The Kremlin’s partial mobilization of fresh troops to fight in Ukraine has been chaotic and largely ineffective, with the number of men fleeing Russia as great or greater than the size of the original invasion force, according to a senior NATO official.
NATO intelligence also puts the number of Russians killed in action in the first three months of war alone at 15,000, the same as all the losses during the Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989.
A senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization official said it is a reasonable assumption that the number of Russians killed in action has doubled since then, to about 30,000, but could not provide a precise number.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official, who is not authorized to speak to the press.
He gave a briefing to The Globe at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday, shortly after Ukrainian forces achieved their biggest breakthrough in the country’s south, smashing through the Russian front lines and advancing along the Dnipro River near the city of Kherson.
Russian forces in recent weeks have been in retreat in the south and in the east, where Ukraine took full control over the weekend of the small city of Lyman, a Russian logistics hub in Donetsk province. Russia’s Defence Ministry acknowledged on Monday that Ukrainian tanks had penetrated its line of defence in the Kherson area.
The NATO official said the Western military alliance believes that 200,000 men have left Russia to avoid conscription since Russian President Vladimir Putin used a decree to launch his partial mobilization of reservists on Sept. 21. Many of them have gone to countries that share borders with Russia, among them Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
Last week the Georgian government said about 78,000 Russians have entered that country since Mr. Putin delivered the mobilization order. Russia has now set up mobile draft offices on the Georgian border to try to nab Russian men eligible for recruitment before they leave the country
“You have seen a considerable exodus wave of Russians,” the NATO official said. “We believe it is possible that the numbers exceed the size of the total invasion source of about 200,000 that Russia fielded in February.”
Numerous articles in the Western press, including the Washington Post and Deutsche Welle, have reported that men with little or no military training or combat experience, with disabilities, and who are over the age of 35 (making them technically too old to serve), are receiving conscription notices. Those who fail to appear at local recruitment offices face criminal charges unless they can prove their call-up orders were delivered in error.
“For Putin to find 300,000 or 400,000 men is going to be quite the challenge,” the NATO official said. “Even if they do, they have to train them, equip them, move them to Ukraine and sustain them. These are things they have been unable to do even with their regular army. I don’t know what this effort will achieve in terms of effective combat power.”
Mr. Putin on Sept. 21 said that “only citizens who are currently in the reserves and, above all, those who have served in the armed forces, have military skills and relevant experience” will face conscription. But some young, full-time university students and middle-aged men with medical conditions have reportedly received call-up notices.
Ukraine said last month that more than 50,000 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine since the war started on Feb. 24. The number cannot be independently verified, and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu recently said that the true number of Russian dead is about 6,000.
NATO believes the Ukrainian number is exaggerated and that the Russian number is significantly under-reported. The NATO estimate of 15,000 Russians killed in the first three months of the war, and likely a similar number since then, is more accurate that either the Ukrainian or Russian claim. “We believe the Russian losses are greater than the Ukrainian losses,” the official said. “I think Russia needs this partial mobilization because their losses have been so great.”
The NATO official said that the alliance had seen no evidence that Mr. Putin is preparing to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Mr. Putin has said he would use any kind of weapon to defend its territory, which he now claims includes the four regions that used sham referendums to approve their annexation by Russia. “We are watching that closely but we have not seen any physical actions on the nuclear front that causes us to change our strategic deterrent posture,” the official said.
On Sunday, David Petraeus, a former CIA director and retired four-star army general, told ABC News that the United States and its allies would destroy Russia’s military in Ukraine and the Black Sea if Mr. Putin were to use battlefield nuclear weapons. “We would respond by leading a NATO – a collective – effort to take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea,” he said.
The NATO official also said he has no evidence that Belarus, a Russian ally whose air bases have been used by Russia to launch attacks on Ukraine, will directly enter the war to bolster the flagging Russian forces. NATO is watching Belarus carefully because its President, Alexander Lukashenko, has made several bellicose statements against Ukraine and NATO itself.
In July, Mr. Lukashenko said that Russia and Belarus “had almost a unified army” and, without evidence, claimed that Belarusian forces had intercepted Ukrainian missiles. Another NATO official said that he did not believe that Belarus would enter the war because there was no popular support to do so among Belarusians. A clandestine network of Belarusian railway workers has reportedly sabotaged the rail links between Belarus and Ukraine to hinder the flow of Russian men and materiel into Ukraine.