Soaring Death Toll Gives Grim Insight Into Russian Tactics

WASHINGTON — The number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine is approaching 200,000, a stark symbol of just how badly President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion has gone, according to American and other Western officials.

While the officials caution that casualties are notoriously difficult to estimate, particularly because Moscow is believed to routinely undercount its war dead and injured, they say the slaughter from fighting in and around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and the town of Soledar has ballooned what was already a heavy toll.

With Moscow desperate for a major battlefield victory and viewing Bakhmut as the key to seizing the entire eastern Donbas area, the Russian military has sent poorly trained recruits and former convicts to the front lines, straight into the path of Ukrainian shelling and machine guns. The result, American officials say, has been hundreds of troops killed or injured a day.

Russia analysts say that the loss of life is unlikely to be a deterrent to Mr. Putin’s war aims. He has no political opposition at home and has framed the war as the kind of struggle the country faced in World War II, when more than 8 million Soviet troops died. U.S. officials have said that they believe that Mr. Putin can sustain hundreds of thousands of casualties in Ukraine, although higher numbers could cut into his political support.

Ukraine’s casualty figures are also difficult to ascertain, given Kyiv’s reluctance to disclose its own wartime losses. But in Bakhmut, hundreds of Ukrainian troops have been wounded and killed daily at times as well, officials said. Better trained infantry formations are kept in reserve to safeguard them, while lesser prepared troops, such as those in the territorial defense units, are kept on the front line and bear the brunt of shelling.

The last public Biden administration estimate of casualties came last November, when Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that more than 100,000 troops on each side had been killed and wounded since the war began. At the time, officials said privately that the numbers were closer to 120,000.

“I would say it’s significantly well over 100,000 now,” General Milley said at a news conference last month in Germany, adding that the Russian toll included “regular military, and also their mercenaries in the Wagner Group.”

The State of the War

  • A New Assault: Ukrainian officials have been bracing for weeks for a new Russian offensive. Now, they are warning that the campaign is underway, with the Kremlin seeking to reshape the battlefield and seize the momentum.
  • In the East: Russian forces are ratcheting up pressure on the beleaguered city of Bakhmut, pouring in waves of fighters to break Ukraine’s resistance in a bloody campaign aimed at securing Moscow’s first significant battlefield victory in months.
  • Mercenary Troops: Tens of thousands of Russian convicts have joined the Wagner Group to fight alongside the Kremlin’s decimated forces. Here is how they have fared.
  • Military Aid: After weeks of tense negotiations, Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine. But the tanks alone won’t help turn the tide, and Kyiv has started to press Western officials on advanced weapons like long-range missiles and fighter jets.

At two meetings last month between senior military and defense officials from NATO and partner countries, officials said the fighting in the Donbas had turned into, as one of them put it, a meat grinder.

On Norwegian TV on Jan. 22, Gen. Eirik Kristoffersen, Norway’s defense chief, said estimates were that Russia had suffered 180,000 dead and wounded, while Ukraine had 100,000 killed or wounded in action along with 30,000 civilian deaths. General Kristoffersen, in an email to The New York Times through his spokesman, said that there is “much uncertainty regarding these numbers, as no one at the moment are able to give a good overview. They could be both lower or even higher.”

Senior U.S. officials said this week that they believe the number for Russia is closer to 200,000. That toll, in just 11 months, is eight times higher than American casualties in two decades of war in Afghanistan.

The figures for Ukraine and Russia are estimates based on satellite imagery, communication intercepts, social media and on-the-ground media reports, as well as official reporting from both governments. Establishing precise numbers is extremely difficult, and estimates vary, even within the U.S. government.

A senior U.S. military official last month described the combat around Bakhmut as savage. The two sides exchanged several thousand rounds of artillery fire each day, while the Wagner private military company, which has been central to Russia’s efforts there, had essentially begun using recruited convicts as cannon fodder, the official told reporters. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details.

The convicts took the brunt of the Ukrainian response while the group’s more seasoned fighters moved in behind them to claim ground, the official said. Wagner has recruited some 50,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, according to senior American military and defense officials.

Thousands of the convicts have been killed, a loss of life that has shocked American officials, who say the strategic value of the Bakhmut simply is not in line with the price Russia has paid.

A woman mourns her fiancé, who was killed fighting near Bakhmut. Moscow views Bakhmut as the key to seizing the entire eastern Donbas area.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

In an interview on Tuesday, a senior Defense official pointed to myriad Russian military supply and tactical problems to explain the Russian tactics. Russia, he said, is running low on artillery, and low on munitions. So Moscow is making up for that deficit by sending in convicts in waves into places like Bakhmut and Soledar, losing hundreds of people a day.

The Russian military has been following the Wagner playbook and deliberately using the poorly trained troops to draw, and deplete, Ukrainian fire, senior American military and defense officials said.

Kusti Salm, Estonia’s deputy defense minister, in a briefing with reporters in Washington last week, said that Russia’s casualties were high in part because of its use of convicts on the front line in Bakhmut.

“In this particular area, the Russians have employed around 40,000 to 50,000 inmates or prisoners,” Mr. Salm said. “They are going up against regular soldiers, people with families, people with regular training, valuable people for the Ukrainian military.”

“So the exchange rate is unfair,” he added. “It’s not one to one because for Russia, inmates are expendable. From an operational perspective, this is a very unfair deal for the Ukrainians and a clever tactical move from the Russian side.”

Moscow has thrown people it sees as expendable into battles for decades, if not centuries. During World War II, Joseph Stalin sent close to one million prisoners to the front. Boris Sokolov, a Russia historian, describes in a piece called “Gulag Reserves” in the Russian opposition magazine that an additional one million “special settlers”— deportees and others viewed by the Soviet government as second-class citizens — were also forced to fight during World War II.

“In essence, it does not matter how big the Russian losses are, since their overall human resource is much greater than Ukraine’s,” Mr. Salm, the Estonian official, said in a follow-up email. “In Russia the life of a soldier is worth nothing. A dead soldier, on the other hand, is a hero, regardless of how he died. All lost soldiers can be replaced, and the number of losses will not shift the public opinion against the war.”

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.

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