By Tim Lister, Josh Pennington, Anna Chernova, Uliana Pavlova, Yulia Kesaieva and Sana Noor Haq, CNN
CNN — Russian troops have denounced an “incomprehensible battle” in Donetsk after apparently sustaining heavy losses during a week of intense fighting in the key eastern region of Ukraine.
Moscow has been trying to break through Kyiv’s defenses around the town of Pavlivka for at least the past seven days, but it seems to have made little progress with as many as 300 men killed in action, according to an open letter published on a prominent Russian military blog on Monday.
The men of the 155th Brigade of the Russian Pacific Fleet Marines launched stinging criticism against a senior Russian official in a rare display of defiance, accusing authorities of “hiding” the number of casualties “for fear of being held accountable.”
The letter, purportedly sent from the front lines to a regional Russian governor, came amid Moscow’s shaky offensive in a region President Vladimir Putin claimed to have illegally annexed just over a month ago.
“Once again we were thrown into an incomprehensible battle by General Muradov and his brother-in-law, his countryman Akhmedov, so that Muradov could earn bonuses to make him look good in the eyes of Gerasimov (Russia’s Chief of the General Staff),” the men said in the memo, sent to the governor of Primorsky Krai.
“As a result of the ‘carefully’ planned offensive by the ‘great commanders’ we lost about 300 men, dead and wounded, with some MIA over the past four days.
“We lost 50% of our equipment. That’s our brigade alone. The district command together with Akhmedov are hiding these facts and skewing the official casualty statistics for fear of being held accountable.”
They implored Governor Oleg Kozhemyako: “For how long will such mediocrities as Muradov and Akhmedov be allowed to continue to plan the military actions just to keep up appearances and gain awards at the cost of so many people’s lives?”
‘The blood keeps spilling’
Russian military commentators have also criticized the army’s approach in Donetsk.
“The situation in Pavlivka has been discussed at the highest level for several days, and the blood keeps spilling,” Aleksandr Sladkov, a Russian military journalist working for All-Russian State Television and Radio, said on Telegram.
“Troops say that there is a dilemma now: exhausted units cannot be withdrawn without fresh ones being brought in. There are no fresh units and no possibility of withdrawal and replacement due the constant firing,” Russian military journalist Alexey Sukonkin, also posted on Telegram.
“Why did we retreat from Pavlivka and have to recapture it now?” Aleksander Khodakovsky, a Russian-backed commander from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, said in criticism of Moscow’s tactical approach to the region.
Khodakovsky said Russian troops had been using basements as defensive positions, which meant they had not seen a flanking movement by the Ukrainians.
“That’s why quite a few Marines, including company commanders, were taken prisoner then. Not because they were weak in spirit, but because they were held hostage by their organization of defenses,” Khodakovsky said, adding that Ukrainian reconnaissance troops had used high-rise buildings in nearby Vuhledar and cameras fixed to the top of mine shafts to guide artillery strikes.
“The defenders of Pavlivka will again be taken hostage. Supplies and rotations will be difficult, it will be impossible to move through Pavlivka,” he said.
CNN cannot verify how many soldiers signed the letter nor their ranks, but Governor Kozhemyako confirmed he had received a letter from the unit.
“We contacted our Marine commanders on the front lines. These are guys who have been in combat since the beginning of the operation,” the governor said on Telegram.
Kozhemyako added the combat commander had emphasized that the deaths of the (Primorsky) troops were considerably exaggerated.
“I also know at first hand that our fighters showed at Pavlivka, as well as during the whole special military operation, true heroism and unprecedented courage. We inflicted serious damage on the enemy.”
Kozhemyako said the complaint made by the soldiers had been sent to the military prosecutor’s office.
Russia’s defense ministry issued a rare public response to criticism of the military operation in Donetsk, denying that its forces suffered “high, pointless losses in people and equipment.”
Russia’s losses in the area of Vuhledar and Pavlivka in the Donetsk region “do not exceed 1% of the combat strength and 7% of the wounded, a significant part of whom have already returned to duty,” the ministry claimed Monday, Russian state media agency TASS reported.
‘Epicenter’ of the battle
In response to Kozhemyako’s assertion that Moscow’s losses were “not that big,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the fierce conflict for Donetsk “remains the epicenter of the biggest madness of the occupiers.”
Zelensky continued, “They are dying in the hundreds every day.” The bodies of the occupiers are literally all over the ground in front of the Ukrainian positions.
Zelensky stated: “The governor probably can see better from there how many military men and in what way are being sent for slaughter from his region. He is about 9,000 kilometers (around 5,500 miles) from the frontlines. Or maybe he was just told to lie.”
Recently, numerous Russian tanks and other armored vehicles have been hit near Pavlivka, which is about 50 kilometers southwest of Donetsk and has been on the front lines for several months, according to social media posts and drone videos.
Senior officials referred to repelled attacks of intense shelling in the area as the Ukrainian military released video showing two Russian T-72B tanks and three BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles being hit by Ukrainian artillery and anti-tank systems.
Oleksii Hromov, the deputy head of Ukraine’s Operations Directorate of the General Staff, said on Thursday that “the enemy is losing the opportunity to implement their plans.”