Ukrainian forces advance near the city of Kherson which was annexed by Moscow in October. Reports from the past few weeks suggest this will be the next key battleground and could indicate who will ultimately win the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin is hoping his military can avoid another setback in what has already been an embarrassing offensive campaign. Although estimates vary, Kremlin forces have lost tens of thousands of troops since the invasion began in February.
State media in Russia were, at first, determined to conceal this reality from the citizens of the country. But in recent months, broadcasters and print media have begun to express frustration at the lack of progress by Russian troops.
This was highlighted by BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg in September. He translated a number of newspaper articles and state television broadcasts that covered the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces were able to retake much of the territory previously occupied by the Russians.
In one example, a Putin loyalist said: “At the front line of the special operation [in Ukraine]it’s been the toughest week so far” – the words of Dmitry Kiselyov, who is one of the Kremlin’s most prominent propagandists.
He added: “It was particularly difficult along the Kharkiv front, where following an assault by enemy forces outnumbering ours, [Russian] troops were forced out of towns they had previously liberated.”
When the operation collapsed, Russia sent some of its wounded soldiers for treatment in Belarus, and Belarusian doctors treated these soldiers and were even forced to sign non-disclosure agreements so that no one hear what was going on, it was claimed.
Russia does not release figures on how many soldiers it lost in the war, but in August British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said British estimates put the figure at around 80,000 if the wounds and desertions were included.
He told BBC Radio 4: “I spoke to my intelligence chiefs this morning before I came, you know, Russia’s advance can be measured in meters per week, not miles.
“He’s working in small parts of the country to try and get ahead – completely opposite to the three-day special operation he touted at the start of this six months ago.
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“We pretty much accept, well, we accept, the kind of sightings of Russian casualties to be – if you combine the dead, the wounded, the desertions – over 80,000 of their armed forces. It’s 80,000 in six months against 15,000 they lost in a decade in Afghanistan. I think we are in a position where Russia is in a very fragile position.
Influential figures in Russia have also raised questions about the losses suffered. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said last week that his forces had suffered heavy casualties fighting alongside the Russian military in Ukraine.
He said: “Early this week, one of the Chechen units was shelled in the Kherson region. Twenty-three fighters died and 58 were injured.
In September, Kadyrov criticized the Russian military after the Kharkiv counteroffensive and said that if the situation did not improve, he would be forced to confront the Moscow Defense Ministry.
Kadyrov warned: “If today or tomorrow no change in strategy is made, I will be forced to speak with the leaders of the Ministry of Defense and the leaders of the country to explain to them the real situation on the ground. It’s a very interesting situation. It’s amazing, I would say.”