Forty thousand Russian soldiers killed in less than six months of war. That staggering claim made by the Ukrainian military on Wednesday is impossible to verify and far exceeds estimates by the United States and Western allies.
But it is consistent with Western assessments that the war has taken a heavy toll on the Russian military, underscoring a central question at this point in a conflict in which both sides have suffered heavy casualties.
Could Russia be approaching a point of exhaustion?
Although Ukraine’s western allies have given lower estimates of Russian deaths — with the Pentagon’s most recent estimate at 15,000 and the British saying it was probably closer to 25,000 — there is agreement on their losses.
“Russia has assembled what I call a steamroller,” said Ben Barry, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in reference to its military prowess, not least in the field of artillery. “We don’t know at what point Russia will run out of steam.”
Battlefield success is usually measured in terms of territorial gains and relative casualties. In terms of territory seized, Moscow has gained ground since April, when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made the eastern Donbas region the center of his campaign. The city of Lysychansk, the last Ukrainian stronghold in the Luhansk province of the Donbas, fell this month.
Mr Barry said the crucial question was whether Moscow is reaching a “culmination point” – a point where an “offensive has run out of supplies or inflicted so many casualties that it is unsustainable.”
There are indications that such a moment could be approaching.
Russia’s offensive operations in eastern Ukraine have yielded no significant strategic gains in weeks. And after Ukrainian forces lost control of most of the southern region of Kherson in the early weeks of the war, they have now liberated 44 towns and villages along the border areas, about 15 percent of the territory, the military governor said. of the region.
Moscow may be deliberately ramping up slowly, but Phillips O’Brien, a 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 greatly diminishing,” he said in a recent study. thread on Twitter.
One possible explanation for the decline is the impact of the recently deployed long-range weapons, and in particular the HIMARS truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers supplied by the United States. Ukraine has repeatedly claimed to have hit Russian ammunition depots behind the frontline since the deployment.
Ukrainian troops have destroyed 50 Russian ammunition depots using the new weapons, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Monday.
It was not possible to verify the veracity of the claim, but Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Major General Mark A. Milley told a news conference last week that the strikes are “constantly affecting the Russian ability to supply their troops.” affect. , command and control their troops.”
At the same time, Ukrainian moves in the south are forcing Russia to focus extra attention there and Moscow has stepped up the pace of long-range missiles aimed at disrupting Ukrainian attempts to launch a counter-offensive.
A recent report from the Royal United Services Institute, a research group based in London, argued that long-term frontline developments were less critical than the underlying strength of the rival war machines. Things like training, logistics and supplies will ultimately determine the outcome of the conflict. The Ukrainian army has been brutally beaten and its troops are also at risk of being exhausted.
“It is necessary to ensure that Ukraine’s war effort can be sustained,” the report said. The alternative is “a symmetrical stalemate that can only lead to a conflict of attrition, jeopardizing Ukraine’s depletion”.
What could be a big test for both armies seems fast approaching. Ukrainian forces are gathering troops around the Kherson region for a counter-offensive that could be the country’s most ambitious attempt to reclaim territory to date. For Moscow, the fight will be a test of his endurance.