PAVLOHRAD, Ukraine — The U.S. military said Monday The battle over the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which Russia has repeatedly claimed is on the verge of overtaking, has cost Vladimir Putin’s forces nearly 20,000 men since December alone. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the death toll, including wounded Russian fighters, had risen to 100,000.
Russia on Tuesday rejected the casualty figures from Washington as “pulled out of thin air”, but it did not provide any figures of its own. The last time Moscow gave any indication of its troop losses in Ukraine was in September, when the defense minister said about 6,000 troops had been killed.
Kirby said he did not have casualty figures for Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, but the fighting was fierce and it emerged this week that a former US Marine was among those who fell on the Ukrainian side of the front line. Former Marine Cooper “Harris” Andrews, 26, of Cleveland, was killed last week in Ukraine, his mother told CNN. He said he was hit by a mortar while helping evacuate civilians from Bakhmut, where Russian and Ukrainian forces have fought each other to a bloody stalemate.
As expected for the Ukrainian spring counteroffensive, Russia is retaliating in advance against the Ukrainian people, targeting civilian areas far from the front lines.
For three days, Russia has fired missiles and explosive drones at Ukrainian cities, including a second barrage targeting the capital, Kiev. Ukraine’s air defenses block many of Russia’s missiles – a wall of protection that President Volodymyr Zelensky has promised his country he is working to strengthen with help from the US and other “partners”.
Zelensky said Monday night that in just seven hours, between midnight and Monday morning, Ukraine “managed to shoot down 15 Russian missiles. But unfortunately, not all of them.”
Several missiles slipped through air defense nets and at least one of them hit the eastern city of Pavlohrad, about 70 miles from the eastern line and Russian-occupied territory.
A huge fireball lit up the sky between strikes. Ukrainian authorities would only say “an industrial complex” was hit. But not all missiles hit their mark.
Two people were killed and 40 injured in the attack in Pavlohrad. Residents told CBS News that air raid sirens rang throughout the night.
As soon as the alarm was raised, Olga and Serhei Litvenenko took refuge in a garage on their property. They went back inside around 2:30 a.m., but as the sound of explosions approached, they decided it was time to take shelter again.
“I told my wife, ‘Let’s run, it might hit the house,'” Serehi said, so they quickly pulled on their shoes and headed back to the garage.
Then there was an explosion. Serhei said a rocket hit the garage as it approached. He pointed to the charred remains of their car.
“It flipped over before my eyes… a lot of smoke, dust, and fire started,” he recalled. He said he ran to a well and tried to connect a hose to put out the fire, but the pump was damaged and he had to resort to a bucket.
“I was pouring (water) on the car, I wanted to save it. But I couldn’t… it got burnt in just a minute,” he said.
Serhei, who spent 36 years working in the mines around Bakhmut, knows how close a call it was between him and his wife, and how the shock was still fresh.
“I got lucky,” Serhei told CBS News. “Very lucky. I’m still trying to process exactly what happened. In my mind, it’s like I’m somewhere else.”
“Now I have a son on the front line,” Serhei said, cursing Russian President Vladimir Putin as an “animal.”
Ukrainian soldiers and civilians alike are bracing for more pre-emptive Russian attacks ahead of the much-anticipated spring counteroffensive.
A senior Ukrainian defense official told CBS News that preparations are almost complete, but recent rainy weather may delay the start. When it starts, he said, “the whole world will know.”