An apparent Ukrainian attack in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine appears to have killed a large number of Russian troops, according to the Ukrainian military, pro-Russian military bloggers and former officials.
According to Ukrainian and pro-Russian accounts, the strike took place just after midnight on New Year’s Day Sunday at a vocational school for Russian conscripts in Makiivka in the Donetsk region.
The attack led to verbal criticism of Moscow’s military from pro-Russian military bloggers who claimed the troops lacked protection and were reportedly stationed next to a large pile of ammunition that reportedly exploded when a Ukrainian HIMARS rocket hit the school.
Ukraine’s military said late on Monday it was “clarifying” the number of Russian servicemen killed in Makivka after earlier claims that around 400 Russian soldiers had been killed and 300 others wounded. It did not directly acknowledge a role in the strike. CNN could not independently confirm those numbers or the weapons used in the attack.
Some pro-Russian military bloggers also estimated that the death toll could be in the hundreds.
Russia’s Defense Ministry acknowledged the attack on Monday and claimed 63 Russian servicemen were killed in what would be one of the deadliest single incidents of the war for Moscow’s military.
Russian senator Grigory Karasin said those responsible for the killing of Russian servicemen in Markivka must be found, Russian state news agency TASS reported on Monday.
Karasin, chairman of the Federal Council’s international affairs committee, said the deaths should not be forgotten.
Video of the scene of the attack reportedly circulated widely on Telegram, including on Ukraine’s official military channel. It shows a pile of smoking rubble, with hardly any part of the building appearing to be standing.
“Greetings and congratulations” to the separatists and conscripts who were “brought to occupied Makiivka and packed into the vocational school building,” the Strategic Communications Directorate, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said in a cable. “Santa picked up about 400 dead bodies [Russian soldiers] in the bag. ”
The Russian Defense Ministry said the Ukrainian attack used a U.S.-made HIMARS rocket.
Daniil Bezsonov, a former official of the Russia-backed Donetsk government, said on Telegram that “it is clear that the high command still does not know the capabilities of this weapon.”
“I want those responsible for the decision to use the facility to be condemned,” Bezonov said. “There are enough abandoned facilities in the Donbass, including solid buildings and basements, where personnel could be stationed.”
Igor Girkin, a Russian propagandist who blogs about the war on Telegram, claimed the building was almost completely destroyed by a secondary explosion at the ammunition depot.
“Virtually all the military equipment that was close to the building showed no signs of camouflage and was also destroyed,” Gilkin said. “There are no final figures on the number of casualties as many people are still missing.”
Gilkin has long denounced Russian generals he claims are commanding wars far from the front lines, saying they are “unlearned in principle” and unwilling to heed warnings about placing equipment and personnel so close to within range of HIMARS. Gilkin was previously the defense minister of the Russia-backed self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic and was convicted of mass murder by a Dutch court for his role in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine.
Sergei Markov, another pro-Russian military blogger, said the Russian command was “very sloppy”.
Boris Rozhin, who also blogs about the war under the moniker Colonelcassad, said, “Incompetence and the inability to master war experience remains a serious problem.”
“As you can see, despite months of war, some conclusions have not yet been drawn, thus causing unnecessary losses which could have amounted to will not happen.”
Donetsk, which has been controlled by pro-Russian separatists since 2014, was one of four Ukrainian regions Moscow attempted to annex in October in violation of international law.
The news came after the Ukrainian military claimed that more than 700 Russian soldiers were killed on Saturday, without specifying where.
The military’s General Staff said on Sunday that Russian forces “lost 760 men just yesterday, (and) continue to attempt offensive operations against Bakhmut”.
Russian forces have been advancing on the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk for months, but have suffered heavy losses as Ukrainian forces have targeted them in mostly open rural areas.
Air raid sirens rang across Ukraine over the weekend as a new round of Russian missile strikes hit several areas. The attacks killed at least six people in the Donetsk, Kharkiv and Chernihiv regions and wounded a man earlier on Monday.