Russia suffers worst month for casualties in Ukraine war with 10,000 dead

Territorial gains have come at a high cost for Putin's army

A Russian tank fires in an undisclosed location in Ukraine. Western officials say 10,000 Russian soldiers died in February. AP
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Russia’s recent gains in Ukraine have come at the greatest cost so far in more than two years of war, western officials have claimed.

Despite losing territory, Ukrainian forces killed 10,000 Russian soldiers in February, making it the worst month for Russian casualties.

Kyiv has also managed to strike back at Russia with a wave of drones causing severe damage to its oil refineries and Black Sea warships.

But dwindling supplies of ammunition from western powers have left Ukraine vulnerable to the possibility that Russia could stage a dramatic breakthrough in the coming months, officials suggested.

Ukraine said on Friday that Russian forces had pounded the Black Sea port city of Odesa with missiles, killing more than a dozen people including a paramedic and a rescue worker.

Seeking a victory ahead of today’s elections, President Vladimir Putin is understood to have ordered his generals to take the city of Avdiivka in the Donbas area without regard to the human cost.

Waves of infantry attacked the heavily defended Ukrainian city, with exceptionally high casualties, until it fell on February 17.

Russia then mounted follow-up assaults to exploit the capture with a major breakthrough, but this now appears to have stalled.

Western officials have stated that Russia suffered 983 casualties a day, leading to 10,000 dead, from the 600 attacks taking place each week in February on average.

“This is the highest it has been since the start of the war,” a western official told a media briefing. “It’s continuing this trend of very attritional, mass, heavy Russian warfare.”

Since the invasion in February 2022, Russian has lost more than 88,000 dead and Ukraine 31,000.

But Russia was still managing a rate of recruitment to match the huge casualties they are suffering in “World War One style assaults”, he added.

Following Mr Putin’s inevitable re-election this weekend, it is thought that he could well introduce a new draft that will mobilise hundreds of thousands of Russian men, ready for an offensive in May or the summer.

But with Russia now producing about 250,000 artillery rounds a month, its stockpile exceeds Ukraine’s by more than two to one.

Kyiv’s defensive plans have been thrown into disarray by Republicans in the US Congress blocking a $64 billion military aid package to Ukraine for party political reasons.

The ammunition shortage is now having a real impact with the Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urging the alliance to step up its support.

“The Ukrainians are not running out of courage, they are running out of ammunition,” he said on Thursday. “Every day of delay has real consequences on the battlefield in Ukraine.”

EU steps up

The European Union on Friday announced hundreds of millions of euros to boost the production of explosives as it pushes capability to churn out 2 million artillery shells a year by late 2025.

The 27-nation bloc is scrambling to bolster Europe's defence industry as it looks to support Ukraine and build up its stocks in the face of Russia's invasion of its neighbour.

But there are fears the EU is lagging behind as Moscow has ramped up its own output of weaponry by putting its economy on a war footing.

As part of the efforts to get Europe to produce more, Brussels pushed through a €500 million programme earlier this year aimed at ramping up its capacity to make ammunition.

The EU's executive arm released the list of firms the money would go to on Friday, with an official saying three-quarters of the funds were for projects making gunpowder and other explosives.

“The programme will support projects increasing the annual production capacity by more than 10,000 tons of powder, and by more than 4,300 tons of explosives,” Brussels said.

“Europe is expected to reach an annual ammunition shell production capacity of 2 million by the end of 2025.”

Officials have pointed to a shortage of explosives as one of the key factors hampering artillery shell production in Europe.

The latest funds are part of a raft of initiatives aimed at increasing Europe's defence industry and come as EU leaders are set to focus on the issue at a summit next week.

Defend deep

Following the Avdiivka breakthrough the Ukrainians have been accelerating the construction of defensive positions, laying minefields and anti-tank Dragon's Teeth and digging trenches.

While the defences will slow the Russian advance, the coming weeks “will be really challenging for Ukraine ground forces as Russia tries to regenerate forces and keep pushing ahead”, an official said.

The “immediate priority” was for America to provide Ukraine with “equipment that it needs to stabilise that line”, he added.

“They can keep going, we are not predicting an [Russian] operational breakthrough but certainly there’s pressure and certainly jeopardy.”

While the White House has recently given $300 million in emergency military aid “it’s not a substitute for the requirement”, the officials said.

“There is significant pressure in the land and the Ukrainians are facing a relative shortage of ammunition, including air defence,” an official said. “The Russian advantage is notable.”

The Institute for the Study of War think tank argued that Russia’s ability to advance was dependent on the level of western ammunition supplies with further delays increasing the risk of “operationally significant Russian gains”.

It stated that the ammunition shortages had made the Ukrainian frontline “more fragile” but “well-provisioned Ukrainian forces” had proven that they could prevent Russian forces from making even marginal gains

Ukraine successes

While Kyiv has suffered reverses on the eastern Ukraine front, it has still pressed ahead with attacks into Russia and on Moscow’s dwindling Black Sea fleet.

Last week it sank yet another Russian warship when its high-tech sea drone destroyed the Sergey Kotov large patrol vessel valued at $65 million. Roughly a third of the once-feared Black Sea fleet has now been destroyed.

Clever use of air defence missiles has seen it ground Russia’s A-50 “Mainstay” airborne radar early warning and control planes by destroying two in the air and damaging one at an airfield with drones.

The crew losses of around 30 highly specialist airmen had also hampered the surveillance effort, forcing fighter jets closer to the front line.

A pro-Ukraine force of native Russians also made an armed incursion into the Belgorod region that has shaken Moscow’s internal security apparatus.

Kamikaze drone assaults on oil refineries have also unnerved the Kremlin. “On March 1 the Russians introduced a six-month ban on gasoline exports, which we think is connected to this and potentially is aimed at stabilising a domestic crisis,” the western official said.

Updated: March 15, 2024, 4:28 PM