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Russia says 89 soldiers were killed in Ukrainian attack — and blames its own soldiers

This photo shows the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) firing during exercises in the Philippines. Russia accused Ukraine of using the same weapons to carry out the attack.
Jam Sta Rosa
AFP via Getty Images
This photo shows the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) firing during exercises in the Philippines. Russia accused Ukraine of using the same weapons to carry out the attack.

Updated January 4, 2023 at 10:05 AM ET

Russia's Defense Ministry said the death toll from a Ukrainian missile strike on a Russian military barracks in occupied east Ukrainian city of Makiivka on New Year's day has now risen to 89 — even as officials blamed soldiers' use of cellphones for allowing Ukraine to pinpoint the strike.

The revised death toll was confirmed by a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman General Lieutenant Sergei Sevrukov — who said the remains of additional soldiers had been found in the rubble of a school building the troops had been using as a temporary base. The deputy commander of the soldiers was among the dead, said Sevrukov.

Sevrukov said the military would investigate the attack and punish those "guilty" of wrongdoing – but added that "it was already obvious" the "primary reason" for the incident was the soldiers' unauthorized use of cellphones to call home to Russia on the New Year.

"That factor allowed our enemy to fix and determine the location coordinates of our soldiers to launch a strike," said Sevrukov, who noted the attack occurred at 12:01 AM on New Year's day.

Sevrukov said four US-made HIMARS rockets struck the building burying the men. The spokesman also claimed that Russian air defenses had intercepted two more incoming rockets.

On Monday, the Defense Ministry said 63 men had died — after Ukraine claimed hundreds of Russian soldiers had perished in a strike in Makiivka, a suburb east of Donetsk, a major Ukrainian city that has been under Russian control since 2014.

The attack potentially sets a record for Russian casualties in a single attack in the war so far.

Local social media channels in the Donetsk region reported massive explosions precisely at midnight on New Year's Day. By Sunday afternoon, videos of the destruction surfaced, including one that appeared to show dead bodies and a pile of rubble where a vocational school once stood. Internet sleuths soon geolocated and verified the videos.

"The school was a known Russian garrison, going as far back as 2014," Oleh Zhdanov, a top Ukrainian military analyst, tells NPR.

"[Since February], most Russian soldiers were scattered across the front, but when Ukraine noticed reservists bunching together in one place they took action," Zhdanov added.

On the evening of New Year's Day, Ukraine's Strategic Command posted a sarcastic note on its official Telegram channel about "Santa stuffing body bags with 400 corpses."

Russia makes a rare admission of battlefield losses

Monday's news had triggered rage among pro-Russian leaders in the breakaway region.

"I can't blame Ukraine. The real killer is the son-of-a-b**** who made our fighters into easy targets," posted Alexey Sukonkin, an influential blogger in Russian-occupied Ukraine.

Igor Girkin, the former defense minister for the separatist Donetsk region, shared similar sentiments online, and claimed to have visited the attack site.

"The number of dead and wounded goes to many hundreds," he said.

Ukraine's General Staff followed the Russian announcement by confirming the attack, though without specifying the suspected number of casualties or weapons used.

"It takes a long time to find out how many people die from an attack like this," said Zhdanov. "But we can have a general sense."

Attacks such as this will likely stoke unrest in Russia

The apparent attack on Makiivka came just days after Ukraine's defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, encouraged draft-age Russian men to desert or protest against the war.

"As this war drags on, your personal chances of dying will increase," he said.

As Russian media began to report on the destruction, Russian citizens who claimed to have conscripted relatives stationed in Makiivka demanded to know if they were among the dead.

Military analyst Oleh Zhdanov says strikes like this will likely continue to stoke unrest within Russia, where anti-draft demonstrations took place last summer.

"Surely there will be another mobilization soon," says Zhdanov, "so the Russians are downplaying their losses because they're afraid of mass resistance."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julian Hayda

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