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Destroyed military vehicles on a street in the town of Bucha in the Kyiv region of Ukraine on March 1, 2022.SERHII NUZHNENKO/Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s claim that nearly 6,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the start of the invasion last week is not exaggerated and is sure to rise sharply as the Russian military lays siege to big cities.

That was the assessment of a senior Western intelligence official. “I think the numbers that he is quoting there are probably highly accurate,” the official said, suggesting the figure is no doubt far higher than Russian President Vladimir Putin had expected after only six days of military operations inside Ukraine.

The Globe and Mail is not naming the official because he was not authorized to identify himself publicly, given his sensitive position in the intelligence community.

He put the number of Russian dead, backed up by NATO analysis, at 5,800 as of Tuesday evening. There was no estimate for the number wounded.

On Wednesday, the Russian Defence Ministry said 487 of its servicemen had been killed and just under 1,600 wounded.

Mr. Zelensky cited the 6,000 figure in a televised address on Wednesday, in which he sought to boost Ukrainians’ morale and fighting spirit. “Today, you, Ukrainians, are a symbol of invincibility,” he said. “A symbol that people in any country can become the best people on earth at any moment. Glory to Ukraine!”

The Associated Press earlier on Wednesday reported that Ukraine’s emergency service said more than 2,000 civilians had died, a figure AP added was impossible to verify. The United Nations human rights office had tallied 136 deaths.

The intelligence official said the number of Ukrainian dead was probably much higher.

He official said the war seemed to be headed into a more deadly phase since the Russian advance had met a robust Ukrainian defence. The initial wave was comprised of lightly armed, highly mobile military units that the Ukrainian military found fairly easy to fight, depriving the Russians of a swift victory.

“Part of what you are seeing is them now catching up, that now it is time to introduce [better-equipped] troops,” he said. “I think the concern we have, they seem to be bringing in heavier forces with more armour, more long-range artillery, heavier weapons that are not just more destructive in their nature, but frankly are also less precise. … It means we’re likely to see an expansion of what we’ve already seen in the last 48 hours, which is already a great degree of civilian infrastructure damage. And so the violence level will go up, the number of refugees will go up, the number of civilian casualties and dead will go up.”

The UN has said more than 870,000 civilians have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24. The European Union estimated that as many as four million Ukrainians may try to leave the country as the fighting intensifies.

Poland has taken the highest number of refugees, at more than 450,000, followed by Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia. The number of internally displaced persons is not known.

On Wednesday, Russia made strategic gains in southern Ukraine and occupied the city of Kherson, which has a population of about 300,000. Yet other important Ukrainian cities, notably Kharkiv in the east, and Kyiv, the capital, remained under Ukrainian control.

On Wednesday morning, the regional governor in Kharkiv said Russian shelling had killed 21 people and wounded 112. Meanwhile, an enormous Russian convoy had rolled toward Kyiv. Late on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that a Pentagon official said Russian forces appeared to be stalled on the outskirts of the capital, possibly owing to shortages of fuel and food.

The Western intelligence official painted a gloomy outlook for Ukraine, in spite of its surprisingly strong defence of key Russian targets, and Russia’s inability, so far, to achieve air superiority.

Russia’s sheer military might and tolerance for losses may eventually overwhelm Ukraine, he said.

“The mass and the quality and the capability of the Russians deployed are far greater than anything Ukraine has,” he said. “If you just continue to grind away, you will overwhelm the defence. …Eventually, if the Russians maintain the will, they will grind the Ukrainians down and they will have a victory of sorts, but the death and destruction accordingly will be very high.”

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