Zelenskiy says 31,000 soldiers KIA in first ever comments on Ukraine’s casualty rate

Zelenskiy says 31,000 soldiers KIA in first ever comments on Ukraine’s casualty rate
Zelenskiy says 31,000 soldiers KIA in first ever comments on Ukraine’s casualty rate / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews February 26, 2024

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the conflict in the last two years, putting a figure on the death toll for the first time when speaking at the Year 2024 conference on February 25, on the occasion of the second anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine.

"Each person is a very big loss for us. 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers died in this war," the president said, without clarifying whether the number covers the fighting that started in 2014 or just the last two years of full-scale war. "It is very painful for us." The number of those killed in action has been a closely guarded state secret and added that Russia has lost some 180,000 men killed in action and including the wounded, Russia has suffered 500,000 casualties. Zelenskiy didn’t reveal how many Ukrainians have been wounded so as not to reveal Ukraine’s fighting force numbers.

Zelenskiy's figure is almost certainly an underestimate. US officials recently estimated that the number of those killed amongst the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) is around 70,000. And last year European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that 100,000 had been killed by last summer in a speech. Bankova objected to von der Leyen's comment and the video with those comments was edited and re-released with the statement removed.

Both sides in the war have played down their losses. Observers have estimated that Russia’s losses are in excess of 200,000. A recent investigation by Russian news service Mediazona, based on inheritance claims in the public record, put the number of Russian dead at at least 75,000, but admits that this number is a minimum. The Economist also reported that in July 2023 the figure was between 40,000 and 55,000 and has moved “sharply higher” since then.

Difficult times ahead

With US aid to Ukraine frozen by infighting in Congress and ammunition supplies drying up as a result, the next few months will be difficult for Ukraine, Zelenskiy said. He added that Russia is preparing for an offensive in late May or early summer.

"It’s going to be difficult for us in the coming months, because there are fluctuations in the US that have an impact on some countries. Although the EU, with its appropriate support, has shown its ability to be a leader. It will be difficult for us in March and April. We will be going through a period of different waves: political, financial and various other kinds of pressure. Russia will be preparing a counteroffensive in early summer or late May, if they can,” he said. “The US elections will be a turning point. And after that, we will understand what’s going to happen next." The world is watching the US elections in November, where former US President Donald Trump could be re-elected. He has said that he will “quickly end” the war in Ukraine.”


Winning the war

Zelenskiy said that if Ukraine’s partners supplied the country with enough weapons, his country could win the war.

"What might this year, or the end of this year, look like? That depends on a lot of things. I'll give you one example. Air defence. This is just one example for you to understand how this works. If Ukraine had been able to obtain ten Patriot systems for its key industrial centres today or in the coming months, if we had been able to deploy these systems closer to the front line, they [the Russian forces] wouldn't have reached us, they would have retreated, we would have penetrated their defence lines and started advancing. Ten Patriots. They would have drastically changed the situation,” Zelenskiy said, reported Ukrayinska Pravda.

"I said Patriots, but that doesn't mean that Patriot systems alone are decisive. I was just giving you an example. There are two or three other [weapons] that will put an end to Russian defence. A decisive end," he added.

Zelenskiy stressed that Ukraine has no alternative to US Patriot missiles because there is a limited amount of air defence systems and their American analogues worldwide, making the air defence indispensable.

Zelenskiy called on Congress to pass the latest $60bn aid package for Ukraine within a month, as without more US aid Ukraine could face an ammunition crisis in March, experts have said.

"We are relying on Congress. I hope the decision will be positive. If not, I don’t really understand what the world we live in is turning into… They know we need their support within a month. That’s what we’ve asked for,” Zelenskiy said.

From across the Atlantic, Jake Sullivan, the White House Advisor for National Security, concurred with Zelenskiy on NBC TV, saying he believes Ukraine can win the war if it gets enough aid from its partners.

"Of course Ukraine can win. Of course Ukraine has already succeeded militarily in one of the most profound objectives it had, which was to keep the country from falling into Russian hands,” Sullivan said. "We are looking at some setbacks, including in recent days, because Ukraine didn't have enough ammunition to defend the town of Avdiivka in the East. But at the end of the day, Ukraine still has the capacity if we provide them the tools and resources they need to be able to prevail in this war...It is up to us, the United States and our allies and partners, to deliver on our commitments. And that is why the United States needs to deliver the aid package that passed on a massive bipartisan vote in the Senate – the House needs to step up and pass that," Sullivan added.

Vasyl Maliuk, head of the Security Service of Ukraine, commented on Ukraine’s drone attacks on Russia’s oil refineries for the first time, claiming that they have reduced Russian exports of oil products by a third.

"If we take a look at the last two months alone, and the number of enemy refineries that have been successfully hit – in fact, we have reduced exports of [Russian] oil products by a third. And 55% of their military budget is foreign exchange earnings from the export of oil products. And these are our legitimate goals,” he said.

New counteroffensive

Zelenskiy said that Ukraine has a new plan when asked about strategy, but that he could not reveal any of its details. The president said that Ukraine will be able to launch an offensive when the number of weapons it has matches the number of the Russian forces' weapons.

"The pressure the Russians are exerting is quite intense, especially on the Kharkiv front (Kupiansk), but it has been intense all along. Late last year and early this year the Russians were using 12 times more artillery [than Ukraine],” Zelenskiy said, reported Ukrayinska Pravda.

“Now the ratio is closer to 6.6 to 1. Their manpower advantage has declined, but it's still a significant advantage, and we need to get to the point where the ratio [of Ukrainian to Russian artillery] is 1 to 1.5, 1 to 3, as it was when we conducted counteroffensive operations in the past. Then we'll be able to push the Russians back. Until we have that amount [of weapons and ammunition], we will be able to stand [strong] or we might retreat… 100 metres here, 50 metres there. Sadly,” said Zelenskiy.

Zelenskiy said the new plan has been worked out with the new AFU high command after he recently replaced Ukraine’s top general Valerii Zaluzhnyi with military commander-in-chief Oleksandr Syrskyi and ordered him to come up with a new strategy following the failure of last summer’s counteroffensive.

Zelenskiy admitted that part of the reason for the failure of the counteroffensive was the lack of preparation. He said that four brigades were unable to participate in the summer’s campaign as they were poorly trained and lacked promised equipment – problems the president said are now being addressed.

"The Commander-in-Chief is conducting an audit now, and he wants to be in every position, in every team and on the relevant fronts to understand and draw conclusions. First of all, we are talking about the issue of reserves and rotations. We need to put everything in order and put an end to it,” Zelenskiy said. “You can't just fight, you need to rest. People need to understand that they have to work for this particular amount of days, then they take a break and have a rest. To do this, you need to train proper reserves.” One of the problems Ukraine faces is that it is becoming increasingly short of men and has been unable to rotate troops at the front. A new controversial mobilisation bill is currently being debated in the Rada and the general staff has called for an additional 450,000 to 500,000 men needed to shore up the strength of the AFU. But there is a lack of military service-aged men within the country to draw on and an estimated 1.6mn men of military age left the country at the start of the war and remain reluctant to return home.

Zelenskiy said that new supplies of Western weapons are central to any new counter-offensive.

“The solution is very simple: we need to press our partners to deliver on packages that have been discussed, agreed and signed off on. Then the Russians will have fewer chances. And as soon as we can match the number of weapons and munitions that Russia has on one of the fronts, we will definitely deliver, as we have done on numerous occasions in the past,” Zelenskiy said.

Military experts are widely expecting a Russian spring offensive in the meantime, as Russia’s forces are increasingly better armed, supplied and have sufficient manpower on rotation after a successful recruiting campaign that has seen its forces become able to replace the wounded and killed in the field with fresh recruits.

Ukraine fatigue

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, speaking at the same conference, said that talk of Ukraine fatigue is “not based on any evidence,” and this narrative is wrongly amplified by some media.

"The panel I participated [at the Munich Security Conference] was called "Ukraine Fatigue," Kuleba stated as cited by the Kyiv Independent. "But no one talked about Ukraine fatigue except for Nancy Pelosi, who said: 'Why is this the title of the panel if there is no fatigue? Why are you imposing this narrative?' This is the main thing. This is a story that, unfortunately, experts and the media play along with...The Ukraine fatigue narrative is not evidence-based." Kuleba went on to admit that the US has still not committed itself to more aid, but highlighted the full support of the EU, which recently signed off on a four-year €50bn support package and continues to provide arms and ammo.

"The Europeans should be praised; they demonstrate an absolute understanding that we need to speed up and make concrete decisions...America is a separate story. The situation is complicated, and everyone says that everything will be fine, but no one says when,” Kuleba said.


Peace talks

Zelenskiy took a tough line on restarting peace talks after the failure of the March 2022 peace deal agreed in Istanbul. Zelenskiy said that if it comes to talks, Ukraine will offer Putin “a platform where he can admit his defeat.” A journalist from US outlet ABC News asked Zelenskiy if Ukraine will lose the war and whether now is not the time to start ceasefire talks with the Kremlin.

Zelenskiy replied: "Can you talk to a deaf person? Can you talk to someone who kills their opposition? We will offer a platform where [Putin] will be able to concede that he lost this war and that it was a big mistake, something that’s a small mistake for him but a real tragedy for us and for the entire democratic world. There has to be justice in this question,” Zelenskiy said. “Will Ukraine lose this war? I’m convinced that it won’t. February 24, 2022 was the most difficult day. We don’t have the option of not winning. We don’t have the option of losing. Because what will happen if Ukraine loses? If it loses, we won’t exist. So, this outcome of the fight for our lives definitely doesn’t work for us. Whether Ukraine loses, whether we will struggle a lot, and whether there will be a lot of victims depends on you, on our partners, on the Western world. If we are strong, if we have weapons, we will not lose this war, we will win,” Zelenskiy said, reported Ukrayinska Pravda.


Nato membership

Zelenskiy has said that Ukraine’s Nato membership is entirely up to its main Western partners. He said that he would push for Nato membership again during the Washington summit in July.

Zelenskiy said that as far as he knows, all of Ukraine’s partners support inviting it to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and believe that Ukraine will eventually join Nato.

"I don’t want to mince words here. As of today, with due respect to all partners, [whether Ukraine gets] the invitation depends on the United States of America and on Germany. That’s a fact," Zelenskiy said.

Polish border blockage

Zelenskiy lashed out at Polish protests that have blocked the transit of Ukraine's agricultural goods trying to enter the EU. At the weekend Polish farmers dumped 160,000 tonnes of Ukrainian grain onto the tracks, sparking outrage in Kyiv.

Zelenskiy said Kyiv is trying to resolve the crisis and to lift the blockade at the Polish border, but if this cannot be achieved, Kyiv will be forced to “defend Ukrainian businesses.” "Ukraine needs to be supported now. We have a working relationship with [Polish Prime Minister Donald] Tusk and we have had meetings. I recently met with [Polish President Andrzej] Duda as well. And with Ursula von der Leyen [President of the European Commission],” he said. “I have been saying that this is a political issue since last April. And today the European Commission has confirmed this." Zelenskiy believes that "there is an internal struggle in Poland" and that "it is simply unfair to use Ukraine as leverage against European institutions''.

Polish farmers have been demanding subsidies from their government in the face of rising costs, lost Russian markets and competition from much cheaper Ukrainian imports that are currently entering the EU duty free since the war started two years ago.

"I believe that the [Polish] prime minister will find the appropriate steps. As president, I say openly that it is very important for us to maintain our alliance with Poland. And if steps are not taken, then we will defend our businesses," Zelenskiy said.

The protests started last April when a flood of cheap, low-quality Ukrainian grain that was supposed to be sent to Africa and other international markets was dumped on the Polish grain market, causing a glut and crashing prices. Poland responded by unilaterally banning Ukraine’s grain imports. Polish truckers, who have been undercut by the much cheaper Ukrainian truckers, then blockaded the border last autumn in a dispute that is yet to be resolved.

While Poland has been extremely politically supportive of Ukraine, sharing the same fear of Russian invasion, Warsaw and Kyiv have clashed over the issue of grain, as both countries are highly dependent on agricultural exports. The newly elected Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has promised to find a compromise with Ukraine, but he remains beholden to the domestic agricultural lobby, a core constituent for the government. Tusk rejected President Zelenskiy's recent suggestion of a governmental meeting at the border as the two sides try to find a compromise. Last week a Ukrainian government delegation arrived at the border, but no meeting took place, as Polish representatives did not arrive.


Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine's Defence Intelligence, made several statements at the conference, including denying that Iran had supplied Russia with ballistic missiles, in comments to We Are Ukraine TV channel, on the sidelines of Ukraine. Year 2024 forum, European Pravda reports.

"[There are] none. None of this is true," Budanov said, adding that several such missiles were supplied to Russia by North Korea. "However, this is also not true when it comes to large-scale applications.” Iran has been accused of selling Russia large amounts of drones that have become one of Russia’s main weapons in the war against Ukraine. Reuters has reported that Iran has already sent several batches of its surface-to-surface ballistic missiles to Russia since the beginning of 2024.

Budanov also said the Kremlin was running a psy-op called “Maidan 3” that was designed to sow doubts about the legitimacy of Ukrainian authorities within the country, but that operation is failing. Budanov claims that this is the Russians' "most expensive" operation, but it is already failing because the Ukrainian side "knows everything they have in mind,” Ukrayinska Pravda reports.

“They are not as much interested in changing political leadership as in the task of inflicting a military defeat,” he said.

Ukraine should hold presidential elections this spring as Zelenskiy’s five-year term is due to expire. However, according to the Ukrainian constitution, elections cannot be held while martial law is in effect and the elections have been suspended. Some observers say that the failure to hold elections will undermine Zelenskiy’s authority, although a recent poll found that the majority of Ukrainians want Zelenskiy to remain president for the duration of martial law. When asked if President Zelenskiy should run for another term (if elections are held), 53% of respondents said yes, a 6% decrease since December 2023.


In a surprise addition, Budanov also said that opposition blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny’s death on February 16 was due to natural causes. He confirmed the Russian official explanation that a blood clot had suddenly killed the opposition leader last week.

Zelenskiy criticised the lack of Russian popular reaction to Navalny’s death. While a few hundred Russians came out to pay their respects and lay flowers at various memorials in Moscow and St Petersburg, the reaction to the death was largely muted. Zelenskiy said that he believes the Russian public reaction to the death of the opposition leader was largely missing.

Navalny’s body has now been handed over to his mother after the authorities tried to force her to bury him in a quiet service. A funeral is planned in the coming weeks in Moscow and Russia watchers are following these developments closely, as there could be large turnout at the event, similar to the burial of Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov in the final years of the Soviet Union.

"As for the Russians, what do I have to talk to them about? They had one opposition leader, and they killed him. We have to talk to them now, but how? The Kremlin killed [Navalny]. Where is the public response? He is one of them,” Zelenskiy said. “I recently talked to a US journalist about this. He also asked me about it, but why was he asking me? Ask those people, he was their compatriot! They don't care...”