London/Mukachevo, Ukraine: The war in Ukraine is proving extraordinarily lethal for Russian generals, the grey men bedecked in service medals, who are being aggressively targeted by Ukrainian forces and killed at a rate not seen since World War II.
Ukrainian officials say their forces have killed seven generals on the battlefield, felled by snipers, close combat and bombings.
Russian general, Lt Gen Yakov Rezantsev, who was reportedly killed in a strike in southern Ukraine.
If true, the deaths of so many generals, alongside more senior Russian army and naval commanders – in just four weeks of combat – exceeds the attrition rate seen in the worst months of fighting in the bloody nine-year war fought by Russia in Chechnya, as well as Russian and Soviet-era campaigns in Afghanistan, Georgia and Syria.
The latest, Lt Gen Yakov Rezanstev, was killed on Friday (Ukraine time) in a strike near the southern city Kherson, according to Ukraine’s defence ministry.
“It is highly unusual,” said a senior Western official, briefing reporters on the topic, who confirmed the names, ranks and “killed in action” status of the seven.
In all, at least 15 senior Russian commanders have been killed in the field, said Markiyan Lubkivsky, a spokesperson for the Ukraine Ministry of Defence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, left.Credit:AP
NATO officials estimated earlier this week that as many as 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in four weeks of war, a very high number. Russia has offered a far lower figure, reporting Friday that only 1351 of its fighters had died.
The Russian government has not confirmed the deaths of its generals.
If the numbers of senior commanders killed proves accurate, the Russian generals have been either extremely unlucky or successfully targeted – or both.
Shooting generals is a legitimate tactic of war – and it has been openly embraced by Ukrainian officials, who say their forces have been focused on slowing Russian advances by concentrating fire on Russian command-and-control units near the front lines.
Jeffrey Edmonds, former director for Russia on the National Security Council and now a senior analyst at the CNA think tank in Washington, said Ukrainian forces appear to be targeting “anyone with grey hair standing near a bunch of antennas,” a signal they may be senior officers.
Some experts suggest the Russian military has struggled to keep its communications secure and that Ukraine intelligence units have found their targets through Russian carelessness, with Russian forces reduced to using unencrypted devices. There have been reports of Russian soldiers using mobile phones.
Pentagon and other Western officials say that Russian generals generally serve closer to the front lines than their NATO counterparts. By design, the Russian army is top heavy with senior officers, which makes them numerous, though not expendable.
Military analysts and Western intelligence officials say the Russian generals in Ukraine may be more exposed and serving closer to the front because their side is struggling – and that senior officers are deployed closer to the action to cut through the chaos.
Troops carry the coffin with the body of Capt. Andrei Paliy, a deputy commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, during a farewell ceremony in Sevastopol, Crimea, on March 23.Credit:AP
One Western official suggested that Russian generals were also needed to push “frightened” Russian troops, including raw conscripts, forward. Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Defence Ministry to withdraw conscripts from combat, having publicly pledged that they would not be deployed.
Pentagon, NATO and Western officials say the Russian army in Ukraine is struggling with poor morale.
Russian soldiers attacked and injured their commanding officer after their brigade suffered heavy losses in the fighting outside the capital, Kyiv, according to a Western official and a Ukrainian journalist.
Troops with the 37th Motor Rifle Brigade ran a tank into Col. Yuri Medvedev, injuring both his legs, after their unit lost almost half its men, according to a Facebook post by Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbaliuk. The post said the colonel had been hospitalised.
A senior Western official said he believed Medvedev had been killed, “as a consequence of the scale of the losses taken by his own brigade”.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a military adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told The Washington Post the Ukraine army has focused its efforts on “slowing the pace” of the Russian invasion, in part by “beheading” forward command posts, meaning killing, not literally beheading.
Killing senior officers can slow down the Russian advances by “three or four or five days” before new command structures can be put in place, Arestovych said.
He attributed successful targeting to both “excellent intelligence” and numerous Russian vulnerabilities.
Arestovych claimed that in addition to slowing Russian momentum, killing their generals undermines Russian morale, while bolstering Ukrainian resolve.
“The death of such commanders quickly becomes public knowledge and it is very difficult to hide,” he said. “Unlike the death of an ordinary soldier, it makes an outsized impression.”
Ukrainian officials and Western officials have named seven Russian generals killed in action: Rezanstev, Magomed Tushayev, Andrei Sukhovetsky, Vitaly Gerasimov, Andrey Kolesnikov, Oleg Mityaev and Andrei Mordvichev.
Russian officials and Russian media have confirmed the death of only one general.
Sukhovetsky, a deputy commander of Russia’s 41st army, was killed by a sniper at the beginning of the war, Ukrainian officials said. At his burial in Novorossiysk, a port city on the Black Sea, a deputy mayor said Sukhovetsky “died heroically during a combat mission during a special operation in Ukraine.”
Christo Grosev, director of open-source investigative group Bellingcat, said he confirmed the death of Gerasimov, which was first announced by Ukrainian intelligence. The Bellingcat investigator also reported on a March 7 phone call from a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer, reporting the death to his superior, a call captured by Ukrainian intelligence and shared with reporters.
One of the first commanders that Ukraine claimed to have killed, in late February, was Tushayev, a right-hand man to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Kadyrov denied the claim on his Telegram channel and Chechen Information Minister Akhmed Dudayev posted an audio message purportedly from Tushayev, which he said proved he was alive.
The deaths of senior officers are celebrated on Ukrainian social media – but kept out of Russian news.
Killing Russian generals “feels consequential to Ukraine,” especially in “the David versus Goliath narrative they are living through,” said Margarita Konaev, an expert on Russian military innovation at Georgetown University’s Centre for Security and Emerging Technology.
She said the nature of the fighting — at close quarters in urban environments — will likely add to the body count on both sides, for civilians, ordinary soldiers and commanders.
The urban dimension is especially deadly, she said.
Mason Clark, a senior analyst and expert on the Russian military at the Institute for the Study of War, said Ukrainian reports suggest that radio communications across the Russian forces are vulnerable to interception and location.
Before the war with Russia began, Clark said Ukraine forces learned how to use communications to “target and pinpoint” the sources of artillery fire in the separatist enclaves in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
“They’ve used this training at scale,” Clark said.
Ruth Deyermond, an expert in post-Soviet security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said it was unknown how the loss of senior officers in Ukraine might shape thinking in the Kremlin.
As Putin’s circle has shrunk, and decision-making become more opaque, she said, “you don’t even know what Putin is being told about the losses” by his own military.
The reported high attrition rate for Russian commanders in Ukraine underscores the problem of invading the country on a false set of assumptions, expecting to swiftly topple Ukraine’s government and install a puppet regime to bring it back into Moscow’s orbit. A military operation forecast by Russia to take a few days has entered its second month.
Russia is highly sensitive about military casualties, in particular involving senior officers.
Calling the invasion a “special military operation” to liberate Ukraine from “neo-Nazis,” Russian authorities have banned journalists from using the term “war” and have criminalised criticism of the military or the release of any information that could damage its standing.
After Russia’s initial failures, Putin has simply doubled down on the war effort, with the Kremlin dampening hopes of an off-ramp through peace talks. Russian authorities appear to be preparing for a long, bloody campaign, drumming up domestic unity through a propaganda blitz, as the military intensifies its pressure on Ukraine.
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