In the first two weeks of Ukraine’s grueling counteroffensive, up to 20 percent of the weapons it sent to the battlefield were damaged or destroyed, according to US and European officials. The toll includes some of the formidable Western fighting machines (tanks and armored personnel carriers) that the Ukrainians were counting on to push back the Russians.
The staggering loss rate dropped to around 10 percent in the weeks that followed, the officials said, preserving more troops and machines needed for the big offensive push the Ukrainians say is yet to come.
Part of the improvement was due to Ukraine changing tactics, focusing more on wearing down Russian forces with artillery and long-range missiles rather than attacking minefields and firing at the enemy.
But that good news obscures some grim realities. Losses have also slowed because the counteroffensive itself has slowed, and even halted in some places, as Ukrainian soldiers battle Russia’s formidable defenses. And despite the losses, the Ukrainians have so far taken just five of the 60 miles they hope to cover to reach the sea in the south and split the Russian forces in two.
A Ukrainian soldier said in an interview this week that his unit’s drone collected footage of half a dozen Western armored vehicles caught in an artillery barrage south of the town of Velyka Novosilka.
“They all got burned,” said the soldier, who gave his name as Sgt. ígor “Everyone expects a breakthrough,” he said, adding a plea for those watching from afar to appreciate the importance of slow and steady progress.
Russia had many months to prepare for the counteroffensive, and the front is littered with mines, tank traps and entrenched troops, while Russian reconnaissance drones and attack helicopters fly over with increasing frequency.
Given those fortifications, experts say, it is not surprising that Ukraine suffered relatively heavy losses in the early stages of the campaign.
This week, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that there was a brief lull in operations a few weeks ago, but blamed a lack of equipment and ammunition and called on Western allies to speed up the pace of deliveries.
American officials acknowledged that pause, saying the Ukrainians had started moving again, but more deliberately, more adept at navigating minefields and mindful of the risks of casualties. With the influx of cluster munitions from the United States, they said, the pace could pick up.
“It’s not that fast, but it’s not catastrophically late,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on Wednesday. “He’s doing what anyone else would do by having to fight through minefields towards the Russian line.”
The problems focus on the agricultural fields of southern Ukraine, where much of the counter-offensive is being waged. There, Bradley fighting vehicles, long coveted by Ukrainians, have been running over anti-tank mines on a daily basis, say soldiers who have fought in the vehicles.
The vehicles, which weigh about 34 tons, are designed to transport infantrymen through areas exposed to gunfire or artillery. A rear ramp opens to allow soldiers to pile up and fight. In planning the counteroffensive, the Bradleys were intended to lead soldiers across open fields to reach Russian trenches and bunkers.
The Bradleys have done some of their work well; Their thick armor has provided good protection for most soldiers, who have survived many of the mine explosions with few injuries.
“Your ears are ringing and things inside are flying,” said one soldier, who asked to be identified only by name and rank, a private. Serhiy. He survived such an explosion last month in fighting south of the town of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region. But in many cases the explosions severely damaged the vehicles, immobilizing them long before they could reach the Russian lines.
Military experts have long said that the first 15 miles of a counteroffensive would be the most difficult, as attacking troops typically need three times as much power, either in weapons, personnel, or both, as defending forces.
Ukraine’s top military officer, General Valery Zaluzhny, has expressed frustration that Ukraine is fighting without Western F-16 fighter jets, which the United States recently agreed to allow Ukrainian pilots to train but are not expected to hand over. for several months. at least. That has left Ukrainian troops vulnerable to Russian helicopters and artillery.
Military analysts warned that it was still too early to draw any definitive conclusions about the counteroffensive. “It doesn’t mean it’s doomed,” said Camille Grand, a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former NATO deputy secretary general.
However, he added, the absence of air superiority and air defenses that Western aircraft could provide for attacking Ukraine means that “casualty rates are likely to be higher than in other conventional conflicts.”
The precise numbers of weapons and armored vehicles that have been destroyed in the counteroffensive, as opposed to “mobility deaths” that can be repaired, are closely guarded secrets, and US officials did not give gross numbers, though they did agree with them. the percentages. of lost weapons. But a combination of open source data and official estimates can provide a snapshot at the time of destruction, particularly early on.
The Ukrainian 47th Mechanized Brigade, one of three Western-trained and equipped units that deployed early in the campaign, was set to receive 99 Bradleys, according to leaked US military plans for the February counteroffensive, which remain unknown. the most recent ones that have been published. made public.
Oryx data, a military analysis site which counts only the losses it has confirmed visually, shows that 28 of those Bradleys have been abandoned, damaged or destroyed, including 15 in a village in Zaporizhzhia province on June 8-9 when the 47th came under helicopter attack while trapped. in a minefield An additional six Bradleys were reported to have been abandoned or destroyed at Mala Tokmachka on June 26, but Oryx researchers said these losses had occurred before, though exactly when is unclear.
Since the 47th was the only brigade initially scheduled to receive the Bradleys, that means almost a third of the original vehicles have been lost, although all but seven were blown up on a battlefield.
“It is well within the realm of the possibility that the Ukrainian forces have seen losses at this level,” said Dylan Lee Lehrke, an analyst at British security intelligence firm Janes, adding that a “significant” level of lost weapons was generally a hallmark of wars. of wear, such as Ukraine.
Oryx data shows that only 24 tanks were lost for the entire month of June, including some from Ukraine’s own arsenal in addition to those supplied by the Western Allies.
Ten of them were German-made Leopard tanks and minesweepers, the data shows. They were reportedly lost in battle with the Ukrainian 33rd Mechanized Brigade, one of three units deployed early in the counteroffensive, and which was scheduled to receive 32 Leopards in US planning documents beginning in February 28th.
That would mean the brigade lost 30 percent of the Leopards it received, all but two in the first week of combat, Oryx data shows.
Ukrainian authorities say the army has so far advanced further into the southern areas of the Donetsk region, but no more than five miles from the former front line at Velyka Novosilka. It faces another 55 miles to reach the Sea of Azov, a primary target of the counteroffensive as it would cut the land bridge to Crimea, wreaking havoc on Russia’s already shaky logistics. Ukrainian forces are also advancing in two areas in the Zaporizhzhia region.
It is even slower near Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region, where most of the Bradleys and Leopards have been sent to an area of open country with little protection. There, the Ukrainian army has advanced only about a mile.
justin check contributed reporting from London.