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It has been three weeks since Russia updated the official death toll of its invasion in Ukraine, leaving open the question of how many of its soldiers have been killed or wounded in the chaotic opening stages of its war, Andrew Roth writes.

In early March, the Russian defence ministry admitted that 498 Russian soldiers had been killed in action and 1,500 wounded, a large number after just 10 days of fighting that pointed to the danger of its attempts to take Kyiv in a lightning raid.

Critics said the official government numbers should be treated with scepticism. And US and Ukrainian officials have since claimed that Russia has suffered 10, 20 or 30 times as many casualties, claiming that Russian losses could rival the wars in Chechnya or Afghanistan. And amid an information vacuum in Russia, rumours have spread over the hundreds, or thousands more, who have been killed in the ensuing weeks.

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Units of the Russian armed forces enter the Kyiv region in this screengrab obtained from a video by Reuters on 3 March 2022. Photograph: Russian Defence Ministry/Reuters

“It’s almost a state secret,” said a Russian military commentator who asked not to be quoted by name to discuss the issue. “We don’t know exactly [how many people have died] … at the given moment, it’s better to discuss other questions.”

Russian news outlets continuing to operate inside the country have largely stopped reporting on the death toll from the war, as censors have forbidden any discussion that calls the conflict a “war” or “invasion”.

But on Monday, the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, which frequently posts pro-Kremlin news reports, published a bombshell buried deep in a news story about the war: “According to Russian defence ministry data … 9,861 Russian soldiers had been killed in action and another 16,153 had been wounded.”

Just minutes later, the line was gone. No other Russian news agencies reported the remarks, and it was not clear why Komsomolskaya Pravda alone would have access to that information.

Related: How many Russian soldiers have died in the war in Ukraine?

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