Russian commanders blamed for heavy losses in New Year’s Day strike

REUTERS/Albert Dzen
People take part in a ceremony in memory of Russian soldiers killed in the course of Russia-Ukraine military conflict, the day after Russia’s Defence Ministry stated that 63 Russian servicemen were killed in a Ukrainian missile strike on their temporary accommodation in Makiivka (Makeyevka) in the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine, in Glory Square in Samara, Russia, January 3, 2023.

RIGA, Latvia – The deaths of scores of Russian troops in a devastating strike on New Year’s Day has set off a blame game among Russian officials now facing criticism for allegedly packing hundreds of soldiers into a barracks and storing ammunition in the same building – all within Ukrainian firing range.

In a rare admission of heavy losses, the Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that 89 soldiers, including a lieutenant colonel, died after Ukrainian forces hit their garrison in a missile strike.

In a statement, the ministry blamed the attack in part on the “massive use . . . by personnel of mobile phones.” The signals alerted the Ukrainians to the garrison’s location, the statement said, adding that a commission is working to investigate the incident.

But war commentators and ordinary Russians cast the casualty estimate as a gross undercount, and some said the true death toll numbered in the hundreds. Even if understated, the public acknowledgment of the precision Ukrainian attack set off the most public outpouring of grief over fallen soldiers in the more than 10 months since the start of Russia’s invasion.

On Tuesday, Russian state media and Telegram channels posted videos showing memorial services across the Samara region, in southern Russia, where some of those killed in the strike were apparently conscripted during a controversial military mobilization in the fall.

Critics, including pro-war bloggers and commentators, described the strike as the result of a multilayered blunder by Russian military commanders, whom they accused of failing to heed the lessons of previous battlefield losses by housing troops and storing ammunition in a former vocational school building in the occupied town of Makiivka in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

“The incident in Makiivka, where dozens of Russian draftees died, should be the last of its kind,” Sergei Mironov, a fierce war supporter and head of a pro-Kremlin political party, tweeted. “The investigation will determine whether this was treason or criminal negligence. We need personal criminal liability for involved all officials under wartime.”

Russian officials said Ukrainian forces targeted the building with long-range rockets using U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). Neither Ukrainian nor U.S. officials have publicly confirmed that the more advanced systems were used in the attack.

The Washington Post was unable to independently verify either the Defense Ministry’s tally or the much higher count alleged by critics. But Moscow’s official report of 89 dead marked the highest toll it has admitted in a single incident since the invasion began last February.

Ukraine, which has been consistently cryptic about its role in bold attacks on Russia’s military assets, did not directly confirm its involvement but said that at least 400 Russian soldiers were killed in the strike.

“According to our information, there were about 600 people in that building,” wrote a prominent Russian military blogger who uses the pseudonym Rybar, adding that as of Monday, more than 100 soldiers were likely to have died, with dozens more injured.

“The facility was almost completely destroyed as a result of the detonation of the ammunition stored in the same building,” Igor Girkin, a former Russian paramilitary commander in Ukraine, wrote on Telegram. “In any case, the number of dead and wounded is in the many hundreds.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said early Wednesday that the attack had collapsed the garrison’s ceilings and buried troops under the rubble. It said Ukrainian forces fired six rockets at the position, four of which hit the barracks. Air defense systems intercepted two more, the ministry said.

The strike was a particular embarrassment for President Vladimir Putin, who just days earlier had publicly vowed to patch up various “issues” within the Russian armed forces, which have suffered a string of setbacks since September.

Pro-war commentators blamed the Makiivka incident on repeated and crude mistakes on the part of military commanders.

“Thinking that the enemy is a fool who does not see anything 10 months into the war is dangerous and criminal,” Russian commentator Andrey Medvedev wrote on his Telegram blog.

Rybar and other bloggers said that the troops were densely housed in a single location that was also used for stockpiling explosives, which detonated on impact.

Some bloggers described the allegation that Russian troops had given away their location by defying a ban on cellphone use as an attempt by Moscow to shift blame for its poor operational security. A high death toll of new conscripts could prove particularly problematic for the Kremlin, which has faced fierce criticism for sending poorly equipped and untrained draftees into battle.

Girkin questioned the decision to house troops within range of Ukrainian weapons. “I was warned that this could happen again at any moment since this is not the only such extremely dense deployment of personnel and equipment within HIMARS range,” he wrote.

Bloggers also lamented that the Makiivka strike was not the first time Russia suffered mass casualties because commanders had created an easy, high-value target by garrisoning large numbers of soldiers together instead of dividing them into smaller groups and quartering them farther from the front.

“These kinds of mistakes are from spring-summer 2022,” Pavel Gubarev, a blogger now serving in the military, wrote on Telegram, describing a similar strike on his garrison in the summer. “We are entering the 11th month of war! Settle in small groups, everyone knows that. The mobilized might not know, but the commanders must know.”

The mass deaths of soldiers, many of whom were reportedly conscripts only recently called to duty, prompted some of the first public mourning in Russia, where soldiers’ families are typically muzzled by an implicit threat that they will be denied financial benefits.

These events, while solemn, were not protests against the war.

Organized by activist groups and local offices of pro-Kremlin parties, the memorials involved a few hundred people laying red carnations at monuments built to commemorate the fallen soldiers of World War II – echoing Putin’s conspiracy-fueled, anti-Western rhetoric.

“Neither our husbands nor we wanted war,” a local patriotic activist and wife of an active-duty commander, Yekaterina Kolotovkina, said in a speech widely shared by Russian state TV propagandists. “But the whole West rallied against us; they rallied to destroy us, us and our children.”

“You know, for the first time since the beginning of the special military operation, I asked [my husband] to avenge the tears of mothers, inconsolable widows, orphans,” Kolotovkina said. “We won’t forgive. And victory will definitely be ours.”

Public uproar was more pointed on social media, where some Samara residents accused Russian authorities of minimizing the death toll and demanded lists of those killed and wounded in the Makiivka strike.

The governor of Samara, Dmitry Azarov, set up a hotline for soldiers’ relatives and urged them to wait for “official information.” Azarov’s office said he flew to Moscow on Tuesday to discuss “issues of medical care for drafted servicemen, additional uniforms and other issues” with Defense Ministry officials.