A Rare Look At Ukraine's Casualties — And The New Drive To Replenish Its Ranks
For a long time, Kyiv didn’t have to resort to mass conscription, because so many people were enlisting. But as the war drags on, and casualties continue, Ukrainian recruitment becomes an urgent necessity. From the capital to the frontline of Bakhmut, Die Welt traces the current state of Kyiv's fighting power.
KYIV — Since the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian secret service (the SBU) has been hunting down Vladimir Putin’s spies across the country. In early March, it also targeted traitors in its own ranks. Cyber specialists shut down 26 telegram channels that were sharing tips on how men fit for military service could avoid being called up.
In the groups, users warned each other about the army’s plans and published the locations of recruitment posts to avoid. Those responsible for running the channels were arrested by special forces and may face up to 10 years in prison.
The raids are a warning to all those hoping to sit out the war against Putin’s troops. They show that the Ukrainian government is starting to crack down when it comes to mobilization, with the situation on the battlefield at a turning point.
Over the past few months, Russia’s attacks in the east have led to significant Ukrainian losses. In the fiercely contested region of Bakhmut, reports are emerging that some companies have lost more than 80% of their soldiers. In order to plug these gaps, Ukraine needs to send more fresh reserves to the front. At the same time, the military is putting together special brigades to carry out planned counter-offensives in the spring.
80% loss of soldiers
Unlike Russia, for a long time, Ukraine did not have to resort to mass conscription. In the first few weeks after the invasion, tens of thousands of men and women rushed to sign up and defend their country. There were so many volunteers that the army prioritized soldiers with previous experience and was forced to turn away many others due to its limited capacity to train new recruits.
Russia uses mobilization to make up for their lack of modern military equipment.
But now the situation has changed. Those men who have so far been spared conscription and have no desire to go to the front are getting worried. Because since the start of the year, many Ukrainians, from hairdressers to business people, have received their call-up papers.
That includes relatives of people with whom Die Welt is working in Ukraine.
People paying their respect around the coffin of the Ukrainian soldier Dmytro Kotsiubailo during his funeral ceremony on Independence Square in the center of Kyiv.
According to Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak, the Ukrainian approach to mobilization is still very different from Putin’s. “Russia is relying on sheer numbers of soldiers, because they are using mobilization to make up for their lack of modern military equipment,” he said in an interview with Die Welt.
In contrast, the Ukrainian mobilization effort is coming in a series of waves, and is concentrated on defending territory. The Ukrainians are relying on specialized training rather than sheer numbers. “We have a clear idea of how many people we need to man existing units,” says Podolyak.
At the start of the year, the EU doubled the capacity of its training program. In total, 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers will be trained in European countries. This training is already underway in Germany, where February saw the first Ukrainians being trained in how to operate Leopard 2 battle tanks in Lower Saxony.
Last September, Russia officially announced a long-expected partial mobilization. The majority of the estimated 300,000 newly conscripted soldiers are believed to have already been sent to the battlefield. “At the moment, we can assume that Russia has around 400,000 active soldiers,” says Markus Reisner, commander of the Gardebataillon in the Austrian army. That is around twice as many as it had at the start of the invasion in late February 2022.
The American think tank Institute for the Study of War believes that Russia’s offensive capabilities are limited: “If 300,000 Russian soldiers have been unable to give Russia a decisive offensive edge in Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that the commitment of additional forces in future mobilization waves will produce a dramatically different outcome this year,” it concluded in a recent report.
Losses in Bakhmut
Experts are divided in their estimates of the current size of the Ukrainian army. Reisner estimates that the mobilization waves have swelled the numbers to around 500,000 soldiers, but only some of those will be deployed on the frontline.
What is undeniable is that since the start of the war, both sides have lost a lot of well-trained soldiers. Late last year, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley stated that more than 100,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded, adding: “Same thing probably on the Ukrainian side.”
Over the last few weeks, Ukraine has suffered significant losses on the frontline in the east. In the defense of Bakhmut, where Russian troops are slowly advancing through assaults and firepower, some days saw the deaths of many hundreds of soldiers.
One company in the 125th brigade was decimated shortly after arriving in the city in January. “We lost 84 out of 100 soldiers in the first battle,” says Michael, one of the surviving fighters, in an interview with Die Welt in Bakhmut. By “lost,” he means killed or wounded. Commanders from the 93rd brigade and other units have also reported significant losses in Bakhmut.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits wounded soldiers to present medals during a visit to a military hospital in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 22 2023.
Staring at the floor
When soldiers are wounded at the front in the east, they often end up on board a mobile hospital. The volunteer Hospitallers battalion’s converted school bus can accommodate 15 wounded soldiers, with six lying down. That is significantly more than a normal ambulance. Doctors fight to save their patients while they’re being evacuated to hospitals.
The bus has been christened “Awstrijka” (“the Austrian”), in honor of the surgeon Natalia Frauscher, who lost her life in summer 2022 while working in Ukraine.
Back in late February, paramedic Maria Danchyna is rushing down the bus’s narrow corridor one evening. She leans over one of the beds, where a solider lies wrapped in a gold foil blanket. His eyes are closed. The only sound is the beeping of the monitor next to him. “Gunshot wound,” Danchyna explains as she administers an injection. The soldier has already received first aid and is out of immediate danger.
Danchyna, 24, was studying in Austria when Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine — and she decided to return to her homeland to help. For months now she has been treating the wounded on board the “Awstrijka,” which is often called three times a day. “The current situation on the frontline is very tense,” she explains. “In some areas we have suffered very heavy losses.”
Danchyna says that she and her colleagues are also having to act as psychologists. Many soldiers want to talk about how they were injured, while others need to talk about their family or people they miss.
Earlier this year, they had a young man on board who was almost starving. He’d had to hide for five days at the front and hadn’t eaten anything during that time. When they gave him a few cookies and some water in the bus, he broke down in tears. “He told us that he had dreamed about food,” Danchyna recalls.
"When the wound is healed, I will go back to my boys on the front."
One of the soldiers in the bus tonight is 26-year-old Dimitrij. His bandaged comrades sit on the narrow bench beside him, but they don’t say a word to each other during the journey. They just stare blankly at the floor.
Only Dimitrij is prepared to talk about what happened. “The Russian enemies attacked our position near Lyman. They tried to overrun us and surround us,” he says, speaking so quietly that it is hard to make out his words.
He suffered a gunshot wound to his hand. “The bullet went right through,” he says.
Dimitrij thinks the injury isn’t too serious. He is resolute: “When the wound is healed, I will go back to my boys on the front.” He'll only stop fighting, he says, when every single Russian has been chased back out of his country.
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