Russia has paid a historic human price three months into its war in Ukraine.
British intelligence officials estimated Monday that the Russian military has lost about 15,000 of its forces so far, roughly the same number who perished in the former Soviet Union’s ill-fated nine-year military campaign in Afghanistan.
Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, claim that a dozen top Russian generals are among those who have been killed, a staggering figure that — if true — would have crippled Russia’s command-and-control structure for the invasion, depriving the Russian army of key leaders at critical moments in the conflict.
Thousands more Russian soldiers have been wounded, according to various estimates by Ukrainian and Western military officials.
The war’s fallout has also nearly reached the highest echelons of the Kremlin, according to media reports. The head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence agency, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, claimed Monday that there was an assassination attempt on Russian President Vladimir Putin in the early days of the war, which began Feb. 24.
Those reports were not independently verified by Western officials on Monday. But analysts say the prospect that such an attempt was made reflects the massive blowback that Mr. Putin and his inner circle have brought upon themselves by authorizing the unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
According to an intelligence update circulated Monday by the British Defense Ministry, the stunning death toll incurred by Russia’s military could also turn Russian public opinion against the war and may lead to more high-profile protests at home, potentially shaking Mr. Putin’s grip on power.
“In the first three months of its ‘special military operation,’ Russia has likely suffered a similar death toll to that experienced by the Soviet Union during its nine-year war in Afghanistan,” the ministry said in the update posted on Twitter Monday. “A combination of poor low-level tactics, limited air cover, a lack of flexibility, and a command approach which is prepared to reinforce failure and repeat mistakes has led to this high casualty rate, which continues to rise in the Donbas offensive.”
“The Russian public has, in the past, proven sensitive to casualties suffered during wars of choice,” the ministry wrote. “As casualties suffered in Ukraine continue to rise they will become more apparent, and public dissatisfaction with the war and a willingness to voice it may grow.”
The Kremlin’s tight control over media at home has to a large degree kept much of the Russian public in the dark about the operation in Ukraine. But there are growing signs that anger over the war and its escalating death count are fueling discontent at home.
Boris Bondarev, a Russian diplomat who identifies himself on social media as an arms control and disarmament official with Russia’s mission to the United Nations office in Geneva, publicly resigned Monday and blasted his own country’s leadership.
“For twenty years of my diplomatic career I have seen different turns of our foreign policy, but never have I been so ashamed of my country as on Feb. 24 of this year,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post. “The aggressive war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia…I studied to be a diplomat and have been a diplomat for twenty years. The ministry has become my home and family. But I simply cannot any longer share in this bloody, witless and absolutely needless ignominy.”
The Bondarev resignation coincided reports that a captured Russian soldier, who had pleaded guilty to killing a civilian in Ukraine, was sentenced by a Ukrainian court Monday to life in prison — the maximum — amid signs the Kremlin may, in turn, put on trial some Ukrainian fighters who surrendered to Russian forces last week in the city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday called on world leaders to ramp up their economic pressure on Moscow in the hopes of sparking more resistance to Mr. Putin’s war and greater economic consequences for the Russian economy.
“This is what sanctions should be: They should be maximum, so that Russia and every other potential aggressor that wants to wage a brutal war against its neighbor would clearly know the immediate consequences of their actions,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a video message to the World Economic Forum in Davos, according to English-language media translations of his comments.
Consequences of war
While the Russian economy has suffered amid unprecedented Western sanctions and an exodus of Western businesses, the Russian military itself has taken arguably the greatest hit. The Russian force has reportedly lost hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles at the hands of Ukrainian anti-tank missiles and small armed drones.
Ukrainian forces also have successfully targeted Russian warships at sea, inflicting a demoralizing blow on a Russian force that likely believed its enemy was incapable of such attacks.
But the human cost has been perhaps the most notable. Ukrainian officials claim that a dozen Russian generals have been killed so far, in addition to a host of colonels and other high-ranking officers.
The Kremlin has acknowledged only a handful of those deaths. Russian Major Gen. Vladimir Frolov was laid to rest in a public ceremony in St. Petersburg last month, while Russian media also reported on the death of Major Gen. Andrei Sukhovetsky during operations in Ukraine.
Details of the high-level deaths remain murky. U.S. defense officials have pushed back on reports that they’ve provided intelligence to the Ukrainian military that has helped locate and target those generals and other key Russian military officials.
But it seems clear that Russia’s own battle operations have put upper echelon officers in the crosshairs.
In one recent daily update on the Ukraine war, the British Defense Ministry laid out one key reason for so many top-level casualties: a lack of faith in lower-level officers, leading generals to take control of front-line operations and put themselves at much greater risk.
Ukraine’s ability to successfully target some of those generals has been a highlight of its better-than-expected showing against a much larger Russian military, which prior to the invasion was widely regarded as one of the world’s best fighting forces.
After abandoning its effort in March to capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Russian troops have turned their attention to eastern Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region. Russian forces in recent days reportedly seized the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, essentially giving Moscow control of most of the strategically vital city.
Western analysts said Monday that Russian troops also are looking to encircle and ultimately capture the eastern city of Severodonetsk. While its advance in the Donbas so far has been slowed by stiff Ukrainian resistance, the Russian military continues to press ahead in the hopes of securing eastern Ukraine and creating a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014.
The U.S. and its allies say they’re ready to send more shipments of weapons and other assistance to the Ukrainian military to help it fend off the Russian advance. Artillery is needed most, Pentagon officials said.
“The nature of the fight…is really shaped by artillery in this phase,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters Monday. “We’ve seen serious exchanges of artillery fire over the last several weeks.”
Mr. Austin and other U.S. officials on Monday hosted the second meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group, nations that have agreed to offer military support to Kyiv. Ukraine’s defense minister attended the virtual meeting along with officials from nearly 50 other countries in the group.
“Russia’s unprovoked and cruel invasion has galvanized countries from around the world,” Mr. Austin said. “The bravery, skill and grit of the Ukrainian people has inspired people everywhere.”
He said 20 countries have announced new security assistance packages for Ukraine – ranging from vital artillery ammunition to coastal defense systems. Denmark agreed to send anti-ship Harpoon missiles and a launcher to help Ukraine defend its coastline while the Czech Republic said it would donate attack helicopters, tanks and rocket systems.
• Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.