Russia’s defence ministry has raised to 89 the number of its military personnel killed in a recent Ukrainian rocket raid on a school housing soldiers in Makiivka, in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region, and blamed the attack on unauthorised use of mobile phones by its forces.
While Ukraine has claimed that about 400 Russian soldiers were killed in the missile attack in the first minutes of New Year’s Day on Sunday, Moscow had until Wednesday maintained that 63 Russian soldiers were killed.
Russia’s initial admission of 63 deaths was already highly unusual as it marked the most significant loss of life from a single raid confirmed by Moscow since the start of its Ukraine invasion in February 2022.
“The number of our dead comrades has gone up to 89,” Lieutenant General Sergey Sevryukov said in a video statement released by the Russian defence ministry early on Wednesday. The death toll was increased after additional bodies were found under rubble in the town of Makiivka, he said.
The use of mobile phones by Russian soldiers was to blame for the attack, Sevryukov added.
“It is already obvious that the main reason for what happened was the switching on and massive use — contrary to the prohibition — by personnel of mobile phones in a reach zone of enemy weapons,” he said.
“This factor allowed the enemy to track and determine the coordinates of the soldiers’ location for a missile strike.”
The devastating attack on a vocational school that was converted into military quarters has spurred anger among Russian nationalists and some legislators who are again questioning the military strategy of Moscow’s commanders in Ukraine.
In a post on the Telegram messaging app, Igor Girkin, a former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who was instrumental in starting the initial 2014 war in the Donbas region, said that ammunition and military equipment had been stored in the buildings housing the Russian soldiers, contributing to the strength of the blast.
Girkin blamed Russia’s “untrainable” generals for the losses.
Anger on social media has been directed at Russia’s military commanders rather than President Vladimir Putin.
The Institute for the Study of War said that pro-Russian military bloggers had discounted the mobile phone explanation as a “lie” and accused the Russian command of being “criminally negligent” for failing to disperse its forces in smaller groups further from the front line.
“Such profound military failures will continue to complicate Putin’s efforts to appease the Russian pro-war community and retain the dominant narrative in the domestic information space,” the institute said.
Russia’s defence ministry said four rockets from the US-made HIMARS launchers hit the building, adding that “from the detonation of the warheads of the HIMARS rockets, the ceilings of the building collapsed”.
“Currently, a commission is working to investigate the circumstances of what has happened,” Sevryukov said, adding that measures were being taken to ensure such incidents would not happen in the future and those responsible for the lapse in security would be punished.
The defence ministry’s revised death toll comes as mourners gathered in several cities of the Volga region of Samara — where some of the service members killed in the attack were from — to mourn the dead.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made no mention of the attack in a video address on Tuesday in which he said Russia was set to launch a vast offensive to improve its fortunes.
“We have no doubt that current masters of Russia will throw everything they have left and everyone they can round up to try to turn the tide of the war and at least delay their defeat,” Zelenskyy said in the video address.
“We have to disrupt this Russian scenario. We are preparing for this. The terrorists must lose. Any attempt at their new offensive must fail,” he continued.
In Russia, a little-known patriotic group which supports the widows of Russian soldiers is calling on Putin to order a large-scale mobilisation of millions of Russian men to ensure victory in Ukraine.
Putin plans to talk to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agency Interfax — the latest in a series of conversations the two men have had since the start of the war.