Forty thousand Russian soldiers killed in less than six months of war. This staggering claim made by the Ukrainian military on Wednesday is impossible to verify and far exceeds the estimates of the United States and its Western allies.
But it is consistent with Western assessments that the war has taken a heavy toll on the Russian military and underscores a central issue at this stage of a conflict where both sides have suffered heavy casualties.
Could Russia be approaching a point of exhaustion?
While Ukraine’s western allies have offered lower estimates on Russian deaths – with the Pentagon’s most recent estimate at 15,000 and the British saying it was probably closer to 25,000 – it is agreed that their losses were deep.
“Russia has assembled what I call a steamroller,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, referring to its military strength, particularly in artillery. “We don’t know when Russia will run out of steam.”
Typically, success on the battlefield is measured in terms of territorial gains and relative casualty figures. By the measure of territory seized, Moscow has gained ground since April, when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin made the eastern region of Donbass the focus of his campaign. The city of Lysychansk, the last Ukrainian stronghold in Lugansk province of Donbass, fell this month.
Mr Barry said the crucial question was whether Moscow was reaching a “high point” – a point at which an “offensive runs out of supplies or takes so many casualties that it cannot be sustained”.
There is evidence that such a moment could be approaching.
Russia’s offensive operations in eastern Ukraine have failed to make any significant strategic gains in a matter of weeks. And after losing control of most of the southern Kherson region in the first weeks of the war, Ukrainian troops have now liberated 44 towns and villages along the border areas, around 15% of the territory, according to the military governor of the region.
Moscow may be deliberately accelerating slowly, but Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said the pace of its artillery strikes in Donetsk province had also slowed . Data from NASA satellites that detect fires and thermal anomalies around the world “show that Russian ranged fire is dropping dramatically,” he said in a recent thread on twitter.
One possible explanation for the decline is the impact of recently deployed long-range weapons, and in particular HIMARS, truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers supplied by the United States. Ukraine has repeatedly claimed since the deployment to have hit Russian ammunition dumps behind the front line.
Ukrainian forces destroyed 50 Russian ammunition depots using the new weapons, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Monday. At the same time, Ukrainian moves in the south are forcing Russia to pay greater attention there, and Moscow has increased the pace of long-range missile strikes aimed at disrupting Ukrainian efforts to mount a counteroffensive.
It has not been possible to verify the accuracy of the claim, but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark A. Milley, told a press conference the week latest that the strikes “regularly degrade Russia’s ability to supply its troops”. , the command and control of their forces.
A recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based research group, argued that frontline developments were less critical in the long term than the underlying strength of rival war machines. Issues such as training, logistics and supplies will ultimately determine the outcome of the conflict. The Ukrainian army has been brutally beaten and its forces are also in danger of being exhausted.
“There is a need to ensure that Ukraine’s war effort can be sustained,” the report said. The alternative is “a symmetric stalemate which can only cause a conflict of attrition, risking the exhaustion of Ukraine”.
What could be a major test for both armies seems to be fast approaching. Ukrainian forces are gathering troops around the Kherson region for a counteroffensive that could be the country’s most ambitious attempt yet to reclaim territory. For Moscow, the battle will be a test of its endurance.