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 troops, roughly the same number who perished in the Soviet Union’s ill-fated nine-year military campaign in Afghanistan.
Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, claim that a dozen top Russian generals are among those 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. Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency, said Monday that an assassination attempt was made on Russian President Vladimir Putin in the early days of the war, which began Feb. 24.
Western officials did not independently verify those reports, but analysts said the prospect of such an attempt reflects the massive backlash that Mr. Putin and his inner circle have brought on themselves by authorizing the unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
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According to a British Defense Ministry intelligence update, the Russian military’s stunning death toll could also turn Russian public opinion against the war and lead to more high-profile protests, 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 an update posted on Twitter. “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 domestic media has, to a large degree, kept much of the Russian public in the dark about the operation in Ukraine. Still, there are growing signs that anger over the war and its escalating death count is fueling discontent.
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 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.”
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The Bondarev resignation coincided with reports that a captured Russian soldier, who pleaded guilty to killing a civilian in Ukraine, was sentenced by a Ukrainian court Monday to life in prison, the maximum. The Kremlin showed signs that it might put on trial some Ukrainian fighters who surrendered to Russian forces last week in Mariupol.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on world leaders to ramp up economic pressure on Moscow to strengthen resistance to Mr. Putin’s war and more significant 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
Although the Russian economy has suffered from unprecedented Western sanctions and an exodus of Western businesses, the Russian military has taken arguably the most significant 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, inflicting a demoralizing blow to a military that likely believed its enemy was incapable of such attacks.
The human cost has been perhaps the most notable. Ukrainian officials said 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 few of those deaths. Russian Maj. Gen. Vladimir Frolov was laid to rest in a public ceremony in St. Petersburg last month. Russian media also reported on the death of Maj. Gen. Andrei Sukhovetsky during operations in Ukraine.
Details of the high-level deaths remain murky. U.S. defense officials denied reports that they provided intelligence to the Ukrainian military that helped locate and target those generals and other key Russian military officials.
Still, it seems clear that Russia’s battle operations have put upper-echelon officers in the crosshairs.
In one recent daily update on the 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 before 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 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 Russian troops also are hoping to encircle and ultimately capture the eastern city of Severodonetsk. Although its advance in the Donbas has been slowed by stiff Ukrainian resistance, the Russian military is persistently trying to secure eastern Ukraine and create a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014.
The U.S. and its allies said they are ready to send more weapons and other assistance to help the Ukrainian military 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,” Defense Secretary 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.
“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.”
Mr. Austin said 20 countries have announced new security assistance packages for Ukraine, including vital artillery ammunition and coastal defense systems. Denmark agreed to send anti-ship Harpoon missiles and a launcher to help Ukraine defend its coastline. 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.