WASHINGTON (AFP): More than 100,000 Russian military personnel have been killed or wounded in Ukraine, with Kyiv’s forces likely suffering similar casualties, top US General Mark Milley said Wednesday.
“You’re looking at well over 100,000 Russian soldiers killed and wounded,” Milley said in remarks at the Economic Club of New York. “Same thing probably on the Ukrainian side.”
The figures provided by Milley — which could not be independently confirmed — are the most precise to date from the United States government more than eight months into the war.
Milley also said there is a chance for talks on ending the war, and that military victory may not be possible for either Russia or Ukraine.
“There has to be a mutual recognition that military victory is probably in the true sense of the word maybe not achievable through military means, and therefore you need to turn to other means,” Milley said.
“There’s… an opportunity here, a window of opportunity for negotiation.”
Milley’s comments came after Russia ordered its troops to withdraw from the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine — a major blow to Moscow’s military campaign.
But officials in Kyiv reacted with caution, saying the Russian army was unlikely to leave the strategic city without a fight, while US President Joe Biden suggested the retreat was evidence Moscow has “real problems” on the battlefield.
Russia orders troops out of Kherson
Russia ordered its troops to withdraw from the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine on Wednesday in a further major blow to its campaign amid a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Officials in Kyiv reacted with caution, saying the Russian army was unlikely to leave the strategic city without a fight, while US President Joe Biden suggested the retreat was evidence Moscow has “real problems” on the battlefield.
“Begin to pull out troops,” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a televised meeting with Russia’s commander in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin.
The commander had proposed the “difficult decision” of pulling back from the city and setting up defences on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
Kherson city was the first urban hub captured by Russia during its “special military operation” and the only regional capital controlled by Moscow’s forces since the offensive began on February 24.
Ukraine’s troops have for weeks been capturing villages en route to the city near the Black Sea, and Kremlin-installed leaders in Kherson have been pulling out civilians.
In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his army was “moving very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk, in the interests of liberating all our land and so that the losses are as small as possible.”
“The enemy does not give us gifts, does not make ‘goodwill gestures’, we win it all,” Zelensky said in his daily address to the nation, adding any gains by Ukraine come at the expense of “lives lost by our heroes.”
Presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said some Russian troops remained in the city.
“We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight,” he said on Twitter.
And some Ukrainian civilians, too, were sceptical.
Andriy Orikhovskyi, a 46-year-old financier, told AFP in Kyiv: “The Russian leadership is playing something, you shouldn’t trust them… I think they are up to something. We have to wait for what our official sources say.”
– 115,000 civilians removed –
In Moscow, Kremlin supporters rushed to justify the decision.
The head of Russian state media group RT, Margarita Simonyan, said the retreat was necessary in order not to leave Russian troops exposed on the west bank of the Dnipro River and “open the way to Crimea”.
Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov said the decision was “difficult but fair”.
Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is the founder of the Wagner mercenary group and has been critical of Russia’s military strategy in the campaign, was more ambiguous.
“It is important not to agonise, not to beat around in paranoia, but to draw conclusions and work on mistakes,” his press service wrote on social media.
Russia losing the Kherson region would return Ukraine important access to the Sea of Azov and leave President Vladimir Putin with little to show from a campaign that has turned him into a pariah in Western eyes.
The retreat will put pressure on Russian control of the rest of the Kherson region, which forms a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Kherson was one of four Ukrainian regions that Russia declared it had annexed in September, shortly after being forced to withdraw from swathes of territory in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
The announcement of the retreat came just hours after officials said the Moscow-installed deputy head of the Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, a key supporter of annexation, had died in a car crash.
As Ukrainian troops have gradually advanced in the south, Surovikin told Shoigu on Wednesday that some 115,000 people had been removed from the western bank of the Dnipro, which includes Kherson city.
Ukraine has defined these population movements towards Russia or Russian-occupied territory as “deportations”.
– ‘Strong bipartisan support’ –
In Washington, where election officials were still counting votes after Tuesday’s crucial midterms, Biden said the retreat from Kherson demonstrated Moscow military weaknesses.
“It’s evidence of the fact that they have some real problems, Russia, the Russian military,” Biden told reporters in Washington.
Biden’s Democratic Party looked set to narrowly lose control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans, some of whom have vowed to review US military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. But Biden vowed that Washington’s support of Kyiv will remain unchanged.
“In the area of foreign policy I hope we’ll continue this bipartisan approach of confronting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” Biden added.
Earlier in the day NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg spoke along the same lines. “It’s absolutely clear that there’s strong bipartisan support in the United States for a continued support for Ukraine, and that’s not changed,” Stoltenberg said after talks with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
With the Russian offensive now in its ninth month, Western powers have stepped up military and financial support for Kyiv.
In the latest announcement, the European Commission on Wednesday proposed an 18-billion-euro ($18-billion) aid package for Ukraine in 2023 in the form of loans.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the aid as “true solidarity”.
The Kremlin said that relations between Moscow and Washington would remain “bad” after the US midterm elections.
“Our existing ties are bad, and they will remain bad,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Putin will not go to G20 summit
Russian President Vladimir Putin will not attend the G20 leaders’ summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali next week, Moscow’s embassy in Indonesia told AFP on Thursday.
“I can confirm that (foreign minister) Sergei Lavrov will lead the Russian delegation to the G20. President Putin’s program is still being worked out, he could participate virtually,” said Yulia Tomskaya, the embassy’s chief of protocol.
US President Joe Biden, who has called Putin a “war criminal” and who will be attending the summit, previously said he had no intention of meeting Putin in Bali if he went.
The decision, which follows months of speculation, comes as Moscow is suffering losses in its Ukraine campaign and as the Kremlin tries to shield itself from Western condemnation at the November 15-16 summit.
Another source with knowledge of Russia’s planning for the Bali event confirmed that Putin would be replaced by Lavrov. The person said it was unclear if the Russian leader would attend virtually.
Moscow’s top diplomat walked out of a July G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Bali after officials roundly condemned Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Host Indonesia pursues a neutral foreign policy and has rebuffed Western calls to disinvite Russia from the summit. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to attend the summit virtually.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Putin would be invited to the summit despite the invasion, prompting a flurry of Western criticism. In August, he said Putin had accepted that invitation.
Zelensky had threatened to boycott the summit if Putin attended. Ukraine is not a member of the G20 bloc.
– Battlefield losses –
While US President Joe Biden has shunned contact with his Russian counterpart, France has warned against worsening Putin’s isolation on the world stage.
French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken to Putin in recent months and succeeded in gaining permission for a mission by the UN nuclear watchdog to travel to the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
Russia refers to its invasion as a special military operation to “de-Nazify” Ukraine and blames subsequent Western sanctions for global economic turmoil caused by the conflict after it sparked food and energy crises.
The Bali meeting comes as Russia is suffering battlefield setbacks in the face of a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Russia on Wednesday ordered its troops to withdraw from the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine. It was the only regional capital controlled by Moscow’s forces since the offensive began on February 24.