A Ukrainian strike on a school being used by Russian forces as a barracks in Makiivka on New Year’s Eve has been described by Kyiv as the deadliest single attack of the war so far. Estimates of the number of fatalities differ considerably – the Armed Forces of Ukraine high command claims 400 Russian military personnel were killed, while Moscow’s Defense Ministry says the figure stands at 63 – but other sources close to the Russian invading army have said that the number is closer to 200. The Ukrainian attack was launched with a HIMARS missile system supplied by the United States and targeted the temporary barracks in the mining city on the outskirts of Donetsk, in the occupied eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. The soldiers stationed there were a conscript battalion called up under the partial mobilization ordered by Vladimir Putin last September.
In a statement released Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry made a rare admission of losses among the Kremlin’s troops operating in Ukraine, while adding that bombardments of Ukrainian positions had killed 70 volunteers serving with Kyiv’s International Legion at three bases located in Kharkiv and Donetsk. The Ukrainian High Command did not provide any information over Moscow’s claims.
The strike on Makiivka has caused an avalanche of criticism from Russian analysts who believe it represents gross negligence on the part of Moscow. The TASS state news agency, citing local military authorities in Donetsk, reported that Ukrainian forces were able to pinpoint the target due to the high concentration of cellphone signals in the barracks. Both the Russian and Ukrainian armies have strict protocols in place to prevent troop concentrations from being detected via the transmission of mobile data or the location of GPS signals from devices.
Nexta, a leading Eastern European digital media outlet, stated that the identification of the target was made possible by information provided by the US telecommunications espionage network. Similar reports have emerged in some Russian media, although it is common for Ukrainian forces to receive information about enemy troop movements in the occupied areas from people loyal to Kyiv. In the front-line regions, it is also possible for the opposing armies to identify the location of mobile devices using cell towers in both the occupied and unoccupied zones.
The Russian Defense Ministry has confirmed that the temporary barracks was hit by missiles from a HIMARS system, one of the key weapons being deployed in the Ukrainian counter-offensive. With a combat range of 50 miles, HIMARS has been a thorn in the side of the Russian rearguard by disrupting supply lines of weapons and military equipment to the Kremlin’s troops, forcing them to move their arsenals further away from the front lines.
Defensive precautions against a HIMARS strike were not applied in Makiivka. Video footage shared on social networks by residents of the city show that the explosion at the base occurred at midnight on January 1, and that the detonation was so strong that the bodies of several servicemen were projected dozens of meters. Images released by the Russian media confirm that the barracks was completely destroyed.
‘Incompetence and ineptitude continue to be a serious problem’
Igor Girkin, a former Russian officer and veteran of the war in Donbas who has been indicted by international courts for his role in the conflict and sentenced to life in absentia for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July, 2014, estimated the death toll at 200. Girkin has been a vocal critic of Moscow’s military command and highlighted the failings of “Russian generals” in allowing such a concentration of troops, especially given that Ukraine has demonstrated the effectiveness of HIMARS on several occasions. The Grey Zone, one of the most-followed Telegram social media accounts among Russian forces in Ukraine, said that at most 150 servicemen would have been in the building. Sasha Kots, a Russian journalist embedded with the invading army, has reported unrest among troops as they believe their comrades are being blamed for the strike for not disconnecting their cellphones. “After 10 months of war, it is dangerous and criminal to believe the enemy is an idiot and doesn’t have eyes on everything,” Kots wrote. “Incompetence and ineptitude continue to be a serious problem.”
Both armies have claimed multiple fatalities in similar strikes – Ukraine last October when it said it had hit a barracks housing Russian Chechnyan forces, killing at least 40 servicemen, and Russia in August when it stated it had killed 200 Ukrainian troops in Dnipro – but according to observers only the defenders have learned their lesson.
In March, 2022, a few weeks after Putin ordered the full-scale invasion, Russian artillery hit a barracks in Mykolaiv, killing between 40 and 100 Ukrainian recruits, according to AFP. Another prominent Telegraph account covering the war, Voienii Osvodomitel, noted that after Mykolaiv Ukrainian commanders deployed their troops in small units, with no major troop concentrations, and in buildings that were less exposed to enemy fire. “If responsibility is not transferred to the official level, if the media does not dare to name those responsible – well-known people – everyone will pretend that nothing has happened,” said the account.
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