Russian officials on Monday denied allegations that an elite marine unit had suffered catastrophic losses during an “incomprehensible” assault in eastern Ukraine.
Officials responded to what pro-Russian military bloggers and Telegram channels said was an unsigned open letter from members of the 155th marine brigade of Russia’s Pacific Fleet.
“They don’t care about anything other than to show off themselves. They call people meat,” said the scathing and unusual letter, which was addressed to Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of Primorsky Krai, a Russian region in the country’s far east where the unit is based.
The attack on the town of Pavlovka in eastern Ukraine, near the Ukraine-Russian border and south of the city of Luhansk, left 300 Russians dead, wounded or missing, according to the letter, which has not been independently verified by NBC News, although Kozhemyako responded to the claims.
“We have contacted the commanders,” he wrote. “Yes, there are losses. There are heavy battles going on. But the losses are not as big as they say in this appeal.”
Russia’s Ministry of Defense, issuing an unusual denial to a specific complaint from its servicemen, said in response to the letter that the division had not suffered “significant losses.”
The letter and the responses to it are the latest signs of unrest among Russian soldiers as President Vladimir Putin’s forces fail to take and hold cities as morale plummets. An ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive has recaptured towns and threatens to take the key city of Kherson.
Footage has emerged appearing to show a key Putin ally recruiting prisoners to fight in Russia’s ranks, while thousands of fighting-age men fled Russia to escape the prospect of being conscripted as part of a plan to recruit 300,000 soldiers.
Russian forces have been destroying infrastructure in Ukrainian towns and cities, often using drones and leaving large parts of the country without power.
The letter alleged that the unit was ordered to take Pavlovka, but instead, half the unit’s equipment was destroyed over four days.
Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Lt. Gen. Rustam Muradov, commander of Russia’s eastern military district, were guilty of “hiding” the true number of losses, it added.
“How were they going to take over the settlement, having skipped through the woodlands in which the enemy was still staying? Who is now destroying our people on the routes of evacuation of the wounded and the supply of ammunition,” the letter said.
The letter ended by urging military leaders to contact the “supreme commander,” referring to Putin, asking him to launch an independent investigation into military failings.
“How long can this be tolerated already!?” the letter added.
The Russian Ministry of Defense responded with: “Due to the competent actions of the unit commanders, the losses of marines during this period do not exceed one percent of the combat personnel and seven percent of the wounded, a significant part of whom have already returned to service.”
The unit had advanced “up to 5km (3.1 miles)” into Ukrainian-held territory, the ministry said.
Patrick Smith is a London-based editor and reporter for NBC News Digital.