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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

31,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed in two years of war, Zelenskyy says



Loved ones help the father of Maksym Zhelezniakov, a fallen Ukrainian soldier from the 54th Brigade, as he fainted next to the coffin of his son before the burial in Kamianske, Ukraine, Feb. 11, 2024. Despite death, destruction and deprivation, nearly 90 percent still believe in Ukraine’s ultimate victory, as long as Western aid continues. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

By Carlotta Gall and Constant Méheut


Some 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since Russia’s full-scale invasion began two years ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday, acknowledging for the first time in the war a concrete figure for Ukraine’s toll.


“This is a big loss for us,” Zelenskyy said at a news conference in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. But he declined to disclose the number of wounded or missing, saying that Russia could use the information to gauge the number of Ukraine’s active forces.


Zelenskyy’s tally could not be independently verified. It differs sharply from estimates by U.S. officials, who last summer put the losses much higher, saying that close to 70,000 Ukrainians had been killed and 100,000 to 120,000 had been wounded. Russia’s military casualties, the officials said, were about twice as high.


By revealing Ukraine’s losses, Zelenskyy said he wanted to counter Russian propaganda and other estimates that have placed Ukrainian casualties at a much higher level. He said Russia had wrongly claimed that Ukraine had lost 60,000 soldiers.


Zelenskyy’s unusual acknowledgment came as his country’s armed forces have been on the defensive, running low on manpower and ammunition along most of the 600-mile front line, with Russian troops pressing attacks in the east and south. A week ago, Moscow captured the city of Avdiivka, a Ukrainian stronghold in the east, and its troops have been slowly pushing westward in recent days, trying to build on their momentum in the area.


Ukraine’s top general, Oleksandr Syrsky, said he had ordered his troops to withdraw from Avdiivka to “preserve the lives and health of the soldiers,” which he described as the army’s “highest value.”


But soldiers on the ground said the retreat should have been ordered earlier because Ukrainian forces were outgunned by Russian artillery and Russian air superiority in the region.


Zelenskyy’s announcement came at the end of a weekend marking the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion. On Saturday, he hosted the leaders of Canada, Belgium and Italy, as well as the head of the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen, among others who traveled to Kyiv in a show of solidarity.


On Sunday, his ministers and other senior officials attended a daylong conference to present their plans for the future as Ukraine moves into a third year of full-scale war with Russia.


Zelenskyy said he was optimistic about continued U.S. support despite Congress’ delay in passing a package that includes $61 billion in military assistance for Ukraine.


He also said he had noticed a shift in attitudes in Europe in recent months as U.S. assistance has been held up and as Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown no sign in slowing his attacks.


“I think they understood Putin will continue this war,” he said of the European leaders. “And that’s why a lot of them began to increase supplies of artillery.”


Overall, Zelenskyy said, Ukraine is in a much better position strategically than when Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24, 2022.


“The first year was about survival,” he said. “The second year, after the winter, it was about resilience,” he went on. “Our soldiers have demonstrated that. The West became united, and the introduction of military equipment, that was very important for us.


“It was a shocking moment on Feb. 24,” he said. “Now it is a very strong moment of unity.”


Yet Ukraine’s shortage of weaponry in the face of nearly five months of Russia’s offensive hung over the whole day like the elephant in the room. The increase in European deliveries of artillery shells will not be enough to replace U.S. supplies if they fail to materialize because of Congress’ inaction, Zelenskyy said.


“We will be weaker on the battlefield,” he said. “We have the weapons that we have. We will search for others.”


He said at another point that Ukraine had only ever received one-third of the promised materiel. And four brigades that had been assigned to take part in last summer’s counteroffensive were still sitting on their heels because they had not been provided with promised equipment, he said.


In the face of wavering Western support, the Ukrainians emphasized their self-reliance and innovation.


Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov opened a day of presentations by government ministers on Ukraine’s military production of drones and hybrid weapons systems. Ukraine is now in a singular position to test and modify weapons systems rapidly during the war, in close collaboration with Western partners, he said.


The head of the office of the president, Andriy Yermak, described Ukraine’s aim to build international support for a peace plan that Zelenskyy has proposed and to gradually erode support for Russia around the world. A planned conference in Switzerland in coming months could pave the way for a follow-up meeting to which Russia could be invited, he said.


The president, a comedian and television presenter by profession, appeared relaxed and positive, turning serious when talking of civilian suffering and military casualties. But he was more lighthearted and would break into English at times while speaking directly to journalists.


When asked by one reporter whether he would answer a call from Putin to his cellphone, Zelenskyy quipped back, “I don’t have a cellphone,” drawing laughs in the conference room.


The president was also asked about a poll showing that an increasing share of Canadians — now 25% — thought Ottawa was giving too much money to Ukraine. “So 70% said you have to give more,” he answered.


The only time Zelenskyy appeared uncomfortable was when he was asked about his removal this month of the popular army commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, and the appointment of Syrsky as his replacement. The president declined to talk about an “internal matter” and added that further decisions would wait until the new command had fully reviewed the situation on the battlefield and in the armed forces.

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