Russian military under fire at home after devastating attack

Workers clean rubbles after Ukrainian rocket strike under a blue sky
Associated Press
Workers clean rubbles after Ukrainian rocket strike in Makiivka, in Russian-controlled Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. Russia’s defense ministry says 63 of its soldiers have been killed by a Ukrainian strike on a facility in the eastern Donetsk region where military personnel were stationed. (AP Photo)

A New Year’s Eve strike on a Russian base in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk left dozens of troops dead and sparked fury in Moscow at the officers in charge of the military post.

Russia said the strike killed 63 soldiers, while Ukraine claims up to 400 were killed when rockets fired by U.S.-supplied HIMARS launchers struck an ammunition depot and a nearby barracks.

Still, Moscow’s admission of 63 deaths marks the highest toll from a single attack on Russian troops since the war began. And the carnage has stoked outrage among lawmakers and influential military bloggers as the latest battlefield embarrassment more than 10 months into Russia’s invasion. 

The temporary base was set up at a vocational school building in Makiivka, an industrial city in Donetsk, one of four territories that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last year.

Russia’s defense ministry said six rockets were fired from the HIMARS launchers at the military base, only two of which were shot down by anti-air defenses.

Some Russian lawmakers are pushing for an internal investigation into the Makiivka strike and accountability for officers who garrisoned troops into what they said was an unprotected building.

Sergey Mironov, a member of the Russian parliament’s State Duma, said the attack “should be the last of its kind.”

In a Telegram post, he called for an investigation and “personal criminal liability” for any Russian officers or personnel responsible.

“These are not only those who allowed the congestion of military personnel in an unprotected building … but also all the higher authorities who did not provide the proper level of security in the area,” he wrote. “Obviously, neither intelligence, nor counterintelligence, nor air defense did not work properly.”

Grigory Karasin, the chair of the Russian senate’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the attack “cannot be forgiven,” vowing vengeance against Kyiv.

“It is clear that a demanding internal analysis of what happened is also needed,” Karasin wrote on Telegram.

Law enforcement personnel with the separatist region of the Donetsk People’s Republic told Russian news agency TASS that the “active use of mobile phones” by Russian soldiers tipped off the location of the Makiivka base to Ukraine, but Ukrainian officials have not publicly discussed that claim.

Russian military bloggers also called the latest attack against Russia on Saturday a disaster, accusing Russian generals of incompetence and the Kremlin of undercounting its losses. 

Alexey Sukonkin, an influential blogger, said “the tragedy in Makiivka is a crime” and those responsible should be “punished.”

“And no, not Ukrainian,” Sukonkin wrote on Telegram. “The Armed Forces of Ukraine are acting as they should — they are trying to kill our soldiers. But their real killer is the scoundrel who positioned the fighters in such a way that it was easy for the enemy to shoot them.”

Eugene Finkel, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said it was possible that some lower-level commanders could be held accountable in the aftermath of the strike, but the criticism wouldn’t change the calculus from those leading the war effort. 

“It’s just another fail in a long line of failures,” Finkel said.

And while the death toll was particularly high, he doesn’t believe it would provoke more Russian aggression.

“Russia does not need any more reasons to cause damage or kill people,” Finkel said. “This entire talk about potential retaliation is misguided.”

Russia has been launching waves of missile attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure and energy grids since October, while Kyiv has sought to strike back against Russian supply and ammunition depots to curb the assault. 

Last month, alleged Ukrainian drone strikes killed three Russian troops hundreds of miles inside western Russia at an air base where strategic bombers used for missile strikes are reportedly housed.

Ukraine has generally avoided claiming responsibility for the deaths of Russian soldiers from rocket or drone strikes. But after the latest attack, the Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security posted a cryptic Telegram message, writing “Santa packed about 400 corpses” into body bags and “300 more were wounded of varying degrees of severity.”

The General Armed Staff of Ukraine said in a Facebook post on Monday that it carried out 10 attacks on Russian military posts on Dec. 31, and five on anti-aircraft missile systems.

Putin has faced numerous setbacks in the war, including heavy battlefield losses from Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson. And Russia has been unable to take the eastern city of Bakhmut despite months of bloody fighting. 

Last month, Putin acknowledged the war would be a lengthy process and that some troops have deserted. The Russian leader also issued a partial mobilization order over the fall to muster some 300,000 reservists, which led to protests at home.

Igor Girkin, a former Russian paramilitary commander and a prominent blogger, estimated in a Monday post the Makiivka strike killed or wounded hundreds of Russian troops.

Girkin said he was warned the deadly strike could happen again, saying there were other temporary bases that include an “extremely dense” number of personnel and equipment.

“This is not the first such case — last year there were also quite a few of them,” he said. “Our generals are untrainable in principle.”

Tags attack Military Moscow officers Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Vladimir Putin

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