ZHYTOMYR, Ukraine (AP) – Cemetery workers prepared the next hole as soon as they finished burying a veteran colonel who was killed by Russian shelling. Given how quickly death crushes Ukrainian troops on the frontlines, the empty tomb is bound to not stay that way for long.
Colonel Oleksandr Makhachek left a widow, Elena, and her daughters, Olena and Myroslava-Oleksandra. In the first 100 days of the war, his grave was dug up as the 40th at the military cemetery in Zhytomyr, 140 kilometers west of the capital Kyiv.
He was killed on May 30 in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, where fighting is raging. Nearby, on the grave of Viacheslav Dvornitskyi, which was also freshly excavated, the grave marker states that he died on May 27. Other graves also showed soldiers who were killed within days – on May 10th, 9th, 7th and 5th. And this is just a cemetery in just one of the cities, towns and villages of Ukraine where soldiers rest.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week that Ukraine is now losing 60 to 100 soldiers in combat every day. For comparison: In 1968, the deadliest year of the Vietnam War for the US armed forces, an average of almost 50 American soldiers died per day.
Among those who paid their last respects to 49-year-old Makhachek at his funeral on Friday was General Viktor Mushenko, chief of staff of Ukraine’s armed forces until 2019. He warned that casualties could worsen.
“This is one of the critical moments in the war, but it’s not the climax,” Muzhenko told The Associated Press. “This is the most important conflict in Europe since World War II. That explains why the losses are so great. To reduce casualties, Ukraine now needs powerful weapons equal to or even better than Russian weapons. This would allow Ukraine to respond in kind.”
Concentrations of Russian artillery are causing many of the casualties in the eastern regions that Moscow has focused on since its first invasion, launched on February 24, failed to take Kyiv.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of US Army forces in Europe, described the Russian strategy as a “medieval approach of attrition” and said until Ukraine is promised supplies of US, British and other arms to Russia to destroy and disrupt batteries, “those kinds of sacrifices will continue.”
“This battlefield is so much deadlier than what we’ve all become accustomed to in 20 years of Iraq and Afghanistan where we didn’t have numbers like this,” he said in an AP phone interview.
“That level of attrition would include leaders and sergeants,” he added. “They are the brunt of the victims because they are the more exposed and they are constantly moving to do things.”
Makhachek, a military engineer, led a detachment that laid minefields and other defenses, said Colonel Ruslan Shutov, who attended the funeral of his friend of over 30 years of age.
“When the shelling started, he and a group hid in a shelter. There were four people in his group and he told them to hide in the dugout. He hid in another. Unfortunately, an artillery shell hit the shelter where he was hiding.”
Ukraine had about 250,000 men and women in uniform before the war and was adding another 100,000. The government has not said how many have died in the more than 14 weeks of fighting.
Nobody really knows how many Ukrainian civilians were killed or how many combatants died on both sides. Victim claims made by government officials — who sometimes exaggerate or downplay their numbers for publicity reasons — are all but impossible to verify.
Western analysts assume far higher Russian military casualties, namely several thousand. But as Ukraine’s losses mount, the grim mathematics of the war require it to find replacements. With a population of 43 million, it has a labor force.
“The problem is recruiting, training, and getting them to the front lines,” said retired US Marine Col. Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“If the war now turns into a long-term attrition, then you have to build systems to get replacements,” he said. “This was a difficult moment for any army in combat.”
Muzhenko, the Ukrainian general, said Zelenskyy’s admission of heavy casualties would further boost Ukrainian morale and more Western weapons would help turn the tide.
“The more Ukrainians know what is happening at the front, the greater the will to resist,” he said. “Yes, the losses are significant. But with the help of our allies, we can minimize and reduce them and move on to successful offensives. This requires powerful weapons.”
Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Lviv.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine