Ukraine has demoted a top battlefield commander after he admitted his unit had been decimated in fighting around the city of Bakhmut.
The battalion commander, known by his call sign Kupol, gave an unusually frank assessment of Ukrainian losses in an interview from the front lines earlier this week.
He revealed that all of the original 500 soldiers in his unit had either been killed or injured, a rare acknowledgement from inside the Ukrainian ranks, where losses are kept strictly confidential.
The Ukrainian high command is at pains to present a positive spin on the increasingly bloody defence of the east of the country. US officials have estimated that the Ukrainian army may have taken 120,000 casualties compared with 200,000 by the Russian army.
Kupol told the Washington Post this week that the Ukrainian army training was often poor and that some of the rookie replacements didn’t know how to throw a hand grenade or fire a rifle.
Others had abandoned their positions shortly after arriving at the front line, he said.
“I get 100 new soldiers,” he said. “They don’t give me any time to prepare them. They say, ‘Take them into the battle.’ They just drop everything and run. That’s it. Do you understand why? Because the soldier doesn’t shoot. I ask him why, and he says, ‘I’m afraid of the sound of the shot.’ And for some reason, he has never thrown a grenade. … We need Nato instructors in all our training centres, and our instructors need to be sent over there into the trenches. Because they failed in their task.”
Kupol said what was left of his unit was also facing ammunition shortages.
“You’re on the front line,” he said. “They’re coming toward you, and there’s nothing to shoot with.”
Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are being trained by the British Army and other Nato countries but thousands more receive more rudimentary training in Ukraine.
Kupol said that he had been motivated to speak out to try to improve training levels but furious Ukrainian generals instead demoted him. The Washington Post said he had consented to have his picture taken but admitted he could face “personal blowback” for his honest assessment.
Valentin Shevchenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military, accused Kupol of “disseminating false information”. “The losses announced in the unit of which he had command are significantly overestimated,” she told Ukrainian media.
Shortly after his demotion, Kupol quit the Ukrainian army.
Within hours of his reassignment to a training camp, dozens of Ukrainian soldiers, politicians and journalists had voiced their support for the battalion commander.
“One of the armed forces finest commanders has just been removed,” Yuriy Butusov, a well-known Ukrainian war correspondent, wrote on Facebook.
“Instead of analysing mistakes that will defeat the Russian army, honest comments are suppressed and those who make them are punished.”
The leak on casualty numbers will be deeply embarrassing for the Ukrainian military which has diligently built up a narrative of its outnumbered but highly motivated and well-trained army taking on hordes of Russian soldiers and convicts.
It also undermines confidence in its much-talked-up counteroffensive planned for spring.
Ukraine and Russia guard their casualty numbers closely, believing that they could undermine morale, although military commanders still hint at the high death tolls at their evening briefings when they boast of killing hundreds of enemy soldiers.
On Sunday, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, said that Ukrainian forces had killed more than 1,100 Russian soldiers in the past week. Russia’s ministry of defence said that day that it had killed 220 Ukrainian soldiers in the past 24 hours.
It is not possible to independently verify these numbers. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have also been killed.
On the battlefield, the British ministry of defence has said that Russian fighters led by Wagner mercenaries have broken over the river in the centre of Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, but that their advance had stalled because they were exhausted.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s Security Council, said that Mr Zelensky was determined to defend the city despite growing pressure to withdraw.
“This is our land, and we have no right not to defend it,” he told Radio Free Europe.