KYIV (Jan 3): Russia has acknowledged that dozens of its troops were killed in one of the Ukraine war's deadliest strikes, drawing demands from Russian nationalist bloggers for commanders to be punished for housing soldiers alongside an ammunition dump.
In a rare disclosure, Russia's Defence Ministry said 63 soldiers had died on New Year's Eve in the fiery blast which destroyed a temporary barracks in a former vocational college in Makiivka, twin city of the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Four rockets fired from US-made HIMARS launchers hit the site, the defence ministry said. It said two rockets had been shot down. Ukraine said the Russian death toll was in the hundreds, though pro-Russian officials called this an exaggeration.
Russian military bloggers said the huge destruction was a result of storing ammunition in the same building as a barracks, despite commanders knowing it was within range of Ukrainian rockets.
Separately, Ukraine said on Monday it had shot down all 39 drones Russia had fired in a third straight night of air strikes against civilian targets in the capital 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 a failure as Kyiv beefs up its air defences more than 10 months since Russian forces invaded.
Russian bloggers critical
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 local recruitment centres for information.
"There are wounded, alas, there are dead," state news outlet TASS quoted regional governor Dmitry Azarov as saying.
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 and been killed or wounded in the blast. Ammunition had been stored at the site and military equipment there was uncamouflaged, he said.
"What happened in Makiivka is horrible," wrote Archangel Spetznaz Z, another 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" about ammunition stored in disarray on the battlefield, he said.
The open fury 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".
No claim of responsibility
Moscow rarely releases figures for its casualties, and when it does the figures are typically low — it acknowledged just one death from among a crew of hundreds when Ukraine sank its flagship cruiser Moskva in April.
The Kyiv government almost never publicly claims responsibility for attacks on Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy did not address the strike in his nightly speech on Monday.
Russia has seen in the new year with nightly attacks on Ukrainian cities, some hundreds of kilometres from the front lines. This marks a change in tactics after months in which Moscow usually spaced such strikes around a week apart.
Russia has turned to mass air strikes against Ukrainian cities since suffering defeats on the battlefield in the second half of 2022.
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.
"That number may rise in the very near future. In the weeks to come, the nights could be far from peaceful," he said.
Zelenskiy said Russia's attacks would prove useless "because we stand united. They are united only by fear."