Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s east has brought it some battlefield success as its military has advanced slowly in fierce fighting in Donbas.
But those gains have come at a high price for the Russian invasion force, with evidence that high-level casualties are growing and that some units may be approaching exhaustion as the war moves past its 100-day mark.
As the conflict drags on, some fighters have gone public with appeals to Vladimir Putin for an investigation into battlefield conditions and whether their deployments to the front are even legal.
In two videos, fighters from Russian-controlled east Ukraine complained about poor conditions and long terms of duty at the front leading to exhaustion. “Our personnel have faced hunger and cold,” said fighters from the Russian-controlled 113th regiment from Donetsk in one video posted online. “For a significant period, we were without any material, medical or food support.”
The fighters added: “Given our continuous presence and the fact that amongst our personnel there are people with chronic medical issues, people with mental issues, many questions arise that are ignored by the higher-ups at headquarters.”
And in an interview, a Russian soldier who had fought near Kyiv, Kharkiv, and was now in eastern Ukraine, complained of exhaustion, saying he had even contacted a lawyer and complained that he had not seen his wife for months.
“I have been fighting in Ukraine since the start of the war, it has been over three months now,” Andrei, who serves with the 37th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade headquartered in Buryatia in Siberia, told the Guardian. “It is exhausting, my whole unit wants a break, but our leadership said they can’t replace us right now.”
His remarks are consistent with reports of Russian difficulties in rotating out its exhausted troops. Enlistment efforts have been hampered as Russia has not openly declared war against Ukraine. The Kremlin has continued to insist on calling it a “special military operation”.
“The Russian military is well suited to short, high-intensity campaigns defined by a heavy use of artillery,” wrote Michael Kofman and Rob Lee in a new analysis of Russia’s armed capabilities. “By contrast, it is poorly designed for a sustained occupation, or a grinding war of attrition, that would require a large share of Russia’s ground forces, which is exactly the conflict it has found itself in. The Russian military doesn’t have the numbers available to easily adjust or to rotate forces if a substantial amount of combat power gets tied down in a war.”
For the men on the ground, that has meant an exhausting tour of duty marked by bitter fighting against a battle-hardened enemy that is motivated to defend its homeland.
“The three months of fighting already feel longer than the four years I spent serving in the army during peacetime,” said Andrei. “I have already contacted a lawyer online who told me that by law the general can keep us here until our contract runs out so there isn’t much we can do.”
Those professional units may be some of Russia’s more fortunate, as others recruited from the Russian-controlled republics in Donetsk and Luhansk say they have been thrown into battle with little training at all. Videos have showed that some fighters have lacked basic kit such as protective vests and are armed with old rifles.
“Our mobilisation was done unlawfully, without medical certification,” said another soldier who claimed to be serving in Donetsk’s 107th regiment loyal to the Russian government. “Over 70% of those here were previously decommissioned because they physically can’t fight. Over 90% have never fought before and saw a Kalashnikov for the first time. We were thrown on to the frontlines.”
Russian state television has claimed that those soldiers should be ready to fight for their homeland, but locals have described empty streets and men in hiding to avoid a zealous recruiting campaign in Russian-controlled cities like Donetsk and Luhansk.
Meanwhile, casualties among Russian officers are mounting. A reporter for state-run Rossiya-1 said that Maj Gen Roman Kutuzov was killed while leading forces from the Russian-controlled east into battle. If confirmed, he would be at least the fourth Russian general to have been killed in combat since February, and Ukraine claims the number is higher.
“The general had led soldiers into attack, as if there are not enough colonels,” wrote Russian journalist Alexander Sladkov in a post on Telegram.
Western officials have said that Russia’s mid and junior ranking officers have also taken heavy casualties “because they are held to an uncompromising level of responsibility for their units’ performance”.
“Similarly, junior officers have had to lead the lowest level tactical actions, as the army lacks the cadre of highly trained and empowered noncommissioned officers who fulfil that role in western forces,” British intelligence claimed last week.
Russia has also used paid fighters to bolster its forces since the start of the war. It was estimated to have deployed between 10,000 and 20,000 mercenaries, including Wagner Group fighters, in its offensive in Donbas, a European official said in April.
Those units have also reported high-profile casualties.
Vladimir Andanov, a veteran Wagner soldier from Buryatia, was reported to have been killed in fighting in east Ukraine late last week. His death was confirmed by regional media and Russian military organisations.
He had previously fought in Syria and Donbas, where he had been accused of participation in extrajudicial killings.
Last month, two alleged Wagner Group fighters from Belarus were accused of murdering civilians near Kyiv, making them the first international mercenaries to face war crimes charges in Ukraine.