‘I look at my government differently’: losses in Ukraine test Russians’ faith

The satellite and drone imagery from above Bilohorivka tells a tale of folly and destruction. Dozens of Russian tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and trucks lay destroyed, some sinking into the waters of the Donets River by a broken pontoon bridge, pointing to the latest disaster in Russia’s three-month war in Ukraine.

The toll of Russia’s attempts to cross the river, part of its costly offensive in the east, are staggering: more than 485 killed and as many as 80 vehicles destroyed, according to one estimate, although no numbers of casualties have been confirmed.

As Russia continues to hide the scale of its losses in Ukraine, more and more information has leaked out, angering the families of Russian soldiers and discouraging even previous supporters of the invasion.

“I look at my government totally different since the war started,” said Tatyana Efremenko, 39, whose son Nikita Efremenko was a conscript on the Moskva missile cruiser when it was sunk in a Ukrainian missile strike one month ago. She is still searching for her son. “There are some very harsh things I would like to say about our leadership, but maybe best if I don’t because they would put me in prison for it.”

In Russian-controlled east Ukraine, wives of fighters have complained on camera that their husbands were left behind as Russian soldiers retreated across the border near Kharkiv. “They aren’t deserters, just those who managed to get away with their lives,” one woman yelled at a local official.

Kyiv has said that it has the remains of thousands of Russian soldiers, but Moscow won’t accept them because that would force it to admit the high death toll in the war.

As evidence of the Bilohorivka rout became clear over the last week, even some pro-Russian cheerleaders appeared to be losing faith in the wisdom of the country’s military leadership.

“Until we know the name of the ‘military genius’ who put a battalion tactical group by the river and he doesn’t answer for it publicly, then there will never be reforms in the army,” wrote Vladlen Tatarzky, the pseudonym used by a Russian blogger and former soldier who has more than 300,000 subscribers on Telegram. He has generally supported the war. “How can one not remember comrade Stalin here, who despite the difficult military situation was not afraid to take difficult personnel decisions? If this isn’t done, then no mobilisation will save us.”

Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program who documented some of that backlash to the war, noted that another popular blogger wrote that it was “idiocy or sabotage to make such a mistake three months into the war”.

And Igor Girkin, a Russian proxy field commander during the 2014 war who has been critical of the government during this conflict, appeared to feel vindicated: “I have already said several times what needs to be done in the current situation, when it has become clear that our forces are unable to deliver even a limited defeat to the enemy in ground combat and when we must prepare for a drawn-out, difficult, full-scale war.”

A month after the sinking of the Moskva, the Russian government has only confirmed the death of one crew member and said another 27 were missing.

But the families of crew members say that the death toll could be as high as 200, and many have not received any confirmation about what happened to their husbands, brothers, and sons.

“No one is telling me anything,” said Efremenko, whose son disappeared on the ship, in an interview. “They asked me to sign a document which says I accept that my son died and then they want to compensate me for his death. They have sent the same document to all the parents of all the other missing conscripts, too.”

Efremenko said that she was in a Telegram chat with more than 80 family members of those who were missing. Many have been told not to speak to the press or go public. “They are trying to buy my silence, but it won’t happen,” she said. “I will look for my son until the end.

“I promised the authorities that I wouldn’t talk publicly about my son, but already a month has passed and people are forgetting about Moskva. People are moving on, but we still have so many unanswered questions: why the hell were conscripts there? Why were they fighting? No one has been able to tell me this.”

On Monday, the Ukrainian government also released new data claiming that Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army lost a staggering 131 tanks in just the first three weeks of the war, one of the bloodiest periods of combat for the Russian army.

The data on personnel and vehicle losses for the unit “could be genuine”, said Michael Kofman, research programme director in the Russia studies programme at the CNA thinktank.

Russia last released casualty data in late March, admitting that 1,351 Russian soldiers had been killed and 3,825 wounded in the first month of the war. The government has not released any more information on casualties in the last month and a half, except to say that they were “significant”.

Western estimates have been 10 or even 20 times as high, with some suggesting that Russia has lost more than 30,000 soldiers since the beginning of the war.

Kofman wrote: “Numbers get thrown about with broad ranges, and it is hard to say what to make of these estimates, or guesstimates.”

As Ukrainian forces launch a counterattack that has reached the Russian border near Kharkiv, Russian soldiers are also being accused of abandoning their allies from the Donbas region of Ukraine.

Video reportedly shot in the Luhansk region showed women surrounding a local official and pleading for him to help their family members.

“They aren’t being allowed on to Russian territory,” said one woman. “They didn’t give in. They were completely destroyed.”

The descriptions matched some images of mobilised conscripts from the Russian-controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk who were pictured with light body armour and Mosin–Nagant rifles that are badly outdated on a modern battlefield.

“They’re facing tanks and all they had were pistols,” the woman said.

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