Russia Advances in Ukraine With ‘Staggering Magnitude’ of Losses: Petraeus

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Moscow’s “incremental” victories in Ukraine are coming with “incredible” human losses, former CIA director and U.S. Army general David Petraeus has said, as Kyiv marks two years of full-scale war with no end in sight.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears fully committed to his military effort in Ukraine, in which Kyiv and Western intelligence and defense agencies believe that Moscow has suffered some 300,000 to 400,000 casualties.

Speaking with Newsweek on the sidelines of a lunch event organized by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation during the Munich Security Conference in Germany earlier this month, Petraeus said the Kremlin will eventually arrive at an inflection point.

“Having written so many letters of condolence to American mothers and fathers, particularly during the surge in Iraq, I don’t know how he can actually look at this, how he can deal with this,” Petraeus—who in a storied military career led the allied effort in both Iraq and Afghanistan—said of the Russian dictator.

David Petraeus pictured at event in 2021
David Petraeus is pictured onstage during the 2021 Concordia Annual Summit in New York City on September 22, 2021. Petraeus told Newsweek that Russian troops in Ukraine are winning “incremental” victories at “incredible” cost.

Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

“I don’t know how Putin can abide this except that he is just such a cold-blooded, brutal autocrat, who has obviously no concern whatsoever for the wellbeing of his people, and certainly for the soldiers on the frontlines,” Petraeus added.

The fate of other leading figures in Russia’s invasion, he said, may speak to Putin’s mindset. “I think, for example, [Yevgeny] Prigozhin literally went mad, in part because of the enormous casualties of the Wagner Group.”

A Bloody Grind

Moscow’s military gambit in Ukraine was costly from the off. Casualties and equipment losses were high in Russia’s drive on Kyiv and seizure of swaths of southern and eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2022. Amid repeated battlefield defeats, the Kremlin’s forces gradually reverted to slower, less sophisticated, and even bloodier tactics.

These have been best demonstrated on the eastern front, where tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have died in Donetsk Oblast urban hotspots like Bakhmut and Avdiivka.

Petraeus spoke with Newsweek just hours after Ukrainian commander-in-chief Oleksandr Syrskyi announced the withdrawal from Avdiivka, fortified and held by Kyiv’s forces since the beginning of Moscow’s aggression in 2014.

The retired American general, widely considered among America’s “warrior-intellectuals,” said Ukrainian withdrawal from the devastated settlement was “a sound tactical decision,” given it had been “exposed on both flanks” by years of intense Russian attacks.

“This is not a strategically significant piece of terrain,” he added. “It’s basically a town that has been destroyed, totally. And giving that up, allowing Russia to take control of that, I don’t think it has huge significance. Actually, it simplifies the defensive line.”

“Of course, the challenge was that lines of communication into this area that was almost surrounded were becoming more tenuous. So, I think it was something that you could start to see was probably inevitable.”

“There’s no collapse here. There’s an orderly withdrawal, under pressure to be sure, but not some massively strategically significant achievement by the Russians. I think it’s even less so than Bakhmut was last year, frankly. Which was so costly, and what did it really get them in the end?”

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry by email to request comment.

Russian memorial for Ukraine war Crimea 2024
Attendees, including relatives of fallen participants in the Russian military action in Ukraine, take part in the opening ceremony for a memorial in Yevpatoria, Crimea, on February 22, 2024. Russia has reportedly sustained hundreds of…


STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Russian Momentum

The value of Russia’s advances may be questionable, but the momentum does appear to be with Moscow. Putin is widely expected to continue offensive operations where possible through 2024, using this year to solidify his political position at home and deepen Kremlin control of occupied Ukrainian territories.

Still, relatively small victories in eastern Ukraine will not make up for the systemic failures of Russian forces on land, in the air, and at sea. Petraeus suggested that the price paid by the Russian people may eventually become too costly.

“There have been incremental achievements, if you will, at incredible costs,” he said. “One never knows what is the moment when Russian mothers, fathers, wives say: ‘Not my husband, not my son’.”

“We do know that in the very beginning with the first conscription drive, more Russians actually left the country than reported to the recruiting stations.” Russian forces under Putin, Petraeus added, have “been able to continue to generate forces even as he seems completely unconcerned by the staggering magnitude of the losses.”

Asked what 2024 and beyond may look like on the battlefield, Petraeus responded: “It depends.”

Major questions remain as to the willingness and ability of the U.S. and its European allies to provide the financial and military aid needed to keep Kyiv fighting.

“It also does depend on the Ukrainians’ ability to continue to generate additional forces,” Petraeus said, noting the fierce ongoing debate in the country and in its parliament over a proposal to reduce the minimum age of conscription from 27 to 25.

President Volodymyr Zelensky this weekend admitted that 31,000 soldiers have been killed since February 2022, a rare admission of casualty figures, starkly illustrating the strain on Ukrainian manpower. Zelensky did not reveal how many Ukrainian troops had been wounded in the same period.

“We’ve delayed critical decisions,” Petraeus said of the Western allies, noting the slow arrival of Western tanks, long-range precision missiles, cluster munitions for artillery, and others. Big ticket items like F-16 fighter jets are still not in Ukrainian hands. Such delays helped doom Ukraine’s 2023 summer counteroffensive; one of the “missed opportunities” for Kyiv and the West, as Petraeus described it.

Vladimir Putin at memorial service Moscow 2024
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin Wall in Moscow on February 23, 2024. Putin has seemingly committed to continuing the war on Ukraine…


SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops are continuing a fierce winter defense of the 900-mile front, seeking the battlefield edge on the more numerous Russian attackers.

“There’s a question about who can develop newer and more effective technology faster than the other,” Petraeus said. “Which side can learn faster?”

“For a period of time, the Russians were not learning. Then, all of a sudden, they learned. And because they’re a central organization, once the top learns everyone else is forced to learn as well.”

“I don’t think that using human wave tactics is a particularly impressive lesson, except that tragically, it does work for them to a degree.”