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Ukraine holds out against Russia, but its losses grow as ammo runs low

There are signs that Ukraine's defenses are badly weakened and Kyiv is pleading for more help from the West in its fight against Russia's invasion. For now, Ukraine says it is holding the line against the attackers.

(CN) — After more than three months of gruesome fighting, Ukrainian leaders say they are holding out against Russian attacks but are suffering increasing troop losses and running low on ammunition. 

As the war drags on, Russia provoked more outrage in the West after three mercenaries fighting for Ukraine – two Britons and a Moroccan – were sentenced to death by firing squad on Thursday by authorities in the pro-Russian self-declared Donetsk republic in eastern Ukraine.  

“The judgment against them is an egregious breach of the Geneva convention,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.  

Also, new statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin seeming to compare his decision to invade Ukraine to Peter the Great’s campaigns in the 18th century to conquer parts of northern Russia are drawing fierce rebuke from critics who accuse Putin of seeking to restore the Russian and Soviet empires. 

On the battlefield, meanwhile, there is growing evidence that Ukraine’s army is exhausted and struggling to hold onto territories in the east and south of the country where its forces are desperately fighting back against the Russian onslaught. 

As of Friday, Ukrainian leaders vowed that Russia was not making much progress and even being pushed back in places. 

“We are exhausting the enemy,” Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine’s governor of Luhansk, said on social media. “We hold on!” 

But Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said between 100 and 200 soldiers are being killed each day. A week ago, Zelenskyy put the number of losses between 60 and 100 soldiers a day with as many as 500 troops wounded each day.  

Ukrainian military chiefs are warning that they are running out of ammunition and relying on supplies from the West. 

“This is an artillery war now,” said Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told the Guardian. “And we are losing in terms of artillery.” 

“Everything now depends on what [the West] gives us,” Skibitsky said. “Ukraine has one artillery piece to 10 to 15 Russian artillery pieces. Our Western partners have given us about 10% of what they have.” 

Ukraine is desperate for the United States and its allies to ramp up arms shipments. U.S. President Joe Biden recently announced four medium-range rocket launchers will be sent to Ukraine, but Kyiv wants the West to send far more advanced weapons to hit back at Russia. 

There are increasing reports from journalists on the front lines and videos made by Ukrainian troops that paint a very difficult picture for Ukrainian forces. 

Neil Hauer, a Canadian freelance journalist, spoke to Ukrainians on the front lines in Donbas who said they felt like cannon fodder inadequately equipped with rifles to fight against Russian tanks and artillery.  

“The front just comes closer and closer,” Nikita, a 35-year-old soldier, told the journalist, as reported in a piece for CBC, the Canadian state broadcaster. “We keep getting pushed back, further and further.” 

Nikita, who was not authorized to give his surname, was critical of Ukraine’s leadership.

“You have to understand that there are two castes in this country,” he said. “There's the upper caste, and then there's us: the lower caste. We are just pawns. Nothing more. The upper caste gets the money, and we get the command: 'Forward!'”  

He added: “No one here wants to hear the truth. They just want the beautiful story of how Ukraine is united. But here, we're fucked.” 

Russia too is suffering heavy losses, though the number of wounded and killed combatants remains a secret on both sides.

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On Friday, BBC’s Russian service reported 3,502 deaths of Russian soldiers have been publicly reported. However, it said many deaths are not being made public.

Additionally, about 3,061 soldiers fighting for the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have been killed, according to officials in those so-called “people’s republics.” The ombudsman’s office in Donetsk has reported the deaths of 2,061 soldiers and 8,509 wounded troops while some 1,000 Luhansk soldiers reportedly have been killed. 

In its latest update on the war, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Russian forces were deploying “outdated military equipment to Ukraine to replace losses.”  

Citing Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate, it said Russian forces used mines from the 1950s in Kherson. Allegedly, the mines were slated for destruction and detonated during transportation to the front lines, wounding Russian sappers. 

“Russian military command continues to face pervasive issues with force generation,” the institute said.  

It said there were reports of protests in Luhansk over efforts to force men to fight and that there have been 18 attacks on Russian military recruitment offices.  

“As Russian officials escalate mobilization efforts over the background of continued losses in Ukraine, they will continue to run the risk of instigating public dissent and pushback against such recruitment practices,” the think tank said.  

A Ukrainian soldier holds radios during heavy fighting on the front line in Severodonetsk, Ukraine, on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

The heaviest fighting is taking place in eastern Ukraine where Russian forces are close to capturing the city of Sievierodonetsk, an important industrial city in the Luhansk region. 

As Moscow’s war machine grinds on, the Kremlin is becoming ever more open about having the annexation of occupied parts of Ukraine as its main goal. 

On Thursday, Putin drew comparisons with the invasion of Ukraine to the expansion of the Russian empire under Peter the Great, one of Russia’s most celebrated historical figures. Putin was speaking to young Russian entrepreneurs after he visited an exhibition in St. Petersburg honoring the 350th anniversary of Peter’s birth. 

“Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia’s],” the Russian president said. “Apparently, it is also our lot to return [what is Russia’s] and strengthen [the country]. And if we proceed from the fact that these basic values form the basis of our existence, we will certainly succeed in solving the tasks that we face.” 

Podolyak, Zelenskyy’s adviser, said Putin’s statement was proof that the Russian president’s arguments about NATO expansion and the need to save ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine from “genocide” as the reasons for the invasion were false.  

“Putin’s confession of land seizures and comparing himself with Peter the Great prove: there was no ‘conflict’, only the country’s bloody seizure under contrived pretexts of people’s genocide,” Podolyak said on Twitter. “We should not talk about [Russia] ‘saving face’, but about its immediate de-imperialization.” 

Podolyak’s comments were meant as a rebuke to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent statement that Putin must not be “humiliated.”  

By calling to “de-imperialize” Russia, Podolyak also seemed to side with those who argue that Russia must be defeated so badly that it can no longer pose a military danger to neighboring states, which some say means forcing the Russian Federation to be broken into smaller states. 

Macron’s recent statements about the need to keep the door open for negotiations with Putin has caused splits inside Europe over how best to handle the war and the Kremlin’s aggression.   

“We must not humiliate Russia so that the day the fighting stops, we can build a way out through diplomatic channels,” Macron said.   

Ivan Katchanovski, a Ukrainian political scientist at the University of Ottawa, said Putin’s statement and other developments, such as the appointment of Russian officials as administrators in newly occupied Ukrainian territories, show that Russia plans to annex all the areas its troops will manage to occupy in eastern and southern Ukraine.  

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea in violation of international law and backed armed separatists in Donbas following the overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president during the so-called “Maidan Revolution.” Those events led to the outbreak of war in Donbas that killed about 14,000 people and caused up to 2 million people to flee their homes.  

Olga Oliker, the program director for Europe and Central Asia at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank, said Russia is preparing for the long-term occupation of the parts of Ukraine it can seize. 

“I think the Russians have probably given up on the notion that the Ukrainians naturally all love them or at least the Russians in positions of authority,” she said, speaking on the think tank’s podcast. “But I don't think they've given up on the notion that Ukraine is rightfully a possession of Russia.” 

Oliker said Russia will try to convince young people in the occupied territories that Ukraine belongs within Russia’s sphere and that “their future is with Russia and that their history and Russian history are intertwined.” 

She added: “There's a pretty strong narrative that there's something at least culturally genocidal about all of this, that there's an effort to wipe out this notion of what it is to be Ukrainian or Ukrainian nationalism.” 

She was pessimistic about any substantial peace deal being reached any time soon, though ceasefires are possible. 

“You could have pauses, I think, when you get to what people call a mutually punishing stalemate,” she said. “Where nobody's making much progress but everybody's feeling pain; you could see things sort of stop, or pause at least, and then everybody regroups and thinks about how they will do better next time around.” 

She said it is possible for battlefield conditions to change dramatically in favor of Ukraine, but she doubted that would happen.   

“Miracles could occur, but I think at present both Russia and Ukraine think they've got far more to gain by continuing to fight, so the smart money is on us watching them continuing to fight.”  

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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