As many as 200,000 soldiers have been killed or wounded on both sides in the nearly nine months since Russia invaded Ukraine, according to the Pentagon’s top general — a staggering number that highlights the immense suffering of a war with no end in sight.
“There has been a tremendous amount of suffering,” Milley said.
The Pentagon did not explain how it counted the casualties and they could not be independently verified by The Washington Post. The last official figure issued by Russia’s Ministry of Defense in September put the number of Russian dead at 5,937 — which military experts and Western officials say grossly underestimates the country’s losses.
Ukraine has released no casualty figures for its own troops. President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed in interview with CNN earlier this week that Russia’s casualty rate was ten times higher than that of Ukraine.
Officials in Kyiv were quick to dispute Milley’s assessment on Thursday. “We do have losses and every single life lost is a tragedy,” said Yuriy Sak, an adviser to the Ukraine Defense Ministry. “But we do have less casualties because we are not using meatgrinder tactics, and our priority is saving soldiers’ lives.”
The Pentagon figures nonetheless hint at the ferocity of the battles that are raging along a vast, 1000-mile front line snaking around the eastern edges of Ukraine. Much of the fighting is being waged from World War I-style trenches in which soldiers dug into muddy fortifications endure relentless artillery bombardments until they are forced to retreat.
The casualty estimates suggest that in 260 days of war, an average of 769 soldiers have been killed or injured every day.
The losses on each side would be nearly twice as high the 60,000 Americans killed or wounded in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Defense Department statistics, and more than twice the 50,000 dead and wounded suffered by the Soviet Union during its ten year war in Afghanistan.
Nearly 70,000 Afghan soldiers and 50,000 civilians died over two decades of fighting with the U.S.-backed coalition. But those numbers are nonetheless dwarfed by the figures from Ukraine.
Other recent wars have been as bloody — but over a longer time frame, and with civilians bearing the brunt of the suffering. In Syria, the United Nations estimated that 400,000 people died in the first five years of the war, the vast majority of them noncombatants.
Milley suggested that the announcement by Russia on Wednesday of a retreat from Kherson and the approach of winter might offer a chance for negotiations. The Biden administration and other Western allies have recently been trying to nudge Ukraine to consider talks with Russia.
The winter months, when temperatures in Ukraine routinely drop well below freezing, will likely bring a pause in the fighting as Russia seeks to regroup and refit, presenting “a window of opportunity for negotiation,” Milley said.
“There has to be a mutual recognition that a military victory is probably, in the true sense of the word is maybe not achievable through military means,” he added, “and therefore you need to turn to other means.”
But Ukraine’s recent sweep of victories, through Kharkiv in the northeast in September and now in Kherson to the south have left Kyiv in no mood for negotiations. Ukrainian officials say they are confident they can achieve a full military victory over Russia on the battlefield and Zelensky has set preconditions for negotiations, including a full Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory and a promise of reparations — conditions that Russia would likely never accept.
Milley said the United States would continue to support Ukraine until their demands are met. “The United States is going to continue to support Ukraine and its fight for freedom,” he said. “If negotiations happen, great. If they don’t, they will likely continue fighting into the spring.”
The Kremlin has also signaled it is open to talks, but its own preconditions are at odds with those of Ukraine: After Russia illegally annexed four regions of Ukraine, Putin said that “the only way to peace” is for Ukraine and the West to recognize that the people of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia “have become our citizens, forever.”
Despite their vast differences, Milley said, both sides should pursue an end to the fighting.
“When peace can be achieved, seize it,” he said. “Seize the moment.”
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
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Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.
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