WASHINGTON — Russia is struggling to attract recruits for its army amid its setbacks in Ukraine, while the United States is open to potentially sending Western tanks to Kyiv, a senior U.S. defense official said on Monday.
“The Russians are performing so poorly that the news from Kharkiv Province has inspired many Russian volunteers to refuse combat,” the official said, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the status of Russia’s war in Ukraine, adding that the leader of the Wagner Group, a private military company with ties to the Kremlin, had been seen in videos posted on social media asking Russian prisoners, Tajiks, Belarusians and Armenians to join the fight in Ukraine.
“We believe this is part of Wagner’s campaign to recruit over 1,500 convicted felons,” the official said. “But many are refusing.”
Last week, a video posted online and analyzed by The New York Times showed the Wagner Group promising convicts that they would be released from prison in return for a six-month combat tour in Ukraine. It is unclear when the video was filmed.
The official added that Russia was failing in its own strategic objectives, noting that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia reiterated last week that the “main goal” of his invasion was limited to capturing the Donbas — the eastern Ukrainian region where Russia has recognized as independent two Kremlin-backed statelets but where Ukraine still controls several key cities and towns. And, at a regional summit in Uzbekistan on Friday, Mr. Putin said Russia was committed to its “special military operation,” despite Russian losses in the northeast and Ukraine’s offensive in the south, near the port city of Kherson.
Furthermore, Ukrainian forces now control all of their territory west of the Oskil River in eastern Ukraine, the official said, and have liberated more than 300 settlements in Kharkiv Province.
With Ukrainian troops continuing to take back territory from Russian forces, and the war nearly seven months old, the Pentagon is discussing how best to support Kyiv for a long-term war. Part of that, the official said, includes transitioning Ukraine away from their Soviet-era weaponry and replacing them with those used by NATO and other Western militaries.
While the United States and other nations have provided Ukraine with Soviet-era tanks, the Pentagon signaled an openness to transferring Western main battle tanks to Kyiv as well.
“Armor is a really important capability area for the Ukrainians,” the official said. “We recognize that there will be a day when they may want to transition — and may need to transition — to NATO-compatible models.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly asked Western allies for more equipment and ammunition, saying the counteroffensive underway is dependent on getting more. He alluded to the need to speed up aid deliveries in his nightly address on Monday.
“Pace is very important now,” Mr. Zelensky said. “We speak about this honestly. The pace of providing aid to Ukraine should correspond to the pace of our movement.”
And despite its problems with manpower and organization, Russia still has a significant advantage over Ukraine in supplies and ammunition.
“Tanks are absolutely on the table along with other areas,” said the American defense official. “We’re looking at the entirety of the Ukrainian armed forces and considering for the future what capabilities they will need and how the U.S. and our allies will be able to support Ukraine in building out those capabilities.”
“In terms of the immediate fight, the tanks that are available that could be provided very quickly with little to no training are Soviet-type tanks, but we are certainly open to other options provided that the training, maintenance and the sustainment can be taken care of.”
Most of the 146 bodies exhumed so far in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Izium were civilians, and some of the bodies showed signs of torture, the leader of the regional military administration, Oleh Synyehubov, said Monday.
“Some of the dead have signs of violent death. There are bodies with tied hands and traces of torture,” Mr. Synyehubov wrote in a post on Telegram. Others had stab wounds or injuries from mine explosions and shrapnel, and two of the bodies belonged to children, he added.
Izium’s mayor, Valery Marchenko, has said that he expected it will take another two weeks to exhume all of the bodies from several mass grave sites in Izium that were discovered after Russian forces retreated in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. The largest of burial site contained about 440 individual graves, a discovery that cast a renewed spotlight on potential war crimes committed during Russia’s six-month occupation of the city.
Investigators say the discoveries recall the broad evidence of atrocities by Russian soldiers in towns like Bucha, near Kyiv, but each body must be forensically examined to determine the cause of death.
Russia’s battering of civilian targets including theaters, hospitals and apartment buildings has prompted months of international condemnation. Some attacks have been indiscriminate because of older, imprecise weaponry, while others have been targeted atrocities, like the killings in Bucha. Last month, the United Nations reported that it had confirmed the deaths of 5,587 Ukrainian civilians, though the true number is thought to be in the tens of thousands.
Russia has often denied responsibility or blamed Ukraine for civilian deaths. On Monday, Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-appointed proxy leader in Kherson, accused Ukraine of killing 13 civilians in targeted shelling in the eastern Donetsk region. The claim could not be independently verified.
Ukrainian officials denied the allegation, saying Moscow was terrorizing civilians in occupied territory to direct attention away from the investigations in Izium before this week’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
“The occupiers have already repeatedly used such a pattern to divert attention from their own crimes,” Ukraine’s national security and defense council said in a Telegram post.
A court in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine on Monday sentenced two Ukrainian staff members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to 13 years in prison on treason charges, a move the regional security organization castigated as “inhumane and repugnant.”
The workers “have been held unjustifiably for more than five months in unknown conditions for nothing but pure political theater,” the O.S.C.E. chairman, Zbigniew Rau, who is also Poland’s foreign minister, said in a statement.
Helga Maria Schmid, the O.S.C.E. secretary general, called for the immediate release of the staff members, Dmytro Shabanov and Maxim Petrov, along with a third unnamed staff member she said had been detained. The O.S.C.E. said all three are Ukrainian nationals.
The O.S.C.E., which counts Ukraine and Russia among its 57 members, is a regional security organization that, among other things, promotes peace, human rights and arms control and helps monitor elections.
According to Tass, the Russian news agency, authorities in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, one of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine that Russia has recognized, accused Mr. Petrov of gathering information about the region’s military and passing it on to a senior U.S. official. The details of the allegations against Mr. Shabanov were not immediately clear.
Ms. Schmid said the two men had been performing official duties before they were detained in April; Mr. Petrov was a translator and Mr. Shabanov was a security assistant. “Our colleagues remain O.S.C.E. staff members and had been performing official duties as mandated by all 57 participating states,” she said.
In July, an O.S.C.E. report highlighted the growing international concern over reports of abuses involving Russia’s so-called filtration camps, including the eventual executions of some detainees. The report was released after a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken that said Russian authorities had “interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported” as many as 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, into distant Russian territory.
It is not the first time a court in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine has handed down a sentence that has attracted loud criticism. In June, two Britons and a Moroccan who had fought for the Ukrainian armed forces were sentenced to death by a court in the breakaway Donetsk region after being accused of being mercenaries.
Senior officials from Russia and China have agreed to carry out more joint military exercises and enhance defense cooperation, according to statements on Monday, signaling that whatever misgivings Beijing may have over the war in Ukraine, the nations’ strategic partnership was only growing closer.
Nikolai P. Patrushev, the leader of Russia’s Security Council, and China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, held a meeting in southeastern Fujian Province where they agreed to conduct more joint military drills and patrols and to strengthen coordination between their countries’ defense officials, according to the Russian agency’s statement.
“The two countries continue to deepen strategic coordination, always firmly support each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests and major concerns,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a summary of the meeting.
The visit came days after President Vladimir V. Putin met in Uzbekistan with Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, and acknowledged afterward that China had “questions and concerns” about the situation in Ukraine. That cryptic admission prompted some analysts to conclude that despite public pronouncements that the nations’ friendship had “no limits,” Mr. Xi’s support for Mr. Putin was not unconditional.
Though Mr. Xi did not publicly refer to the situation in Ukraine during the meeting in Uzbekistan, he said that China was “willing to work with Russia to demonstrate the responsibility of a major country, play a leading role and inject stability into a turbulent world,” according to a Chinese government statement. Some experts said the statement sounded like a rebuke to Moscow for creating instability with its invasion.
Neither side pointed to any such differences following the meeting between top officials on Monday.
Mr. Yang emphasized the relationship between Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin, adding, “The leadership of the heads of state is the fundamental guarantee for the stability and long-term vitality of bilateral relations.”
Speaking in Fujian, Mr. Patrushev said, “The cooperation between Russia and China in the security field has deep historic roots.”
“In the current conditions, our countries must express an even better readiness for mutual support and development of cooperation,” said Mr. Patrushev, according to Interfax, a Russian news agency. Mr. Patrushev also met with Wang Xiaohong, a senior Chinese security official.
Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has complicated China’s balancing act between Russia and the West. China has provided a lifeline to Russia, largely mitigating the effect of Western sanctions that have curtailed Russia’s energy exports and halted its industrial cooperation with developed countries.
This year, trade between Russia and China has increased by more than a quarter, and China agreed to work on a major gas pipeline project via Mongolia that could offset Russia’s cutoff from the European energy market.
At the same time, however, China has been careful not to run afoul of its Western trading partners. It has not shipped weapons to Russia, which has instead turned to suppliers including Iran and North Korea, according to U.S. officials, and it has done little to help Moscow circumvent sanctions that prevent it from importing advanced Western technology.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said that Russian and Chinese officials would coordinate closely at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week.