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100.000 Ukrainian soldiers dead? The big mistake signed Ursula von der Leyen

(B2) By giving the figure of more than 100.000 dead Ukrainian soldiers, in a short video broadcast by tweet on Wednesday (November 30), the President of the European Commission made a triple mistake.

The photo capture of the video in which U. von der Leyen announces the figure (DR)
  • The original video was later removed from Twitter and replaced with one that no longer mentions this passage.

A triple presidential failure

First, this number is wrong. The 100.000 are not the " deceased military officers », as the president says! These are all persons hors combat, therefore dead (in combat or elsewhere, accidents, etc.), seriously or very seriously injured, those who have been taken prisoner, those who have disappeared, or have been executed by the Russians. Whether these people are officers (1) or simple soldiers, volunteers or from the territorial reserve, police, customs officers, intelligence agents (SBU, etc.) or other official personnel, many of them are at the front or affected by war. And, again, it is an evaluation (2).

Secondly, and this is the most serious, this figure has never been revealed by the Ukrainians (3). It's even " top secret ". Only President Volodomyr Zelensky (or his entourage) has " the right to communicate on this subject ". A point confirmed to B2 by a Ukrainian army official (during our trip to kyiv in May).

Thirdly, until now the figure has always been (very) understated, knowingly. With a classic wartime objective: to maintain the morale of the troops. kyiv thus communicates cheerfully on the Russian losses, giving day after day the count of their dead, never on its own losses. And vice versa.

A poorly controlled skid... Explanations

The purpose of the tweet

This video was mainly intended to highlight the two proposals made a few hours later: on the establishment of an international tribunal and following the best practices to judge the crime of Russian aggression in Ukraine (read: International Tribunal for Ukraine: the ideas of the European Commission) and be able to use some of the Russian assets frozen by EU sanctions to finance reconstruction in Ukraine (read: To rebuild Ukraine, the Commission proposes to play Russian assets on the stock market).

Communication fails politics

As is her habit, the President of the European Commission wanted to anticipate what “her” commissioners were going to say by publishing, from her office, a short video with a few shocking sentences. A way of communicating that makes people cringe, on all floors of the Berlaymont, the building that houses the European executive in Brussels, as in the ranks of journalists (see box).

Video removed urgently

Realizing the blunder, the service of the spokesperson quickly removed the video, to replace it a few minutes later, with another, where the offending passage no longer appears. This does not appear in the transcript subsequently provided to the press.

Attempt to justify

The screenshot of Dana Spinant's tweet

European Commission Deputy Spokesperson Dana Spinant, called to the rescue, quickly publishes a tweet, rather lunar, without any excuse: “ Many thanks to those who pointed out the inaccuracy regarding the numbers in an earlier version of this video. The estimate used, from external sources, should have referred to casualties, i.e. both killed and wounded, and was intended to show Russia's brutality.

Arguments that lack credibility

Then questioned by the press, during the "midday briefing", the daily exercise of questions and answers of the European Commission with the Brussels press, Dana tries, as best she can, to justify her boss: " These are external figures put in the public domain. The [European] Commission does not have its own figures on this (4). We considered, retrospectively, that we should not enter into the discussion of figures. That's why we explained, I think clearly, that we prefer to remove an early version of the video. And focus on a second version on matters of substance [...] There is therefore no need to discuss the figures again since we have admitted that it was not fruitful to discuss them. » (5)

The lesson: a blunder (very) difficult to justify

For a former Minister of Defense, this type of blunder is really unforgivable! This reveals the limits of the character who takes care of her communication, preferring to communicate through tweets and short videos (often broadcast before the official announcement of events by "her" commissioners) than during ritual press conferences, where she could be thrown off balance by a few unforeseen questions (and which she cannot answer).

For Ursula Von der Leyen, who dreamed of a great destiny after her post as President of the Commission in November 2024, possibly as Secretary General of NATO, this blunder could be expensive. Honestly who will trust a person who a few days later reveals the information to the general public, just to show off?

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

The very controlled communication of von der Leyen. Ursula von der Leyen is reluctant to hold general press conferences before each European Council, where all questions can be asked by all journalists. She prefers small meetings with around twenty journalists, handpicked, where the questions are well controlled (watch out for anyone who crosses the yellow line, they will no longer be invited back). But, more often than not, she makes statements after an event (VIP points ou statement in the Brussels language) or it publishes short video capsules, carefully prepared by its close communication team. A way to avoid any question, which (apparently) destabilizes this woman, very political, intelligent, very convinced herself of the importance of Europe, as of the European defense policy. But who fears, above all, losing control and not mastering their files.
  1. It may be a mistranslation, with the classic confusion of the term "officers" (which in English designates either the military or all state agents).
  2. Because concretely, in time of war, where hundreds of thousands of personnel are engaged, where the front moves all the time, it is very difficult to have precise accounts.
  3. The figure was mentioned by US Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley in a conversation at theEconomic Club of New York during November. But his point was so evasive and so questionable (on certain figures). Speaking of a possible window of opportunity for trading “, he justifies his remarks by this: “ there is enormous human suffering. There are maybe 15, 20, 30 million refugees (sic!), probably 40.000 civilians have been killed. [...] more than 100.000 Russian [soldiers] killed and wounded. And, no doubt, the same on the Ukrainian side ". (script and translation: NGV)
  4. Which is not quite correct... The figure indicated seems rather to come from an "in-house" analysis made by IntCen (the intelligence analysis center of the EEAS, the European diplomatic service) which regularly produces intelligence analysis summaries, based on open sources (usually), but also information provided by Member States. Information classified at the highest level, intended only for a very restricted circle of people within the European Union (High Representative Josep Borrell, President of the European Council Charles Michel, EU military structures and President of the European Commission, if applicable).
  5. Transcript of the December 1st press conference made by the B2 team (thanks Marion!)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).