NATO officials said Russia’s offensive to seize Kyiv had largely ceased, and Ukraine said on Thursday it had launched a counteroffensive aimed at gaining decisive control over the city’s outskirts.
U.S. and allied intelligence assessments vary widely as to exactly how many Russian troops have been killed so far, sources familiar with the intelligence told CNN. But even the lowest estimates are in the thousands.
So far, the figure has been calculated primarily from NGOs, open-source reports from the Ukrainian government, commercial satellite imagery, and intercepted Russian communications. U.S. officials also extrapolated the death toll based on the number of Russian tanks destroyed, the sources said.
Regardless of the exact numbers, U.S. and Western intelligence officials have observed that Russia struggles to replace its troops, which has had a major impact on Russian military morale, a senior NATO official said on Wednesday.
“The case of Putin’s gross miscalculation is becoming more and more apparent every day,” a senior NATO intelligence official told reporters at NATO headquarters on Wednesday night, requesting anonymity to disclose the sensitive assessment. “Russia continues to face difficulties in making up for combat losses and is increasingly seeking to use irregular forces, including Russian private military companies and Syrian fighters.”
A senior NATO military official echoed the assessment, saying “we can assess that more private military companies will be involved soon” in the conflict. But overall, he said, the losses “had a bad effect on the morale of the troops.”
“We can see that [Putin] NATO military officials say Ukrainians’ resilience and resistance were misestimated. “It’s a fact. He didn’t see it. It was a big surprise for him. So he had to slow down.”
Low morale in Russia
Citing the Ukrainian General Staff, the NATO intelligence official added that “Russian service members are increasingly refusing to travel to Ukraine despite their promises of veteran status or even higher salaries.” He noted that NATO expects “reportedly Russian The high casualty toll will also cause some reactions in Russia, because the Russian people will eventually realize the extent of their losses.”
A senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Thursday that the Pentagon had anecdotal evidence of low morale in Russia.
“We didn’t go into every unit and every sign. But we did find some anecdotal signs of low morale in some units,” the official said. “We believe that some of that is due to poor leadership, a lack of information the force is getting about its mission and goals, and I think it’s disillusioned with being backlashed like they did.”
In some cases, Russian forces simply dump damaged vehicles on the battlefield, walk away and leave behind tanks and armored personnel carriers, according to two U.S. officials.
A congressional source with knowledge of the intelligence also said the U.S. had assessed that there appeared to be a gap between the Russian military’s preparedness and actual encounters. Many of the captured Russians so far have said, for example, that they did not expect a war in Ukraine and thought they were just part of a military exercise.
However, congressional sources said the commitment from Russia’s military leaders appeared to remain high.
Last week, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier told a congressional committee at a public hearing that the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of the Russian military’s death toll was between 2,000 and 4,000. He said the assessment was based on intelligence sources and open source material, with little confidence.
U.S. and Western intelligence officials generally acknowledge that willingness to fight is often difficult to gauge, and it is unclear how much low morale contributes to Russia’s slow progress on the battlefield. But weeks of open-source reports have documented dissatisfaction and signs of low morale among ground troops, and one official speculated that one of the reasons Russian generals have been operating in high-risk, forward-fighting positions is to cheer up demoralized troops.
The issue could also extend to Russia’s elite air force, the official said.
“They lost a bunch of planes,” the person said. “It really affected the morale of the pilots.”
Russia is also behind its expected schedule, the senior NATO military official said on Wednesday. Putin now wants to extend Russian control of Ukraine all the way west to the Moldovan border in order to rendezvous with more Russian troops and try to surround Kyiv, the official said.
The official said there were pro-Russian troops stationed along Transnistria – a breakaway state in Moldova – and they were “to some extent, ready” to go to war. But they have not done so because the Russian regular army has not made substantial progress westward, he said.
Despite the heavy losses, the senior NATO intelligence official said NATO believes Putin is “unlikely to be intimidated, but likely to escalate. He may still believe that Russia can defeat Ukraine militarily.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.