Dozens of Russian soldiers killed in massive Donetsk missile strike

AP Photo/LIBKOS, File
Ukrainian soldiers launch a drone at Russian positions near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022.

Dozens of Russian soldiers were killed in a massive missile strike early on New Year’s Day in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, Moscow said, marking what could be one of the deadliest attacks on Russian forces since the start of the invasion.

Without claiming responsibility for the attack, Kyiv’s military command said that at least 400 soldiers were killed in the strike in Makiivka, a city in eastern Ukraine under Russian occupation, and that at least 300 soldiers were injured. Russia’s Defense Ministry put the death toll at 63.

The Washington Post could not independently confirm an accurate toll.

In a statement posted to Telegram, the Department of Strategic Communications of the Armed Forces of Ukraine provided little detail, suggesting sarcastically that the incident was the result of “the careless handling of heating devices, neglect of security measures and smoking.”

Moscow authorities, pro-Kremlin war bloggers and Telegram channels acknowledged the attack but provided inconclusive and contradictory death tolls.

Russia’s Defense Ministry blamed Kyiv for the strike and said that the Ukrainian military had fired four long-range missiles from U.S.-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), two of which were shot down.

Daniil Bezsonov, a senior Moscow-backed official for the region, wrote on Telegram that just after midnight on New Year’s Day, a Ukrainian missile had struck a vocational school in Makiivka that housed soldiers.

“A massive blow was dealt to the vocational school from American MLRS Himars,” Bezsonov wrote. “There were dead and wounded, the exact number is still unknown.”

Pro-Kremlin war correspondent Alexander Sladkov reported that recently mobilized Russian conscripts had been staying in the building.

The incident has revitalized Russian criticism of the country’s commanders, with high-profile commentators pointing to it as the latest example of the military leadership’s ineptitude.

Igor Girkin, an ultranationalist figure who led Moscow-backed separatists during the conflict in Donbas in 2014 and regularly criticizes Russia’s military decisions, said that the building had been “almost completely destroyed” and alleged that ammunition stored in the building had compounded the damage.

“Almost all of the military equipment was also destroyed, which stood right next to the building without any disguise whatsoever,” Girkin wrote on Telegram, saying that “many hundreds” had been killed and wounded and that many were still missing under the rubble.

Several commentators said that the victims in Makiivka included men from central Russia who had been recently conscripted as part of the Kremlin’s widely unpopular mobilization drive. Russian state media reported that the recruits had been using their cellphones, which reporters speculated had revealed their location.

“No one is assuming the responsibility for the needless deaths” said Anastasia Kashevarova, a pro-Russian blogger. Andrey Medvedev, a Russian propagandist, wrote that “housing personnel in buildings instead of housing them in shelters directly aids the enemy.”

Photos and videos posted to social media appeared to show the wreckage of the building, with firefighters combing through the rubble. The Russian-installed administration said at least 25 rockets were fired at the region overnight on New Year’s Eve.

The incident in Makiivka marks a rare case of Moscow officially confirming substantial losses. Last May, according to Ukraine’s military command and Western intelligence, almost an entire Russian battalion and dozens of military vehicles were wiped out by Ukrainian artillery while attempting to cross a pontoon bridge on the Donets River, in eastern Ukraine.

In August, Ukraine claimed to have struck a base in the southern occupied city of Melitopol that housed mercenaries from Russia’s infamous Wagner paramilitary group. And on Dec. 11, Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine’s governor for the Russian-occupied Luhansk region, said that a hotel serving as a base for Wagner soldiers in the eastern town of Kadiivka had been targeted.

Moscow did not acknowledge any of the three reported attacks.

The attack on Makiivka also follows an uptick in reported attacks on targets deep inside Russia. A reconnaissance drone was reportedly shot down over Voronezh, in southwest Russia, late Sunday, while the governor of Belgorod region said Monday that the village of Vyazovoe had “come under fire.” Three separate drone attacks last month targeted a Russian military air base in Engels, 300 miles from the Ukrainian border – three Russian servicemen were reportedly killed in one of the attacks.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials said infrastructure facilities in the capital had been targeted overnight Monday by Russian drones.

The Kyiv City Military Administration said 20 drones were shot down, with Kyiv Gov. Oleksiy Kuleba saying on Telegram: “Air defense works.” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said early Monday that the attacks had damaged energy facilities, forcing emergency power outages in the city.

The assaults were part of the latest wave of attacks throughout the country over the New Year’s weekend that killed at least four civilians.

On Saturday, amid the barrage of strikes across Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an unusually combative prerecorded address, which was broadcast as Russians in the Far East began New Year’s celebrations.

Putin said Russia was fighting in Ukraine to protect its “motherland” and called 2022 “a year of hard, necessary decisions” and “fateful events” that had laid the foundation for Russia’s future.

Speaking against a backdrop of military service members, instead of the typical wintry vista of the Kremlin, Putin’s speech marked a significant shift in tone – a reflection of the new path Russia has taken since the invasion, which has left the country internationally isolated and economically challenged.

“The West lied about peace but was preparing for aggression” and is “cynically using Ukraine and its people to weaken and divide Russia,” Putin said. “We have never and will never allow anyone to do this to us.”