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Casualties of the counteroffensive

In the summer’s vicious fight for territory, Ukraine is suffering heavy losses. But wounded soldiers are determined to return to the front lines.

By Katie Stallard

On a searingly hot morning in early August, Vlad climbed into the front passenger seat of the four-wheel drive and checked the coordinates for the day ahead. He was the gunner for a three-man mortar crew fighting near the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which Russia had captured in May and Ukrainian forces were now pushing to take back. But as the crew pulled up to a village crossroads, the ground began erupting around them. Vlad saw a mortar hit the road to his right. He felt the pain of the shrapnel ripping through his legs. “I heard the commander yelling at me to get out of the car and run,” he told me. “But when I tried to step on this leg, I saw that it was pointing in the wrong direction.”

Vlad had worked at a Samsung factory in Hungary before the invasion, when he returned to Ukraine to fight. He is now 29, with short, blond hair and pale blue eyes. His war name, he told me proudly, was “the Swede”. He showed me a video on his phone from inside the cramped dark hull of the armoured vehicle that had rescued him, which he had shot in selfie mode, flashing a smile at the camera as they jolted over the rutted ground. The next image showed him on the operating table at an emergency treatment area, a gaping hole in the twisted flesh of his lower right leg. “Yeah, it was pretty bad,” he said. “Thank God I didn’t lose it.”

[See also: Russia’s war on the future]

We were on a medical evacuation bus belonging to the Hospitallers, a volunteer paramedic battalion that transports wounded soldiers from front-line medical posts to hospitals in central Ukraine. (They asked me not to report the specific dates or locations involved and, according to military protocol, the soldiers I interviewed gave only their first names.) Vlad was one of seven men being evacuated that day, less than 48 hours after he was injured. He was very pale and had clearly lost a lot of blood, with a central line running under his collar bone. His right leg was pinned in two places and held together by a metal rod. “I was due to be promoted,” he said, looking down at the leg. “I hope they still give it to me.”

Two months into Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive, the consensus outside the country is that it is not moving fast enough. A leaked German intelligence report in July questioned whether Western training and hardware was being put to effective use. US and European officials estimate that as much as 20 per cent of the weaponry deployed during the first two weeks of the campaign was destroyed or damaged. “I’ll be blunt,” said the Republican congressman Andy Harris, who co-chairs the US Congress’s Ukraine Caucus, at a town hall on 17 August. “It’s failed.”

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Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has acknowledged that the campaign is “challenging” and “perhaps unfolding slower than some might wish”. But he has also highlighted delays in the delivery of promised munitions from the West and has pleaded again for the urgent provision of US long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems (Atacms) and F-16 fighter jets, noting that Ukraine is fighting without the air support that would be central to any comparable Nato operation. (On 20 August Denmark and the Netherlands approved the transfer of up to 61 jets.) I asked Vlad what people outside Ukraine should understand about the conditions they were up against on the ground.

“This is a dirty war,” he said. “The fighting is really intense, and it’s bad everywhere. There is nothing beautiful about it. You see only blood, dirt and sweat.”

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Western weapons and support were making a real difference, Vlad told me, but it was short-sighted to focus on the cost to Europe and the US, and naive to believe that Vladimir Putin’s ambitions ended at the borders of Ukraine. “I lived in Russia for several years, so I know the Russian mentality,” he said. “I understand that if we do not stop them here, they will keep going and Europe will be next. If we didn’t fight – if they had taken Kyiv in three days like they wanted – they would already be there. We are the shield for the whole of Europe.”

[See also: “The guy I was before the Russians captured me has died]

Ukraine does not release official casualty figures, but in May 2022, Zelensky conceded that 50 to 100 Ukrainian soldiers could be dying every day in the east of the country. By August this year, US officials briefing the New York Times estimated that almost 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed, with 100,000 to 120,000 wounded. (They stressed that the precise figures are difficult to ascertain.) The Russian casualties are even higher, with as many as 120,000 dead and 170,000 to 180,000 wounded. (For comparison, the US lost just over 58,000 soldiers during the two-decade-long war in Vietnam.)

The scale of these losses reflects the nature and intensity of the fighting, which features both high-tech modern weaponry, such as drones and high-precision missiles, and the kind of grinding trench warfare that would have been familiar to soldiers in the First World War. On the Russian side, these casualties have been compounded by an apparent indifference to the lives of individual soldiers. In its most extreme form, this attitude was exemplified by the tactics employed during the Wagner mercenary group’s assault on Bakhmut, when lightly armed convict soldiers were sent to overwhelm the Ukrainian lines in what became known as “meat waves”.  

As the Ukrainian forces now attempt to gain ground during this counteroffensive, they are being forced to fight their way through Russian minefields and trench networks under heavy barrages of artillery and attacks from helicopter gunships. Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, says the country is now the most heavily mined in the world, with as many as five mines per square metre in some areas. A paper published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons in August found that Russian forces have fired up to 60,000 artillery rounds a day – a volume the US military has not faced since the Second World War.

“At times the fighting around Bakhmut is like the most difficult days of the battle for Stalingrad,” the Hospitallers’ team leader, who asked to be identified by his call sign, “Toronto”, told me. “Almost all the casualties we see are from shelling or mines. I see a lot of pain and soldiers missing limbs.” Toronto is 28 and was a tattoo artist in a small town in central Ukraine before the war. He wore a khaki jungle hat that was now almost black. “I understand that Europeans are paying a price to support Ukraine,” he said. “But they are paying with money. We are paying with our lives.”

Above the driver at the front of the bus was a small Orthodox icon and a tangle of yellow and blue ribbons in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. The volunteer medics know that they are also a target in this war, with the Russian forces repeatedly attacking ambulances and medical facilities. “When you hear the air-raid sirens, you know that every strike can be exactly your strike,” Toronto told me.

The team is careful not to post anything on social media that might give away its location. When the Hospitallers go out at night, they drive without headlights. “The Russians are hunting for us.”

Illustration by Matthieu Bourel

Volodymyr lay in a bed at the back of the bus with his left leg swathed in bandages. He had a thick black beard and close-cropped dark hair and told me that he had worked as an upholsterer in the Black Sea port city of Odesa before the war. Like Vlad, he had been fighting with an infantry unit near Bakhmut when they came under attack.

“One of our vehicles had already been hit and we were moving positions when we heard a drone overhead,” he said. “Then we got hit, I think by a mortar. I felt something hit my leg and fell down behind a tree.” He managed to drag himself into a culvert and tightened a tourniquet around his leg to slow the bleeding. His commanding officer carried him out on his shoulders. “He was supposed to stay further back,” Volodymyr said. “But he came and got me himself.”

This was not the 27-year-old’s first injury. He had been wounded fighting in the Kharkiv region months earlier and showed me where the doctors had removed shrapnel from his head, back and hand. “But of course, I went back,” Volodymyr said. “There is no other way. If nobody fights, then it will be like Bakhmut everywhere.” I asked him how his unit was holding up. “We have been fighting for a long time, and there are many losses, but we are holding on,” he told me. “Nobody wants to give up. There are those who are afraid – I am also sometimes afraid – but only stupid people are not afraid. I am really proud of our guys because we have, as one might say, steel balls.”

“Everyone is scared, I’ll tell you that,” said another soldier, Yura, from the bed across the aisle. He was 47, with a broad, heavily lined face and black dirt beneath his fingernails. “When you go out each day, you understand there is a possibility that you will not come back. But you just live with it.”

He told me they were grateful for the support they had received from abroad, but he wanted people and politicians in the West to understand that they urgently needed more. “We need high-precision weapons, long-range weapons, and aviation as soon as possible,” Yura said. “We need the tools to hold the Russians back. There is a real war going on here.”

As we pulled up outside the hospital in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, the air-raid sirens wailed. An alert flashed up on my phone: “Ballistic weapons threat. Head for cover!” But nobody did. Instead, a line of nurses and orderlies in white coats streamed out of the front doors pushing metal gurneys and began offloading the soldiers from the bus. Every one of the men had said they would go back to fight as soon as they were allowed. As they wheeled Vlad into the hospital, he held up two fingers in a victory sign.

[See also: What realists get wrong about Ukraine’s counteroffensive]

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect