Deadly strike against Russians in Ukraine exposes Moscow’s military failures
In one of their deadliest attacks to date against Russian forces, the Ukrainians used American-made rockets to kill dozens – if not hundreds – of Muscovite soldiers in a strike on New Year’s Day behind the lines, prompting outraged Russian war hawks to accuse their army of deadly incompetence. .
The HIMARS rocket attack killed 63 Russian soldiers at a building housing them in the occupied town of Makiivka in eastern Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Monday – an unusual admission for a military that has often refused to recognize heavy losses. A former Russian paramilitary commander in Ukraine, Igor Girkin, wrote on the Telegram app that “several hundred” were dead and injured and many “remained under rubble”.
Ukrainian military officials said it appeared “around 400” Russian soldiers had been killed, although they did not explicitly say Kyiv was behind the attack.
None of the claims could be independently verified, but even the lowest number would represent one of the worst Russian casualties in a single episode of the war and an embarrassment to President Vladimir V. Putin. He has repeatedly vowed to correct the mistakes and glaring weaknesses of his armed forces that the war has exposed, and in a New Year’s address filmed at a military base, Mr Putin told the families of soldiers killed in the fighting “I share your pain with all my heart.
Pro-war Russian bloggers and some government officials said the debacle was caused by the military’s own repeated and costly mistakes, such as garrisoning troops in a dense concentration within range of Ukrainian artillery, placing them in the same building as an ammunition depot and allow them to use cell phones, the signals of which the Ukrainians can use to focus on their target.
“Our generals are in principle untrainable,” wrote Mr. Girkin, who used the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov.
Some pro-war lawmakers demanded an investigation, and one of them, Sergei Mironov, leader of a pro-Kremlin party in parliament, called for the prosecution of all officials responsible, “that they wear epaulettes or not”.
“Obviously neither intelligence nor counterintelligence nor air defense worked properly,” he said.
The attack was “a heavy blow”, said a spokesman for the Russian-installed proxy government in the Donetsk region, Daniil Bezsonov. “The enemy has inflicted on us the gravest defeats of this war not because of his coolness and skill, but because of our mistakes,” he wrote in a Telegram post.
More than 10 months after an invasion that the Russians – and many Ukrainians – thought would produce a quick Russian victory, each side has suffered more than 100,000 killed and wounded, according to Western estimates, and the war has become a war of attrition. , with no evidence of an end in sight.
Some of the heaviest recent fighting has ravaged the Donetsk region, one of four the Kremlin claimed to annex in September even as its troops lost ground there, abandoning towns they seized earlier in the war. Since then, fighting in the region has slowed to a bloody drag, as the Ukrainians seek places to assert their advantage, while the Russians build trenches and fortifications along the front lines and attempt to capture the city of Bakhmut.
On Monday, Russia unleashed a barrage of Iranian-made explosive drones on Ukraine, continuing its barrage against cities and civilian infrastructure, particularly the power grid. But it appeared that Ukraine’s increasingly effective air defenses were once again minimizing the damage.
The Ukrainian military said on Monday that 22 drones were shot down over Kyiv in the early morning, but at least two loud explosions were heard in the city. Mayor Vitali Klitschko said some energy infrastructure facilities were damaged, affecting systems that heat buildings. It was unclear whether the explosions were caused by drones that evaded air defenses, drones that were shot down but exploded on hitting the ground, or air defense missiles.
Ukraine’s military said it shot down all 45 Iranian Shahed drones launched over the weekend, although some cruise missiles penetrated its defences.
In his nightly video address, President Volodomyr Zelensky warned on Monday: “We have information that Russia is planning a prolonged attack with Shaheds,” aimed at exhausting Ukraine’s defenses and its ability to endure. He said, “This is the time when everyone involved in protecting the skies must be especially mindful.”
The deadly attack on Russian forces in Makiivka used HIMARS rocket artillery to hit a vocational school where troops were housed, Moscow said. The Russian Defense Ministry said four HIMARS rockets hit the building and two others were shot down by Russian air defenses.
As bloggers and pro-war officials reacted with fury, a video posted to social media showed firefighters amid the structure’s ruins, reduced to smoldering piles of rubble. Bloggers have become influential opinion makers in Russia amid mainstream media censorship.
Mr. Girkin, the blogger and former paramilitary commander, wrote that the vocational school in Makiivka was “almost completely destroyed” because “ammunition stored in the same building” exploded in the strike. The ammunition was stored “without the slightest sign of disguise”, he wrote, adding that similar strikes had taken place earlier this year, but with fewer casualties.
Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, noted that Russian officials “usually don’t provide this kind of information after a major loss, which suggests they want to control the narrative of that event.”
Makiivka, adjacent to the city of Donetsk, is only about 10 miles from the nearest Ukrainian territory, the town of Avdiivka to the northwest – well within the roughly 50-mile range of HIMARS rockets that the United States sent to Ukraine. A US military official declined to comment on the strike.
HIMARS, which fires satellite-guided rockets from mobile launchers, is part of a growing arsenal of sophisticated Western weapons that have helped Ukraine turn the tide of the conflict.
Since the Biden administration began supplying the weapons system in June, HIMARS has dramatically increased the range and accuracy of overwhelmed Ukrainians. They used it to hit targets far behind the front lines, such as the main bridge connecting the city of Kherson to Russian-held territory, which contributed to the Russian decision to abandon the city.
Last month, a Ukrainian HIMARS attack destroyed a hotel in the town of Kadiivka, in the Lugansk region northeast of Donetsk. The attack killed members of the Kremlin-aligned Wagner paramilitary group who were using the hotel as a base, according to Ukrainian authorities in the area.
The HIMARS system is most effective when used against stationary targets that can be identified in advance and located, such as munitions dumps, infrastructure or troop concentrations. The United States has so far supplied Ukraine with at least 20 HIMARS systems, manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
Many of the soldiers who were injured appeared to be new recruits, recently mobilized as part of Mr Putin’s push to draft more men into the fighting in Ukraine. A report in Russian state media said “active use of mobile phones by newly arrived servicemen” was a key reason for the attack, helping Ukrainian forces pinpoint their location.
Throughout the war, Russian soldiers in Ukraine spoke on open phone lines, often revealing their positions and exposing the disarray in their ranks. Although the continued use of the phones, despite the devastating consequences, reveals a failure of military command, military bloggers say this explanation puts the blame on the victims.
He does not explain why Russian commanders housed so many conscripts in an unprotected building within range of American-made rockets.
“No one takes responsibility for unnecessary deaths,” blogger Anastasia Kashevarova wrote on Telegram.
Eric Schmitt and Andrew E. Kramer contributed report.