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Russian military under fire for high death toll at Makiivka

January 3, 2023

The Kremlin has blamed soldiers' cell phone use for one of the deadliest attacks on its troops since the Ukraine war began. Kyiv, and Russian bloggers, claim the death toll is in the hundreds.

Russian emergency workers remove the rubble of vocational school 19 destroyed by shelling in Makiivka
The soldiers killed in the attack are believed to have been mobilized reserves rather than professional soldiersImage: RIA Novosti/SNA/IMAGO

The rare announcement of heavy losses by the Russian military in the occupied Ukrainian village of Makiivka was met with increasing criticism from Russian nationalists on Tuesday.

Russian rescue teams were still searching among the devastation on Tuesday morning after Ukraine fired several US-provided HIMARS rockets toward the town in the partially occupied region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Russia's Defense Ministry disclosed on Monday that 63 soldiers had been killed in the attack, although Russian military bloggers and Ukraine claimed that the death toll was much higher.

The death toll was later updated to 89, with the Defense Ministry blaming the use of mobile phones by Russian soldiers, contrary to a ban, for the attack. What is likely one of the deadliest attacks on Russian forces since the war began has sparked criticism of the Russian military's high command.

State television military correspondents have accused Russian commanders of ineptitude, with one nationalist blogger also slamming their "incompetence."

Vigil for Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine strike

Russian official death toll questioned

While the Russian Defense Ministry released few details about the attack, the Strategic Communications Directorate of Ukraine's armed forces said on Sunday that it had killed 400 mobilized Russian soldiers when it hit a vocational school building in Makiivka.

It added that another 300 had been wounded, but these figures could not be independently verified.

Former separatist commander turned critical military blogger Igor Girkin said that the strike had been even bigger because ammunition was also being stored on site. He also questioned the number of deaths reported by the defense ministry.

He also warned a similar strike could happen "at any moment" as the Russian generals are "incapable of learning."

Kremlin struggling to appease pro-war nationalists

"A devastating Ukrainian HIMARS strike on a Russian base in Makiivka … generated significant criticism of Russian military leadership in the Russian information space," the US-based Institute for the Study of War said.

Several hundred people gathered in the Russian city of Samara — where some of the mobilized men came from — for a rare public display of mourning for dead Russian soldiers.

Russian retaliation expected for Makiivka: DW's Roman Goncharenko

Dmitry Azarov, the governor of the Samara region, is scheduled to visit Rostov, near the Ukrainian border, where injured troops are said to receive care. He reportedly hailed the "courage" of the wounded in action according to local media. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also warned on Monday that the Russian military will likely turn more and more to Iranian-produced, exploding drones to target Ukrainian cities.

But the Institute for the Study of War said that "Russia's air and missile campaign against Ukraine is likely not generating the Kremlin's desired information effects among Russia's nationalists."

"Such profound military failures will continue to complicate [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's efforts to appease the Russian pro-war community and retain the dominant narrative in the domestic information space," it added.

ab/jcg (AP, AFP, Reuters)