Russia has acknowledged that scores of its troops were killed in one of the Ukraine war’s deadliest single strikes, when Kyiv’s forces struck a building housing troops at the exact moment Vladimir Putin was delivering his televised New Year address.
In a rare admission, Russia’s defence ministry said 63 soldiers had died in the fiery blast which destroyed the temporary barracks in a former vocational college in Makiivka, twin city of the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk.
It said the accommodation had been hit by four rockets fired from U.S.-made HIMARS launchers, claiming two rockets had been shot down. The Russian disaster has drawn demands from nationalist bloggers for commanders to be punished for housing soldiers alongside an ammunition dump.
Kyiv said the Russian death toll was even higher – in the hundreds – though pro-Russian officials claimed this was an exaggeration of the true figure.
Rubble is strewn across the ground in Russian-occupied Makiivka, in the eastern Donbas region, in the aftermath of the strike. The missiles hit a vocational school which had been turned into a barracks for Russian forces
Russian president Vladimir Putin delivers his New Year address on December 31, which he recorded with dozens of troops
Unverified footage posted online of the aftermath of the Makiivka strike on the Russian barracks showed a huge building reduced to smoking rubble.
Russian military bloggers, many with hundreds of thousands of followers, 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.
Igor Girkin, a former commander of pro-Russian troops in east Ukraine who has emerged as one of the highest profile Russian nationalist military bloggers, said the death toll was in the hundreds, later editing his post to include wounded in that figure. Ammunition had been stored at the site and Russian military equipment there was uncamouflaged, he said.
Another nationalist blogger, Rybar, said around 70 soldiers were confirmed dead and more than 100 wounded.
‘What happened in Makiivka is horrible,’ wrote Archangel Spetznaz Z, another Russian military blogger with more than 700,000 followers on Telegram.
‘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.
‘Each mistake has a name.’
Russia’s acknowledgement of scores of deaths in one incident was almost without precedent. 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.
Ukraine’s military command contradicted Russia’s death toll, saying the number of Russian deaths was up to 400, with 300 wounded.
The attack is the latest in a growing list of embarrassments suffered by Moscow’s armies since the start of the invasion on February 24.
A dramatic video posted online from the night of the attack shows a family watching Putin’s address on a smartphone as they prepare to eat a traditional New Year meal, minutes before midnight. A woman on the balcony ran back inside as the strike hit its targets
Another video shows a Ukrainian soldier in a festive Santa hat as a missile is launched around the time of the Makiivka strike. The HIMARS rocket system behind him has been decorated with Christmas lights
The incident was known about yesterday but it is the scale of the deaths that has been revealed by both sides today.
Russian commanders were among those killed, reports say.
Staunchly pro-Kremlin Ukrainian blogger Anatoly Shariy posted in dismay: ‘There are SEVERAL HUNDRED killed in Makiivka.’
He added sarcastically: ‘Someone smart put them all together in one place.’
Russian pro-war sources said two HIMARS missile strikes hit the barracks in Makiivka, while the Moscow-installed administration of the Donetsk region in Ukraine said on Sunday that at least 25 rockets were fired at the region overnight on New Year’s Eve.
The Russian defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In its daily report yesterday, it claimed that it had destroyed seven HIMARS rockets, including in the area of Makiivka.
A dramatic video posted online from the night of the attack shows a family watching Putin’s address on a smartphone as they prepare to eat a traditional New Year meal, minutes before midnight.
A woman is on the balcony of her residential block and returns screaming in terror as an incoming attack targets a building nearby, which was later revealed to be a vocational school that was turned into a barracks for Russian forces.
From elsewhere, a Ukrainian video showed a soldier in a festive Santa hat as a HIMARS missile is launched around the time of the Makiivka strike. The HIMARS rocket system behind him has been decorated with Christmas lights.
‘According to a number of sources, we can talk about 50 to 70 people [dead] at the moment. The building is completely destroyed,’ reported the Grey Zone outlet which is linked to Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private army.
‘Of course, we are not talking about 500 to 600 dead, this is the enemy’s propaganda. But still there were more than 100 people in the building, approximately 120 to 150. Even our most positive channels evasively refer to losses as ‘significant, large and heavy’.’
Another Russian account said: ‘There were dead and wounded, the exact number is still unknown. The building itself was badly damaged.’
The dead were reported as mobilised Russian troops from the Saratov region who had been stationed in Makiivka.
More footage appears to show the body of a woman near a roadside in Makiivka.
Videos highlight the total destruction of the school premises where the Russian mobilised forces were reportedly barracked.
The aftermath of the HIMARS missile strike is seen in Russian-occupied Makiivka
HIMARS – which stands for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System – is a US-made launcher which can fire six guided missiles.
The Romanov Light channel said ammunition was also detonated at the barracks – ‘hence such destruction’.
Military blogger Boris Rozhin told of ‘a substantial number of dead and wounded’.
Earlier reports had said there were four dead and around 50 wounded.
Ukrainian source Obozrevatel said that HIMARS had destroyed ‘hundreds of invaders’. ‘The number of dead is still unknown. According to various estimates, there were from 150 to 700 occupiers at the base during the attack, most of whom were allegedly mobilised from Saratov.
‘According to the Strategic Committee of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 400 Russian soldiers were killed, and about 300 were wounded.’
Daniil Bezsonov, a senior Russian-backed official in the Moscow-controlled parts of the Donetsk region, said that there was a strike on a vocational school, which according to preliminary information served as military personnel quarters.
The attack, Bezsonov said, happened two minutes after midnight on New Year’s Day.
‘A massive blow was dealt to the vocational school from American MLRS HIMARS. There were dead and wounded, the exact number is still unknown,’ Bezsonov said on the Telegram messaging app. ‘The building itself was badly damaged.’
A Himars rocket system, such as those used by Ukraine, is shown launching a missile
Obozrevatel claimed that senior commanders were among the dead. The Russians were searching for ‘traitors’ who had revealed the location of the barracks.
Pro-war Russian sources angrily criticised commanders for gathering so many soldiers in one place, making them a clear target for attack.
The strike was just 115 miles from where Putin supposedly pre-recorded his New Year’s message with dozens of troops in Russia’s Rostov region.
Putin sipped Russian Champagnski with the troops to toast the arrival of 2023 after he told Russians in his annual televised address that ‘moral and historical’ justice was on their side.
The West was ‘cynically using Ukraine and its people to weaken and divide Russia’, he claimed.
Another video shows mobilised Russian men leaving Saratov in November.
These new recruits are reported to have been among those in the stricken barracks.
Christmas music and decorations on the Ukrainian missile launch video are because Russians mark the festive season as midnight strikes at New Year, rather than on 25 December.
People wait behind the safety tape in a damaged neighborhood after Russian missile attacks in the Solomyansk district of Kyiv, Ukraine on January 1
Local residents stand near a missile crater after a massive rocket attack as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Kyiv, Ukraine on January 1
Russia has seen in the new year with nightly attacks on Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, hundreds of kilometres from the front lines. The nightly attacks mark a change in tactics, after months in which Moscow usually spaced such strikes around a week apart.
After firing dozens of missiles on Dec. 31, Russia launched dozens of Iranian-made Shahed drones on Jan. 1 and Jan. 2. But Kyiv said on Monday it had shot down all 39 drones in the latest wave, including 22 shot down over the capital.
Kyiv said the new tactic was a sign of Russia’s desperation as Ukraine’s ability to defend its air space had improved.
‘Now they are looking for routes and attempts to hit us somehow, but their terror tactics will not work. Our sky will turn into a shield,’ presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak said on Telegram.
In his latest nightly speech, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy praised Ukrainians for showing gratitude to the troops and one another and said Russia’s efforts would prove useless.
‘Drones, missiles, everything else will not help them,’ he said of the Russians. ‘Because we stand united. They are united only by fear.’
Ukraine’s air defence systems worked through the night to bring down incoming drones and to warn communities of the approaching danger.
‘It is loud in the region and in the capital: night drone attacks,’ Kyiv Governor Oleksiy Kuleba said.
Russia has turned to mass air strikes against Ukrainian cities since suffering humiliating defeats on the battlefield in the second half of 2022.
A man walks by a damaged house after the Russian missile attacks in the Solomyansk district of Kyiv, Ukraine on January 1
It says its attacks, which have knocked out heat and power to millions in winter, aim to reduce Kyiv’s ability to fight. Ukraine says the attacks have no military purpose and are intended to hurt civilians, a war crime.
Russia has flattened Ukrainian cities, killed thousands of civilians and annexed swathes of Ukraine since Putin ordered his invasion in February, calling Ukraine an artificial state whose pro-Western outlook threatened Russia’s security.
Ukraine has fought back with Western military support, driving Russian forces from more than half the territory they seized. In recent weeks, the front lines have been largely static, with thousands of soldiers dying in intense warfare.
In a stern New Year’s Eve message filmed in front of a group of people dressed in military uniform, Putin vowed no let-up in his war.
‘The main thing is the fate of Russia,’ Putin said. ‘Defence of the fatherland is our sacred duty to our ancestors and descendants. Moral, historical righteousness is on our side.’