© Reuters. Ukrainian servicemen prepare cannon shells before firing them towards positions of Russian troops, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine January 1, 2023. REUTERS/Anna Kudriavtseva
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian nationalists and some lawmakers have demanded punishment for commanders they accused of ignoring dangers as anger grew over the killing of dozens of Russian soldiers in one of the Ukraine war’s deadliest strikes.
In a rare disclosure, Russia’s defence ministry said 63 soldiers were killed on New Year’s Eve in a fiery blast that destroyed a temporary barracks in a vocational college in Makiivka, twin city of the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine and some Russian nationalist bloggers have put the death toll much higher, in the hundreds, though pro-Russian officials say such estimates are exaggerated.
Russian critics said the soldiers were being housed alongside an ammunition dump at the site, which the Russian defence ministry said was hit by four rockets fired from U.S.-made HIMARS launchers.
The strike on Makiivka came as Russia was launching what have become nightly waves of drone attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.
Ukrainian officials said Russia had on Monday struck Ukraine-controlled parts of the Donetsk region, hitting the village of Yakovlivka, the city of Kramatorsk and destroying an ice rink in the town of Druzhkivka.
‘PARITY’ OF ARMS
The governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, which along with neighbouring Donetsk forms the industrial Donbas claimed by Moscow, said on Tuesday Ukrainian forces had made steady advances in the direction of Russian-held Svatove and Kreminna.
“(Russian forces) are used to having a complete advantage in both artillery and shells. Now we have reached parity and our artillerymen are shooting better, hitting more ammunition depots and barracks, while firing far fewer shots,” Governor Serhiy Haidai told Ukrainian television.
Elsewhere, Ukraine’s military General Staff said a Dec. 31 strike on a Russian-held area of the southern Kherson region had killed or injured some 500 Russian troops.
Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.
The governor of Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said in a Tuesday morning update for his region that Russian forces had attacked Ukrainian positions overnight along the front line, with one person killed in the Ukraine-held city of Bakhmut.
Russian military bloggers said the extent of the destruction at Makiivka was a result of storing ammunition in the same building as a barracks, despite commanders knowing it was within range of Ukrainian rockets.
Igor Girkin, a former commander of pro-Russian troops in eastern Ukraine who is now one of the highest-profile Russian nationalist military bloggers, said hundreds had been killed or wounded. Military equipment stored at the site was uncamouflaged, he said.
“What happened in Makiivka is horrible,” wrote Archangel Spetznaz Z, a Russian military blogger with more than 700,000 followers on the Telegram messaging app.
“Who came up with the idea to place personnel in large numbers in one building, where even a fool understands that even if they hit with artillery, there will be many wounded or dead?” he wrote. Commanders “couldn’t care less”, he said.
Ukraine almost never publicly claims responsibility for attacks on Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy did not address the Makiivka strike in his nightly speech on Monday.
However, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces reported the Makiivka attack as “a strike on Russian manpower and military equipment”. It did not mention casualties.
The fury in Russia extended to lawmakers.
Grigory Karasin, a member of the Russian Senate and former deputy foreign minister, not only demanded vengeance against Ukraine and its NATO supporters but also “an exacting internal analysis”.
Sergei Mironov, a legislator and former chairman of the Senate, Russia’s upper house, demanded criminal liability for the officials who had “allowed the concentration of military personnel in an unprotected building” and “all the higher authorities who did not provide the proper level of security”.
Unverified footage posted online of the aftermath of the blast at the Russian barracks in Makiivka showed a huge building reduced to smoking rubble.
Some of the dead came from the southwestern Russian region of Samara, the region’s governor told Russian media, urging concerned relatives to contact recruitment centres for information.
Having suffered defeats on the battlefield in the second half of 2022, Russia resorted to mass air strikes against Ukrainian cities.
Ukraine said on Monday it had shot down all 39 drones Russia had launched in a third night of air strikes on civilian targets in Kyiv and other cities.
Ukrainian officials said their success proved that Russia’s tactic in recent months of raining down missiles and drones to knock out Ukraine’s energy infrastructure was increasingly failing as Kyiv beefs up its air defences.
Russia denies targeting civilians in what it calls a “special military operation” against its southern neighbour launched on Feb. 24.
After firing dozens of missiles on Dec. 31, Russia launched more than 80 Iranian-made Shahed drones on Jan. 1 and Jan. 2, all of which had been shot down, Zelenskiy said, adding that Russia was planning a protracted campaign of such attacks to “exhaust” Ukraine.
“It is probably banking on exhaustion. Exhausting our people, our anti-aircraft defences, our energy,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.
Ukraine, he said, had to “act and do everything so that the terrorists’ fail in their aim, as all their others have failed”.