When Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, posted a graphic photo on Telegram this week showing the dead body of a Russian military officer, he claimed “the shoulder straps of a major general” were found nearby.
The body is believed to be that of Maj. Gen. Oleg Mityaev, an officer who reportedly commanded the 150th Motor Rifle Division and had fought in Syria, and died as Russian forces stormed the Ukrainian coastal city of Mariupol.
“This is a serious blow to the morale of Russian commanders. And the huge success of the Heroes of Mariupol,” Gerashchenko wrote.
Mityaev’s alleged death would make him the fourth Russian general reported killed in action in the first three weeks of the war, showcasing the intense resistance and heavy casualties President Vladimir Putin’s forces have faced since invading Ukraine.
In addition to Mityaev’s death, news that Maj. Gens. Vitaly Gerasimov, Andrei Kolesnikov and Andrei Sukhovetsky had all been killed in action was widely circulated by Ukrainian officials and some Russian media. But the alleged deaths have not been announced by Moscow officials or verified by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“I can’t confirm the reports about generals being killed in action,” one senior U.S. defense official, who spoke under condition of anonymity, told Military.com during a briefing with reporters. “We just can’t independently corroborate those.”
Russian military experts said reports of four generals being killed in Ukraine are a testament to how well the Ukrainians are fighting and showcase some of the blatant errors Putin’s forces are making.
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program and a retired Marine Corps colonel, said Russian generals have a tradition of leading troops into battle going back to the roots of the Soviet Union and the Red Army.
But the vulnerability of an invading force makes these officers more susceptible to fire in the open, he added.
“Every military recognizes that they’ll take casualties, so everybody is replaceable from generals on down the privates,” Cancian told Military.com. “The Russian generals are probably leading from the front. They’re clearly getting out there, and there’s an element of vulnerability to that.”
A Russian major general essentially equates to a brigadier general in the U.S. military. The American military tends to keep high-ranking officers behind the front lines, leaving a lot of the leadership in combat situations to junior officers and senior enlisted members who then communicate up the chain of command. Due in part to this structure, it’s rare for the U.S. military to lose generals in combat zones. The most recent example was Army Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, who was gunned down by a disgruntled Afghan soldier in 2014.
Greene was the highest-ranking officer to be killed during America’s wars in the Middle East and marked the highest-ranking fatality since the Vietnam War in 1972.
Jeffrey Edmonds, the former director for Russia on the National Security Council in the Obama administration and now a senior policy analyst at the CNA think tank in Washington, D.C., told Military.com that political pressure from Moscow is likely pushing many of Putin’s military officers to the front lines.
“I think in this particular case, generals are much closer to the line because they’re trying to force this move, probably because of political drivers behind it to just get in the city,” Edmonds said. “They clearly still think that they can take Kyiv and then the rest of this thing will still fall.”
Compounding the problem, the Russian military is currently short of personnel in the lower-level officer ranks, meaning a lot of the responsibility for movement is on generals in the field.
Col. John Barranco, a U.S. Marine Corps fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, said targeting Russian generals may prove to be an effective strategy for the Ukrainians.
“I do think it hurts Russian morale, and I think it helps Ukrainian morale,” Barranco told Military.com. “I think it has an impact tactically. These guys are up front for a reason.”
Notably, Ukrainian special forces have been targeting Russian officers and military leaders with remote piloted drones and special weapons such as high-powered sniper rifles provided by NATO allies.
Even as officers in the field face heavy fire, there are reports that those back in Moscow have their own problems. Last week, Ukraine Defence Secretary Oleksiy Danilov claimed Putin had fired as many as eight generals over his country’s military losses during the invasion.
While the Ukrainian and Russian governments have offered up conflicting casualty numbers, U.S. intelligence officials told The New York Times that at least 7,000 Russian troops have been killed, with another 14,000 to 21,000 injured in less than a month, significant numbers given the 150,000 troops believed to be in Ukraine.
By comparison, the U.S. lost around 7,000 service members over the course of two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Much of the Russian public doesn’t know the extent of the casualties due to intense censorship and control of the media by Putin’s regime. But reports of Russian soldiers surrendering or fleeing have been widely circulated by Ukraine and online.
As reports of casualties and officer deaths increase, some military experts believe Russian soldiers who are seeing the horrors firsthand are at a breaking point.
“The Russian citizens that know absolutely the most about this war are the soldiers that are getting shot at as we speak,” Edmonds said. “The poor preparation, the lack of justification, the heavy casualties, the difficulty with it, all of it has contributed to this pretty low morale, from what we can tell.”