Russia has suffered 100,000 casualties in the last five months in a “failed” offensive attempt to take swaths of eastern Ukraine. This is largely through the besieged city of Bakhmut, a White House National Security council spokesman has said. John Kirby on Monday night claimed the latest declassified information showed that at least 20,000 Russian soldiers, half of which were Wagner Group mercenaries, had died in just under half a year, while a further 80,000 had been severely wounded.
The new figures suggest that Russian losses have increased significantly in light of their attempted spring offensives, with a recognisable switch to defensive positions implying that Putin’s soldiers have now abandoned that drive to ready themselves for Ukrainian counter attacks.
Mr Kirby said Russia had been “unable to seize any really strategically significant territory” and had paid a high price for its assault on Bakhmut, through which the attack on Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts) had been made.
He said: “This attempted effort, particularly in Bakhmut, has come at a terribly, terribly high cost. Russia has exhausted its military stockpiles and its armed forces.”
The two sides are fighting for control of the last vital supply line west out of the city, dubbed the “road of life”, as the remaining Ukrainian forces try to hold back the Russian encirclement.
The assault, led by Wagner Group mercenaries and supported more recently by specialist VDV forces, has been ongoing for roughly 10 months. In the last few weeks, the Ukrainians have been pushed back more significantly towards the western parts of the city.
Nonetheless, Mr Kirby questioned the strategic value of Bakhmut to the Russian forces, suggesting its worth was more strategic.
He said nearly half those killed since December are Wagner forces, many of them convicts who were released from prison to join Russia’s fight.
He said the Wagner forces were “thrown into combat and without sufficient combat or combat training, combat leadership, or any sense of organisational command and control.”
He added that the Russian casualty count for “this little town of Bakhmut” was in line with some of the fiercest periods of fighting during World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front, and the Guadalcanal campaign, the first major Allied offensive against Japan.
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“It’s three times the number of killed in action that the United States faced on the Guadalcanal campaign in World War II and that was over the course of five months,” he said.
Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, the head of Ukrainian ground forces, said Russia continued to exert “maximum effort” to take Bakhmut but that it so far had failed.
“In some parts of the city, the enemy was counterattacked by our units and left some positions,” he said.
Kirby declined to say how many Ukrainian troops have been killed or wounded in the fighting. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in November that Ukrainian casualties were probably about 100,000. At the time, he said Russian casualties were well over 100,000.
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Leaked secret briefing documents estimated the Ukrainian toll in February had reached between 15,500 and 17,500 killed, and more than 100,000 injured.
After the first wave of Russian attacks last February, and their subsequent withdrawals from Kyiv Oblast in March and April, from northeastern Kharkiv Oblast in September and southern Kherson in November, Bakhmut became the centre of dispute.
Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to be using the city to prove the value of his own outfit while discrediting the Russian war generals overseeing the Armed Forces in Ukraine.
Outside of offering a position from which to advance on the Ukrainian cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, however, the costly attempts to take Bakhmut are difficult to justify.