KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – NATO on Wednesday estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in four weeks of war in Ukraine, where fierce opposition from the country’s defenders has denied Moscow the lightning victory they sought.
By comparison, Russia lost about 15,000 troops over 10 years in Afghanistan.
A senior NATO military official said the alliance’s estimates were based on information from Ukrainian authorities on what Russia has released – intentionally or not – and intelligence gathered from open sources. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with basic rules laid down by NATO.
Ukraine has released little information on its own military losses, and the West has not given an estimate, but President Volodymr Zelenskyy said almost two weeks ago that about 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed.
When Russia unleashed its invasion on 24 Feb. in Europe’s largest offensive since World War II, a rapid overthrow of the Ukrainian government seemed likely. But with Wednesday marking four full weeks of fighting, Moscow is stuck in a fierce military campaign.
With its land forces slowed or stopped by hit Ukrainian units armed with Western-supplied weapons, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops bomb targets from afar and fall back on the tactics they used to reduce cities to ruins in Syria and Chechnya.
In an ominous sign that Moscow could consider using nuclear weapons, a senior Russian official said the country’s nuclear arsenal would help deter the West from intervening in Ukraine.
“The Russian Federation is capable of physically destroying any aggressor or group of aggressors within minutes at any distance,” Dmitry Rogozin, head of the state-owned space company Roscosmos, said in television remarks. He noted that Moscow’s nuclear stockpiles include tactical nuclear weapons, designed for use on battlefields, along with far more powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. Roscosmos oversees missile construction.
U.S. officials have long warned that Russia’s military doctrine predicts an “escalation to de-escalate” possibility of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield to force the enemy to withdraw in a situation where Russian forces face imminent defeat. Moscow has refused to have such plans.
Rogozin is known for his modesty, and he did not make clear what actions on the part of the West would be perceived as interference, but his comments almost certainly reflect the thoughts inside the Kremlin. Putin has warned the West that an attempt to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine will drag the country into a conflict with Russia. Western nations have said they would not set up a no-fly zone to protect Ukraine.
When US President Joe Biden traveled to Europe to meet with key allies on new sanctions against Moscow and more military aid to Ukraine, he warned that there was a “real threat” that Russia could use chemical weapons.
On the eve of a meeting with Biden, EU countries signed an additional 500 million euros ($ 550 million) in military aid to Ukraine.
The United States has also determined that Russian troops have committed war crimes in Ukraine and will work to prosecute the perpetrators, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said. He cited evidence of arbitrary or deliberate attacks on civilians and the destruction of apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, shopping malls and other places.
In an address to Japan’s parliament, Zelenskyy said thousands of his people have been killed, including at least 121 children.
“Our people can not even bury their murdered relatives, friends and neighbors adequately. They have to be buried right in the courtyards of destroyed buildings, next to the roads, ”he said.
Yet the main Russian goals are still unfulfilled. The capital, Kiev, has been bombed repeatedly but is not even surrounded.
Almost constant shelling and gunfire shook the city on Wednesday, with air raid sirens moaning and black smoke flags rising from the western outskirts, with the two sides fighting for control of several suburbs. Mayor Vitali Klitschko said at least 264 civilians have been killed in the capital since the war broke out.
The shelling also cost another journalist his life on Wednesday. The independent Russian news media The Insider said that the Russian journalist Oksana Baulina had been killed in a neighborhood in Kiev.
In the southern part, the besieged port city of Mariupol has experienced the worst devastation of the war, endured weeks of bombing and now fighting street by street. But Ukrainian forces have prevented its downfall and thwarted an overt bid by Moscow to fully secure a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, which was seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Zelenskyy said 100,000 civilians are left in the city, which had 430,000 people before the war. Efforts to provide desperately needed food and other supplies to the captives have often failed.
Zelenskyy accused Russian forces of seizing a humanitarian convoy. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the Russians detained 11 bus drivers and four rescue workers along with their vehicles.
In their last update, over a week ago, Mariupol officials said at least 2,300 people had died, but the true figure is probably much higher. Airstrikes last week destroyed a theater and an art school where civilians sought refuge.
In the besieged northern city of Chernihiv, Russian forces bombed and destroyed a bridge used for relief and civilian evacuations, regional governor Viacheslav Chaus said.
Kateryna Mytkevich, who arrived in Poland after fleeing Chernihiv, wiped her tears as she talked about what she had seen. The city is without gas, electricity or running water, Mytkevich, 39, said, and entire neighborhoods have been destroyed.
“I do not understand why we have such a curse,” she said.
Despite much evidence to the contrary, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that the military operation be “strictly in line” with plans.
The NATO official said 30,000 to 40,000 Russian soldiers were estimated to have been killed or wounded. In its latest update, Russia said on March 2 that nearly 500 soldiers had been killed and nearly 1,600 wounded.
Ukraine also claims to have killed six Russian generals. Russia recognizes only one dead general.
The figures from NATO represent the Alliance’s first public estimate of Russian losses since the beginning of the war. The U.S. government has largely refused to provide estimates of Russian or Ukrainian victims, saying available information is questionable.
With rising losses and swift victory no longer in sight, Russia is working to suppress dissent and strengthen morale.
It has arrested thousands of anti-war protesters and cracked down on the media. Also, under a law passed Wednesday, troops in Ukraine will receive the same benefits as veterans of previous wars, including tax breaks, rebates on utilities and preferential access to medical treatment.
As an apparent reflection of growing divisions in Russia’s upper echelons, Anatoly Chubais has withdrawn, Peskov told the Interfax news agency. Chubais, the architect behind Russia’s post-Soviet privatization campaign, had served in a number of top positions for three decades. His most recent role was as Putin’s envoy to international organizations.
Peskov would not say whether Chubais had left the country.
Western officials say Putin’s forces are facing a severe shortage of food, fuel and cold weather equipment, with soldiers suffering from frostbite, while Ukraine’s defenders have been more aggressive.
Yet Russia’s far stronger, larger military has many Western experts who warn against overconfidence in Ukraine’s long-term odds. The Kremlin’s practice in previous wars has been to cut down resistance by flattening cities, killing countless civilians and sending millions on the run.
Talks to end the fighting continue via video. Zelenskyy said that negotiations with Russia are going “step by step, but they are moving forward.”
In the coastal city of Odesa, the scene of sporadic Russian shelling, merchant captain Sivak Vitaliy carried sandbags over each shoulder and loaded them onto trucks for barricades erected in the event of an enemy attack.
Building after building has been destroyed in cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv, but Ukrainian soldiers defending their own land will not be defeated, he said.
“No matter how bad the situation is in Mariupol, Kharkiv, it does not matter,” he said. “We will win.”
Anna reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv and other AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine