A declassified United States intelligence report released last week confirms what the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has been saying all along – Russian ground forces are taking a beating. Upwards to 315,000 soldiers are reported killed and injured – 87 percent of the personnel the Kremlin had when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” began.
The assessment goes on to say “2,200 of 3,500 tanks have been lost… 4,400 of 13,600 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers have also been destroyed, a 32 percent loss rate.”
Russian casualties in Ukraine over the past 22 months have significantly exceeded those sustained in Afghanistan over the 10 year period between 1979 and 1989, where 14,453 soldiers were killed and another 53,753 wounded.
The Ukrainian military has become quite efficient in killing and wounding Russians and destroying their equipment, thanks in part to the weapons, ammunition, training and intelligence provided by the US, NATO and European Union countries – Switchblade drones, Javelin anti-tank missiles, High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DPICM), Leopard tanks, Storm Shadow and SCALP cruise missiles, and more.
A large percentage of Russian casualties have taken place during heroic Ukrainian defensive stands in and around Bakhmut and Avdiivka in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region – repelling unrelenting ‘meat assaults’ that has left the surrounding terrain resembling post-World War I battlefields like the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele, and the Marne.
During one period of time between Dec. 7 and 9, Kyiv announced they had eliminated 3,010 Russian soldiers and destroyed 21 tanks in the Avdiivka sector. According to Frontelligence Insight, Russia lost “at least 211 vehicles and 13,000 soldiers killed and wounded, amounting to the “complete annihilation of five battalions,” in Avdiivka.
But it is not just the Donetsk region where Ukraine has decisively defeated Russian forces. The 104th Air Assault Division, supposedly an “elite” Russian formation, “suffered exceptionally heavy losses and failed to achieve its objectives during its combat debut,” near Krynky along the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine.
Killing more Russian soldiers is not enough to win the war. Putin will simply feed more bodies into the Ukrainian meat grinder. Mobilized Russian soldiers, conscripts, prisoners, mercenaries, foreign fighters – doesn’t matter, all a means to an end.
That now includes wounded soldiers as well – all expendable for his cause. The UK Ministry of Defence reports that “members of the Russian Storm Z units… are highly likely being returned to combat duties with unhealed wounds, and even after limb amputations.” In a separate report, at the end of November, the Russian Ministry of Defense allegedly authorized the mobilization of “invalid” regiments consisting of wounded soldiers to return “to the front to assault units without passing a military medical commission and qualified medical care.”
Nor will the weapons the US is providing from the Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA) be sufficient to remove Russian soldiers from the defensive positions they have fortified along the avenues of approach leading to the Sea of Azov and the Crimean Peninsula. While the Russian counteroffensive in Avdiivka may have been a tactical failure, it bought time, as did the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel on October 7th, for General Valery Gerasimov to dig in.
The momentum of the September breakthrough of the main defensive belt the Ukrainian military achieved in their counteroffensive near Robotyne, as DIA Director of Analysis Trent Maul described, was lost. The heretofore vulnerable Russian “second defensive belt” has become the main defensive belt – trench lines and fighting positions have been hardened, minefields re-seeded – and “the bulk of Russian forces remaining at the third line” now occupy the positions.
Neither will the air defense systems – Patriot, Avenger, NASAMS, Hawk – being deployed to Ukraine win the war. Essential? Absolutely. But shooting individual missiles out of the sky over Ukraine does not prevent the missile launcher from firing more missiles the next day, or the next. That requires destroying the weapon system at its point of origin – Russia, Crimea, the Black Sea, or even Belarus.
Ukraine still has the will to fight
Ukraine has lost momentum, but not their will. It is going to require yet another cold start against a firmly entrenched enemy. Quite literally as winter settles in, but figuratively as well, as the Ukraine military reconstitutes its combat power – in soldiers, equipment, and ammunition.
Equally as important, it will take a firm US commitment to win, and that will require something the Biden Administration has lacked – political will. The outcome of the war in Ukraine must be based on a matter of national security rather than the political talking point it has become in Washington.
Solely blaming Republicans for not passing the “$106 billion package of emergency aid for Israel and Ukraine, as well as funds for the southern US border” ignores the fact that after 22 months of sustained combat operations and $44.2 billion in military assistance, there is no end in sight, nor a plan, just more promises to fund a war “for as long as we can.” Another “not my fault” approach as the 2024 presidential election cycle approaches.
The Biden Administration achieved their initial goal to defend Ukraine and “weaken Russia,” but has failed to equip Ukraine with the tools they need to win. US strategy remains stuck on defense and never fully transitioned with Ukraine into the counteroffensive phase; rather, it provided just enough for Ukraine to survive. It has done little to stem the flow of Russian soldiers into Ukraine or prevent ballistic missiles and drones from raining down on Ukrainian population centers and critical infrastructure. It has simply prolonged the killing and created “Ukraine fatigue.”
The President has drawn the US and Ukraine into another “forever war,” only this time, for now, the cost is measured in dollars and not American lives.
That is exactly the scenario Putin and his generals in the Kremlin envisioned – diminishing resolve in the West and political infighting in Washington, Brussels, and Kyiv. By every measurable metric, Ukraine is winning the war, yet the West is seemingly teetering on the edge of giving in due to the power of Russian disinformation and propaganda – the only arrows Putin still has left in his quiver.
Washington must do better, and that begins with stepping up and leading the effort. In a single word – win. Then commit and deliver.
As Gen. George S. Patton told his Third Army prior to the allied invasion of France in 1944, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time.” It is time we live up to that standard – especially as Ukraine already has.
Ukraine needs a win – the Ukrainian people deserve their Yorktown moment, and the US needs to set the conditions much the same way French Comte de Rochambeau and Comte de Grasse did in October 1781.
That begins with weapon systems, engineering equipment, ammunition, and intelligence, then lifting restrictions on what and where Ukraine can target. Sanctuary in Russia can no longer be afforded – Kyiv must be able to strike troops, equipment, weapon systems, ammunition storage areas, fuel points, headquarters, rail heads, ports, airfields, bridges, etc., wherever Russian forces can project combat power. Interdiction – disrupt and defeat Russia’s ability to sustain combat operations in Ukraine; enable the close fight to win. That requires precision deep strike capability – extended range ATACMS and fighter jets.
Ukraine must be able to win the close fight – in the trenches, through the obstacles and minefields – and they must neutralize Russia’s indirect fire capability. Russia’s strength is mass in infantry and artillery; they need a static target. Maneuver and speed are therefore essential for Ukraine. They need engineering equipment, DPICM, artillery, tanks and close air support in vast quantities to shape the battlefield, then exploit any breakthrough.
But Kyiv also needs the other elements of the multi-domain operation they successfully employed prior to Oct. 9. The deep fight – striking Russia’s ability to wage war from deep within their interior. The Black Sea fleet in port, the airfields from where MiG-31K interceptors and Tu-22M3s bombers are launched with their Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile payloads, the Russian military industrial complex, headquarters, etc.
They should also heed the advice of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who told Ukrainian special operations troops during a trip to Germany: “There should be no Russian who goes to sleep without wondering if they’re going to get their throat slit in the middle of the night. You gotta get back there and create a campaign behind the lines.” And they need to leverage anti-Putin forces along the borders like they did in Belgorod in May – create chaos.
Ukraine must take the fight to Russia and keep them off balance. Dictate conditions on the battlefield and make them respond, reposition their forces, and expose them to direct and indirect fires and close air support. Relentless pressure – drive them out of the country. Russian ground forces are near their breaking point – they need to find that one piece in the Jenga tower – and remove it.
In the words of retired Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges: “The President and Allied leaders need to make absolutely clear that our strategic objective is for Ukraine to win this war, that it’s in our best interest that Ukraine wins, and so we will provide all they need to win.”
Ukraine will need time to put all the pieces together. The President needs to listen to his military advisors and build a united front – domestically and internationally, to leverage all available assets to the singular focus of winning. But this united front needs to listen to Ukraine as well – the ones in the fight, and not dictate conditions; rather, support the fight. This is bigger than Ukraine – the security of Eastern Europe is on the line.
Copyright 2023. Jonathan E. Sweet and Mark C. Toth. All rights reserved.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer and led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014.
Mark Toth, an economist and entrepreneur, is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis.
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