Punishing battlefield losses alone will not be enough to break the Russian will to fight in Ukraine, according to a former American lieutenant-general. Kyiv’s troops are pressing in the opening stages of long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south and east of the country.
Lieutenant-General (retired) Ben Hodges—the former commanding general, U.S. Army Europe—told Newsweek that, while Russian forces are inferior in quality and motivation to their Ukrainian enemies, Moscow’s commanders are willing to sustain casualty rates that would shock Western nations.
Ukrainian soldiers carry the corpse of a Russian soldier through trees in Balakliya, Ukraine, on 17 December, 2022. Russia’s forces are thought to have suffered severe casualties through 16 months of combat in Ukraine.
Diego Fedele/Getty Images
“What they do well is they feed bodies into the fight,” Hodges said of Russian leaders in an interview about Kyiv’s counteroffensive, which began earlier this month after several months of intense preparation. “They’re losing the equivalent of a battalion every day; almost 1,000 soldiers killed. And you can imagine what the wounded must be like.
“It’s almost like they don’t care,” Hodges added. “They’ll keep feeding untrained people into this fight.”
Neither Kyiv nor Moscow releases accurate casualty figures. Ukraine’s most-recent update was in December 2022, when a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky said between 10,000 and 13,000 Kyiv troops had been killed in action since February 2022. Ukraine says it has “eliminated” almost 223,000 Russian troops.
Russia has admitted only around 6,000 troops killed, the last update given by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in September 2022. Shoigu also said more than 61,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed, lower than the figure of 83,000 given by one of his top defense officials.
Outside estimates paint a painful picture for both sides, though suggest higher Russian casualties. Pentagon documents leaked in the spring assessed that Russia has suffered 189,500 to 223,000 total casualties, including 35,500 to 43,000 killed in action and 154,000 to 180,000 wounded.
Ukraine, meanwhile, was thought to have suffered 124,500 to 131,000 total casualties, including 15,500 to 17,500 killed in action and 109,000 to 113,500 wounded in action.
Such numbers only tell part of a complex story. Ukraine survived and reversed Moscow’s early gains last spring, forcing the Kremlin into successive humiliating retreats in different sectors of the front line. Russia’s grueling winter offensive achieved little, though it remains unclear whether Ukraine’s spring-summer offensive will fare better.
Hodges said his “optimism” that Ukraine will eventually succeed is based on past battlefield performance. “I think that what’s going to matter here is who makes the adjustments the quickest,” he added.
“My sense is that Ukraine will continue doing what they’ve been doing, which is to rapidly adjust to the situation to learn from it. And that’s what this whole first phase of the offensive is about,” Hodges said.
Foreign observers largely overestimated Russia’s armed forces before President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion last year. Many expected a quick and decisive Russian victory. Ukrainian military skill and resolve, though, has revealed the systemic corruption, ineptitude, and brutality of Russia’s armed forces.
Still, Moscow’s troops retain control over some 20 percent of Ukraine, and have spent months building fortified defensive networks to halt Kyiv’s counter. Ukrainian troops are still sustaining heavy losses, while long-range missile and drone attacks on Ukraine’s population centers are still a constant threat.
But Hodges said the Russian armed forces have few options left, even if they still pack a conventional punch.
“The Russians have more aircraft,” he added. “But even given the huge numerical superiority that they have, they have failed to achieve air superiority. They have not destroyed a single convoy or train coming in from Poland to Ukraine bringing equipment and ammunition.
“How about the Black Sea Fleet? All they can do is launch missiles against apartment buildings. They’re no help otherwise,” Hodges said.
An inscription reading “For Ukraine” is pictured on the barrel of a destroyed Russian tank, exhibited in Saint Michael’s Square on May 5, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Russia has suffered high personnel and equipment losses in Ukraine, but its troops still occupy around 20 percent of the country.
Valentyna Polishchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images
“I think the Russians are hoping to be able to just absorb these Ukrainian attacks. Because the Russians don’t care about units getting cut off or destroyed,” he added.
Russia’s suspected demolition of the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine earlier this month, Hodges said, speaks to the desperation of the military command. The subsequent flooding has devastated the lower portions of the Dnieper River—called the Dnipro in Ukrainian—region, making any prospective Ukrainian amphibious attack across the waterway more difficult.
“I think that they blew the dam too fast. They panicked,” Hodges said, adding that the decision might ultimately backfire. “The floodwaters have already subsided. That ground is going to dry out pretty quickly, and the Dnipro is going to be much less of an obstacle than it was before. I think there’s a lot that’s going to be happening over the next few weeks.”
A slow start to Ukrainian offensive operations—acknowledged this week by President Volodymyr Zelensky—should not induce panic in the West, Hodges said.
“The Ukrainians have demonstrated an agility and a cleverness, and I think people who are already saying, ‘What’s happened? Why are they stuttering? Why are they failing?’ are absolutely clueless,” Hodges added.
Newsweek has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry by email to request comment.
Source : Newsweek