origin and point out its human right violations or other reasons that forced people to flee.[iv] Lowering the number might mean the opposite – minimizing and legitimizing the actions of those who provoked the displacement or denying the scale of the problem. In short, the ‘politics of numbers’ is based on “intentional efforts by individuals or institutions [to lower or inflate the number-KL] to pursue their own interests and to influence the behaviour of others”.[v]

I argue that in the case of forced displacement of Ukrainians to Russia, the inflated and unverified number of border crossings between Ukraine and Russia, moreover, provided only by the Russian side, mistakenly transformed into a number of supposedly real individual Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion in the direction of the aggressor state. To analyse the politics behind these distorted numbers, I look at available, albeit limited, data we have in the public domain regarding the forced migration flow of Ukrainians to and through Russia in 2022-2023. I conclude that a more realistic estimate of the number of Ukrainian citizens displaced to Russia after the invasion is up to one million people maximum, moreover the number is probably decreasing as people are transiting through Russia elsewhere.

Ukrainian Citizens in Russia since the Full-Scale Invasion

War-displaced Ukrainians in Russia – whose exact number is disputed – remain largely beyond the international protection regime and without support from the Ukrainian state as the diplomatic ties between the two countries were cut in February 2022. Russia has closed all humanitarian corridors between the occupied territories and the government-controlled territory of Ukraine in spring 2022. Most civilians who tried to flee war from the occupied territories had little choice about the route of escape from the active war zone and many are considered deportees by the Ukrainian government and some international observers.[vi] Some civilians were transported by the Russian authorities, but the majority escaped the war on their own in the only available direction of Russia. All had to undergo ‘filtration’ procedure: a mandatory screening process that involved documents check, taking fingerprints and photos, checking phones, body searches, questioning, often arbitrary detention, and torture.[vii] The forcible transfer of Ukrainian children from the occupied territories to Russia has rightly been in the focus of international community that noted it may be qualified as genocidal deportations.[viii]

The last available UNHCR Ukraine Data Portal number of border crossings from Ukraine to Russia since the start of the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022 amounts to 2.85mln (see Figure 1).[ix] It is dated October 3, 2022 – two days before the four occupied regions of Ukraine (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson) were annexed by the Russian Federation and all residents were declared Russian citizens.[x]

Figure 1. UNHCR data on the number of “refugees and displaced persons from Donetsk, Luhansk and other regions of Ukraine arrived in Russia from 24 February to 4 October 2022” (based on the Russian Ministry for Emergencies information). Figure 2 is based on the UNHCR Russia Monthly Digest.

Looking at Figure 1 we see that until June 2023, the number of 2.85mln of border crossings was mistakenly equalled to the actual number of individuals who were displaced to Russia. It also circulated in international and Ukrainian media who took UNHCR number as the only available source of information. However, when we look at the recently published data on the UNHCR portal (orange, grey and yellow bars in the last column of Figure 1), the number of individuals recorded as ‘refugees from Ukraine’ (sic!) as of December 2022 is significantly smaller than 2.85mln, in fact only 1.27mln (orange bar). What is even more striking is the unexplained discrepancy between 1.27mln ‘refugees from Ukraine’ and the number of individuals who applied for any kind of national protection status in Russia by the end of 2022. The latter number has also decreased from 100 thousand reported in June 2023 (grey bar) to 65 400 in August 2023 (yellow bar). How did 2.85mln transform into 65 thousand? Wait until the last section of this blog.

Russian reporting from a ‘source in security services’

Contradicting its own Ministry for Emergencies which was the data source for the UNHCR numbers, in March 2023, the Russian official press agency TASS reported a staggering number of displaced from Ukraine to Russia – 5.4mln people, including 744 thousand children (see Figure 2 and Figure 3).[xi] However, this independently unverified number is misleading. It most probably reflects the overall number of crossings between Russia and all the occupied Ukrainian territories during 2022. For instance, according to the Report by the ‘Civil Assistance’ Committee – one of the few NGOs advocating for refugee rights in Russia – this manipulation is covered using multiple, often contradictory, and mutually exclusive labels to describe who is moving, their motives and intentions.

Figure 2. The number of ‘people coming from Donbas and Ukraine to the territory of the Russian Federation’ (label most used by TASS): Total. The Figure is based on Russian media report summarised in Table 1 (access here)
Figure 3. The number of ‘people coming from Donbas and Ukraine to the territory of the Russian Federation’ (label most used by TASS): Children. The Figure is based on Russian media report summarised in Table 1 (access here)

The whole range of labels has been used to describe these migration flows, such as “arriving persons” (‘прибывшие”), “refugees” (“беженцы”), “people who crossed the border” (“пересекшие границу”), “people currently in the Russian Federation” (“находящиеся в Российской Федерации”), “people accepted by the Russian Federation” (“люди, которых приняла Российская Федерация”), “evacuees” (“эвакуированные”), “(self)-evacuated” (“эвакуировавшиеся”), “forced resettlers” (“вынужденные переселенцы”). The choice of labels is also political, it signals the relationship of power and has consequences for those who are being labelled in terms of status, help and moral obligations the host state and society have.[xii] Noteworthy is the absence of any mention regarding the reason why people were displaced as well as emphasis on either humanitarian (“evacuees”) or neutral (“arriving”, “accepted”) character of this migration. These labels and consequently their number presented by the authorities do not distinguish between Ukrainian nationals and other cross-border travellers (Russian and third-country nationals), between those displaced by war and travelling for other reasons; it also includes people who transited through Russia and left its territory and those who came back to live in the occupied territories.[xiii] Combining all these different categories of travellers together and labelling them ‘refugees from Ukraine in Russia’ is thus misleading.

Not surprisingly, the Russian authorities publish limited migration statistics that do not explicitly separate Ukrainians displaced due to the Russian invasion from other cross-border travellers, nor do they publish the number of transit international travellers (including Ukrainians fleeing the invasion) who left the territory of the Russian Federation.

Having in mind that people might have been travelling multiple times between the occupied territories of Ukraine and Russia, we can stress that it is incorrect:

1) to equal the number of border crossings to the number of individuals;

2) to assume all individuals travelled because of the war;

3) to frame all individuals as ‘arriving’ to Russia and not either staying temporarily, returning or travelling onwards;

4) to think that all travellers were only Ukrainian citizens;

5) to ignore the facts that such a huge-scale supposedly permanent displacement of 5.4mln could not have been managed by such limited governmental resources in terms of state-provided TAP accommodation (used by 40 thousand people – less than 1% of supposed 5.4mln) and one-off RUB 10 000 cash payments – distributed to a maximum of 1.4mln people based on governmental funding data.[xiv]

What about the other millions of assumingly existing ‘refugees’? Such scale of displacement could not have been simply dispersed across the country.

To sum up, when we look at the Russia-exaggerated number of the displaced from Ukraine on its territory, the reasoning for such distortion seems to be threefold. First, to embarrass the Ukrainian state that supposedly failed to prevent the war, protect and evacuate its citizens, and, as a result, is now experiencing a massive-scale outflow of population and face long-term demographic problems.[xv] Second, the intention is clearly to portray Russia as the biggest ‘humanitarian’ host of displaced Ukrainians since 2014, a country that is ‘evacuating’ civilians from the combat zone, opening its borders to people fleeing the ‘anti-Russian hostile regime’ and willing to ‘find refuge’ in Russia, which provides them with all kinds of support (sic!).[xvi] Third, an inflated number of displaced Ukrainians in Russia questions the mandate and effectiveness of the UNHCR and other UN institutions that accept their de facto powerlessness to even count the displaced, without even raising issues of protection and rights of the displaced in a country that caused their displacement and dispossession in the first place. 

However, Russia’s ‘politics of numbers’ can be challenged by their own migration statistics that we will look at below.

The Russian Ministry of Interior data on Legal Statuses of Ukrainians

So, let us focus on the number of Ukrainian nationals who received any kind of legal status in Russia in 2022 (see Figure 4).

Ukrainian nationals can enter and remain in Russia without registering for legal status for up to three months. Ukrainians applying for any status in Russia need to undergo mandatory dactyloscopy, and medical examinations and provide notary-certified translations of relevant documents from the Ukrainian language into Russian. However, Ukrainian nationals will not be able to access any state support or services if they do not regularise their stay through one of the following statuses.

First – almost non-existent in reality – is the refugee status («статус беженца»). Only five Ukrainian nationals received it in 2022. In total 26 Ukrainians received refugee status since 2014. The application for it is lengthy and highly discouraged by Russian officials.

Second, the displaced Ukrainians can apply for temporary asylum status («временное убежище»). After receiving it, a person can stay in Russia for one year (with a possibility of extension), can apply for RUB 10 000 one-off cash allowance, work, and study, but cannot leave the Russian territory without losing the status. 97 591 Ukrainian nationals received temporary asylum in Russia during 2022, but only 65 374 held it by the end of the year. Some of the previous status holders left the country, some applied for other statuses or were naturalized.[xvii] The number of 65 374 persons is almost exactly the same as UNHCR provided number of ‘persons who applied for any kind of status in Russia’ (yellow bar in the last column of Figure 2) – 65 400. We can safely conclude that this is where the UNHCR data is coming from.

The third option for the displaced Ukrainians is to apply for temporary or permanent residency («разрешение на временное проживание», «вид на жительство»), which are not very popular due to lengthy procedures with few immediate cash and service benefits necessary for the war-displaced and many restrictions on travel and work.

Figure 4. Ukrainian nationals by received legal status or the lack of thereof in Russia (2022). Based on the Russian Ministry of Interior data available at https://мвд.рф/dejatelnost/statistics/migracionnaya/item/35074711/. The % is calculated based on the UNHCR total estimate of 1.27mln ‘refugees from Ukraine in Russia’ as of December 2022.

Finally, the fourth option most favoured by the Russian officials is the naturalisation. Since 2019, Russia eased its naturalisation requirements for the Ukrainian nationals, especially from the occupied Donbas region. In May-July 2022, after the occupation of the Ukrainian south-eastern territories naturalisation procedure for Ukrainian nationals became even more simplified and became de facto mandatory on the occupied territories.[xviii] For the war-displaced Ukrainians already on the Russian territory, naturalisation is often the only way to access state services only citizens are entitled to. For instance, full state medical insurance (beyond emergency care), free medications, social benefits, and pensions – essential for the chronically ill, elderly, people with disabilities and those wounded due to war – are only available after receiving the Russian citizenship. Similarly, access to legal employment, education, mortgage, bank loans is facilitated for citizens with permanent residency and difficult to access for foreigners with temporary residency.

Overall, 300 000 Ukrainian nationals received Russian citizenship in 2022.[xix] Many refuse the push for naturalisation as they are afraid of the repercussions back in Ukraine, where they left family members, property and expect to return. Others are afraid of being quickly drafted to the Russian army or not being allowed to leave the Russian territory. Even though significant number of Ukrainians could still be waiting for their legal statuses in Russia, their number is evidently far smaller than both the Russian official and UNHCR numbers of border crossings. According to an independent Russian demographer Alexey Raksha and his colleagues only 0.5-1mln Ukrainian nationals stayed in Russia due to the full-scale invasion.[xx] Based on data sources discussed above – first of all on the data from the Russian Ministry of Interior – we see that the number seems to be up to 1mln Ukrainian nationals at most. It is more difficult to estimate the number of Ukrainian nationals originating from the territories occupied since 2014 who might be also Russian passport holders. Their cross-border and intra-Russia travel is more difficult to track. Still, as the Ukrainian government does not recognize forced passportization, they remain Ukrainian citizens and retain their right to return to Ukraine at any time.

In short, even though data on the displaced Ukrainians in Russia is subject of purposeful manipulation, we know that significant number of them remain on the Russian territory for a variety of reasons. Their current rights and needs as well as future post-war options should not be forgotten by the Ukrainian government and international actors.


[i] Andreas & Greenhill, “Sex, Drugs and Body Counts”, p.1.

[ii] Ibid, p. 2.

[iii] Joël Glasman and Brendan Lawson, “Ten Things We Know about Humanitarian Numbers,” Journal of Humanitarian Affairs 5, no. 1 (2023): p.2.

[iv] Ibid, p.17.

[v] Ibid, p.17.

[vi] Information Centre for Human Rights ZMINA, “Deportation of Ukrainian citizens from the territory of active military operations or from the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine to the territory of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus”, 2022, https://zmina.ua/en/publication-en/deportation-of-ukrainian-citizens-from-the-territory-of-active-military-operations-or-from-the-temporarily-occupied-territory-of-ukraine-to-the-territory-of-the-russian-federation-and-the-republic-of/ [accessed August 12, 2023]; Zmina, “Deportation of Ukrainian Citizens to the Territory of the Russian Federation: Signs and Context,” 2023, https://zmina.ua/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2023/05/deport_people_eng_web.pdf. [accessed August 12, 2023]

[vii] Amnesty International Ukraine, “Like A Prison Convoy”: Russia’s Unlawful Transfer and Abuse of Civilians In Ukraine During ‘Filtration’”, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur50/6136/2022/en/ ;
Humanitarian Research Lab, “System of Filtration: Mapping Russia’s Detention Operations in Donetsk Oblast,” 2022, https://hub.conflictobservatory.org/portal/sharing/rest/content/items/7d1c90eb89d3446f9e708b87b69ad0d8/data ; Daria Getmanova and Svitlana Matviyenko, “Producing the Subject of Deportation . Filtration Processes during the Russia-Ukraine War,” Sociologica 16, no. 2 (2022): 239–52.

[viii] Oksana Dudko, “A Conceptual Limbo of Genocide: Russian Rhetoric, Mass Atrocities in Ukraine, and the Current Definition’s Limits,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 64, no. 2–3 (2022): 133–45; Kristina Hook, “The Russian Federation’s Escalating Commission of Genocide in Ukraine: A Legal Analysis (July 2023), https://newlinesinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/20230726-Genocide-Ukraine-Report-NISLAP_.pdf ”; Victoria Colvin and Phil Orchard, “Forced Deportations and the Ukraine War : Russian Culpability in Atrocity Crimes,” Violence: An International Journal 0, no. 0 (2023): 1–20; PACE, “Resolution. Deportations and Forcible Transfers of Ukrainian Children and Other Civilians to Russian Federation or to Ukrainian Territories Temporarily Occupied,” 2023, https://pace.coe.int/en/files/31776/html ; Veronika Bilkova, Cecilie Hellestveit, and Elina Steinerte, “Report on Violantions and Abuses of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law, War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, Related to the Forcible Transfer and/or Deportation of Ukrainian Children to the Russian Federation,” 2023, http://www.osce.org/odihr/103448?download=true, Yulia Ioffe, “Forcibly Transferring Ukrainian Children to the Russian Federation: A Genocide?,” 2022, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4236369. ; Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial Brussels, “Violation of the Rights of Children Taken from Ukraine to Russia and Belarus as a Result of Russian Military Aggression”, 2023, https://adcmemorial.org/en/publications/violation-of-the-rights-of-children-taken-from-ukraine-to-russia-and-belarus-as-a-result-of-russian-military-aggression/; Kidmapping Project, 2022, https://mapping.kids [accessed August 12, 2023]

[ix] UNHCR Ukraine Data Portal, https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine/location [accessed August 12, 2023]

[x] Federal Laws of the Russia Federation from 04.10.2022 №372-Ф3, 373-Ф3, 374-Ф3, 375-Ф3, http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/search?pageSize=30&index=1&DocumentTypes=82a8bf1c-3bc7-47ed-827f-7affd43a7f27&PublishDateSearchType=1&PublishDate=05.10.2022&NumberSearchType=0&DocumentDateSearchType=0&JdRegSearchType=0&SortedBy=6&SortDestination=1 [accessed August 12, 2023]

[xi] TASS, “Tchislo pribyvshykh v RF bezhentsev s territorii Ukrainy i Donbassa prevysilo 5.4 mln tchelovek” [The number of refugees coming to Russia from Donbas and Ukraine surpassed 5.4mln], 13.03.2023, https://tass.ru/obschestvo/17248303 [accessed August 12, 2023]

[xii] Rebecca Hamlin, “Crossing. How We Label and React to People on the Move” (Stanford University Press, 2021), pp. 12-13.

[xiii] Konstantin Troitskiy, “Skolko bezhentsev s Ukrainy nakhoditsia v Rossii?” [How many refugees from Ukraine are in Russia?], 2023, ‘Civic Assistance’ Committee analytical report, https://refugee.ru/dokladyi/how-many-refugees/ [accessed August 12, 2023]

[xiv] TASS, “Svyshe 14.1mln rublej vyplatili bezhentsam pribyvshym v Rossiju s Ukrainy i iz Donbassa” [More that 14.1mln rubles were payed to refugees arriving to Russia from Ukraine and Donbas], 05.05.2023, https://tass.ru/obschestvo/17683379 [accessed August 13, 2023]

[xv] For instance, already in March 2022 the Head of the Russian National Centre for Defence Command General Mikhail Mezetsev announced that Ukrainian government is using civilians as a ‘living shield’ and they have a list of 2.7mln people willing to relocated to Russia. Source: RIA, “Minoborony: Boleje 2.7mln ukraintsev hotiat evakuirovatsa v Rossiju” [Ministry of Defence: More than 2.7mln Ukrainians want to evacutate to Russia], 19.03.2022, ria.ru, https://ria.ru/20220319/evakuatsiya-1779069058.html

[xvi] Irina Kuznetsova, “To Help ‘Brotherly People’? Russian Policy Towards Ukrainian Refugees.”Europe-Asia Studies, 72 no 3 (2020): 505-527.

[xvii] Troitskiy, “Skolko bezhentsev s Ukrainy nakhoditsia v Rossii?”, 2023.

[xviii] Humanitarian Research Lab, “Forced Passportization in Russia-Occupied Areas of Ukraine,” 2023, https://hub.conflictobservatory.org/portal/apps/sites/#/home/pages/passport-1 [accessed August 15, 2023].

[xix] Ministry of Interior of Russian Federation, Migration statistics 2022, https://мвд.рф/dejatelnost/statistics/migracionnaya/item/35074711/

[xx] Sofja Getz, “’Jesli my dozhyvem do kontsa etoho goda, ja budu udivlen i rad’. Demografer Aleksej Raksha o vlijaniji vojny na budushtcheje rossijan” [‘If we survive until the end of this year, I will be glad and surprised’. Interview with demographer Alexei Raksha about the impact of war on the future of Russians], Discourse, 24.03.2023, https://discours.co/articles/social/aleksey-raksha-about-russian-demography [accessed August 15, 2023].

About the author

Lidia Kuzemska is a sociologist with an interdisciplinary interest in forced migration, internal displacement, borders, and citizenship. In 2022, she received her PhD from Lancaster University (UK). Her dissertation was entitled “‘Don’t Be Afraid of Our Citizens’: Internally Displaced People Encounter Bordering and Othering in Ukraine” and it focused on the counter-hegemonic citizenship practices of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2014–2016. Lidia also holds an MA in Economy and Society from Lancaster University (UK), an MA in European Studies from the College of Europe (Belgium and Poland), and an MA in Sociology from Ivan Franko National University of Lviv (Ukraine). Lidia is a co-managing editor of the Refugee Review journal (part of the Emerging Scholars and Practitioners on Migration Issues network). She is also a research affiliate at the Internal Displacement Research Programme (SOAS University of London) and a peer-reviewer for the Knowledge Platform and Connection Hub (UN Network on Migration). She is 2022/23 Prisma Ukraïna Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.

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Lidia Kuzemska, Politics of Distorted Numbers: How Russia is Counting Displaced Ukrainians and Why?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.11.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49068

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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