Russia admits dozens of its soldiers are killed in Ukrainian strike in east
By Matthew Moke Bigg and Anatoly Kurmanaev
Ukrainian forces used U.S.-supplied guided rockets to hit a building housing Russian soldiers in an occupied eastern city early on New Year’s Day, both sides said, in one of the deadliest strikes on Moscow’s forces in the 10-month-old war.
The deaths of at least 60 soldiers, and possibly many more, drew immediate and harsh criticism in Russia from supporters of the war, who said that the military was making repeated and costly mistakes, including housing soldiers in dense numbers within striking distance of Ukrainian weapons.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Monday that 63 service members had been killed in the strike in the city, Makiivka, which is in the Donetsk region. Ukraine claimed that “about 400” Russian soldiers had died. Neither figure could be independently verified.
A spokesperson for the Russian-installed proxy government in the Donetsk region, Daniil Bezsonov, called the strike “a massive blow” and hinted at errors by Russian commanders. “The enemy inflicted the most serious defeats in this war on us not because of their coolness and talent, but because of our mistakes,” he wrote in a post on the Telegram messaging app.
Ukraine hit the building housing the soldiers, which both sides described as a vocational school, using HIMARS, a guided rocket system supplied by the United States. The system’s range of dozens of miles has for months helped Ukraine’s forces strike deep behind the front lines, and it is part of a growing arsenal of sophisticated Western weapons that have helped change the course of the conflict.
Monday’s strike reflected a shift in Ukrainian tactics with the U.S.-supplied rocket systems, Western military analysts said. Kyiv has moved from targeting ammunition dumps and supply lines to hitting barracks and other troop concentrations, said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that four HIMARS rockets had hit the building, while two others had been shot down by Russian air defenses.
A former Russian paramilitary commander in Ukraine, Igor Girkin, confirmed the seriousness of the disaster, writing on Telegram that “many hundreds” were dead and wounded and that many “remained under the rubble.”
Accounts by pro-war military bloggers — who have become influential opinion-makers in Russia amid the censorship of mainstream media — suggested that the strike in Makiivka had proved so deadly partly because of a litany of errors by Moscow’s forces, some of which have been repeated throughout the war.
Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, said that the vocational school had been “almost completely destroyed” because “ammunition stored in the same building” detonated in the strike. Video posted on social media showed firefighters amid the ruins of the structure and piles of steaming rubble.
The ammunition was stored “without the slightest sign of disguise,” Girkin wrote, adding that similar strikes had occurred earlier this year, albeit with fewer casualties. “Our generals are untrainable in principle,” he said.
Many of the soldiers appeared to be new recruits, recently mobilized in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drive to conscript more men into the fighting in Ukraine. One report in Russian state media said that “active use of cellular phones by the newly arrived servicemen” had been a prime reason for the attack, helping Ukrainian forces to pinpoint their location.
Throughout the war, Russian soldiers in Ukraine have spoken on open cellphone lines, often revealing their positions and exposing the disarray in their ranks. But the military bloggers said that this official explanation shifted the blame for Makiivka onto the victims, without explaining why commanders housed so many conscripts in an unprotected building within reach of U.S.-made rockets.
“No one is assuming the responsibility for the needless deaths,” one blogger, Anastasia Kashevarova, wrote on her Telegram channel.
Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corp., said it was highly unusual for Moscow to admit it had lost such a large number of soldiers in a strike. The Russians “do not typically provide this type of information after a major loss, which suggests they want to control the narrative on this event,” she said.