WASHINGTON — In 36 days of fighting on Iwo Jima during World War II, nearly 7,000 Marines were killed. Now, 20 days after Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin invaded Ukraine, his military has already lost more soldiers, according to US intelligence estimates.
The conservative side of the estimate, with more than 7,000 Russian troops killed, exceeds the number of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined over 20 years.
It’s a staggering number amassed in just three weeks of combat, US officials say, impacting the combat effectiveness of Russian units, including soldiers in tank formations. Pentagon officials say a 10 percent casualty rate, including deaths and injuries, makes it impossible for a single unit to perform combat-related duties.
With more than 150,000 Russian troops now involved in the war in Ukraine, Russian casualties, including an estimated 14,000 to 21,000 wounded, are close to that level. And the Russian military has also lost at least three generals in the battle, according to Ukrainian, NATO and Russian officials.
Pentagon officials say a high and rising number of war dead could destroy the will to fight on. The result, they say, has surfaced in intelligence reports that senior officials in the Biden administration read every day: A recent report focused on low morale among Russian troops and described soldiers simply parking their vehicles and walking into the woods.
The US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters, warn that their numbers of Russian troops killed are inaccurate, compiled by analysis of the news media, Ukrainian figures (which are usually high, with the latest at 13,500), Russian figures ( which are usually low, the last being 498), satellite images and careful viewing of video footage of Russian tanks and troops under attack.
For example, US military and intelligence officials know how many troops are usually in a tank and can extrapolate from this the number of casualties when an armored vehicle is hit by, say, a Javelin anti-tank missile.
The high casualty rate largely explains why the much-touted Russian force has largely ground to a halt outside Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
“Losses like this affect morale and unity cohesion, especially because these soldiers don’t understand why they’re fighting,” said Evelyn Farkas, the Pentagon’s top official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration. “Your overall situational awareness is declining. Someone has to drive, someone has to shoot.”
But, she added, “that’s just the land forces.” With Russian ground forces in disarray, Mr Putin has increasingly looked to the sky to attack Ukrainian cities, residential buildings, hospitals and even schools. That aerial bombardment, officials say, helped camouflage the poor performance of the Russian military on the ground. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky this week said an estimated 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the war.
Signs of Russia’s challenges abound. Late last week, Russian news sources reported that Mr Putin had placed two of his top intelligence officials under house arrest. According to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian security expert, officials who run the Fifth Service of Russia’s main intelligence agency, the FSB, were questioned for providing poor intelligence before the invasion.
“They were responsible for providing political intelligence and cultivating support networks in Ukraine,” Mr Soldatov said in an interview. “They told Putin what he wanted to hear” about how the invasion would proceed.
The Russians themselves may only be hearing what Putin wants them to hear about his “operation” in Ukraine, which he refuses to call a war or an invasion. Since the beginning, he has exercised iron control over the news broadcasts in Russia; state media does not publish about most of the victims and has kept the destruction to a minimum.
But some Russians have access to virtual private networks (VPNs) and can get news from the West.
“I don’t believe he can keep Russians from the truth indefinitely,” William J. Burns, the CIA director, told the Senate on Thursday. “Especially when the reality started to pierce that bubble, the reality of the dead and injured coming home, and the increasing number, the reality of the economic impact on ordinary Russians, the reality of the horrific scenes of hospitals and schools that are next door in Ukraine are being bombed, and civilian casualties there too.”
News of the generals’ deaths trickles out, first from the Ukrainians, then confirmed by NATO officials, with one death acknowledged by Mr Putin in a speech. They have been identified as Major General Andrei Kolesnikov, a commander from Russia’s Eastern Military District; maj. Gene. Vitaly Gerasimov, First Deputy Commander of the 41st Combined Arms Army; and Maj. Gene. Andrei Sukhovetsky, deputy commander of the 41st Combined Arms Army.
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Western officials say about 20 Russian generals were in Ukraine as part of the war effort, and they may have pushed closer to the front to boost morale.
“Three generals already — that’s a shocking number,” Michael McFaul, the former United States ambassador to Russia, said in an interview.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian officials reported that a fourth general, Major General Oleg Mityaev, the commander of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division, had been killed in fighting.
Two US military officials said many Russian generals are talking through unsecured phones and radios. In at least one case, they said, the Ukrainians intercepted a general’s call, located it and attacked his site, killing him and his staff.
If the number of Russian military deaths continues to rise, the types of civilian organizations that drew attention to the number of troops killed and wounded during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could once again come to the fore.
But the Russian toll, some military specialists and lawmakers say, is unlikely to change Mr Putin’s strategy.
“It’s amazing, and the Russians haven’t even gotten to the worst of it yet, when they’re conducting urban battles in the cities,” Colorado Democrat Representative Jason Crow and a member of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said in an interview.
“I don’t think it will have an impact on Putin’s calculus,” said Mr. crow. “He is not willing to lose. He has been cornered and will continue to throw troops at the problem.”