Makiivka strike: what we know about the deadliest attack on Russian troops since Ukraine war began

Russia says 89 soldiers died in the New Year’s Eve strike, but Ukrainian authorities claim the true figure is much higher

Russia has acknowledged its worst military losses since the war in Ukraine began, in an attack on New Year’s Eve. Officials say 89 servicemen were killed in Makiivka in eastern Ukraine. Here is what we know.

What happened in Makiivka?

On Monday Russia’s defence ministry made an extremely rare announcement, acknowledging that 63 Russian soldiers had been killed in a strike in Makiivka, a small city in the Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, which has been under the control of pro-Russian separatists since 2014.

Russian and Ukrainian sources began reporting on the strike on Sunday, saying that Russian mobilised personnel – not professional soldiers – had been killed.

A senior Russian military official, Lt Gen Sergei Sevryukov, said Ukraine had hit a temporary base in Makiivka at 12:01 am local time on 1 January, using a US-supplied Himars rocket system.

On Wednesday, the ministry said the toll had risen to 89 after more bodies were discovered.

Satellite images taken by US-based company Planet Labs dated 20 December and 2 January show the aftermath of Ukraine’s strike on the Russian-held city of Makiivka. The vocational school reportedly housed recently mobilised troops sent by Moscow when it was hit on 1 January.

It is the biggest loss of life from a single attack that Moscow has acknowledged since it began its invasion in February.

The incident was also the first communication about any military deaths since September, when the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, gave a toll of Russian 5,937 soldiers killed to that point.

What do the Ukrainians say?

The Ukrainian army’s strategic communications department said that nearly 400 soldiers were killed and 300 injured in the strike in Makiivka, but this figure has not been independently verified.

The general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces later said it did not have a final toll and announced that “up to 10 units of enemy military equipment” had been destroyed.

Why were there so many deaths?

Russia’s military leadership blamed the high number of casualties on the use of mobile phones by their soldiers.

Sevryukov said the army had determined that the reason for the high death toll “was the turning on and massive use by personnel of mobile phones within reach of enemy weapons”. He did not provide evidence for this claim.

Ukrainian forces simply said there was a “concentration” of soldiers in Makiivka.

Former separatist commander Igor Strelkov, who is familiar with the situation on the ground, said the building was “almost completely” destroyed because ammunition stored on the premises detonated in the strike.

He said “hundreds” had been killed and wounded.

There have also been reports that the servicemen were quartered next to the munitions depot that exploded. A popular Russian military blogger said it was “criminally naive” for the army to store ammunition next to sleeping quarters.

Aftermath of recent shelling in Makiivka
Images from the site of the strike in Makiivka show building reduced entirely to rubble. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

What has been the reaction in Russia?

The announcement of the large number of losses caused shock in Russia, as well as criticism of the Russian high command which has already been humiliated by a series of battlefield defeats.

“Despite several months of war, some conclusions have still not been drawn,” wrote blogger Boris Rozhin, who is close to the separatists, criticising the “incompetence” of Russian military leadership.


Alexander Kots, a war correspondent, wrote: “Why do we keep putting up [mobilised personnel] in hotels, hostels and professional schools?”

Strelkov said another deadly strike could happen “at any moment”, adding that Russian generals were “incapable of learning”.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War predicted Russia’s defence ministry would try to “deflect the blame for its poor operational security” on to local officials and mobilised personnel.

In a rare public commemoration, about 200 people gathered in the Russian city of Samara – where some of the victims came from – to commemorate the dead.

Mourners laid flowers at a city monument, an Orthodox priest recited a prayer for the dead, and soldiers fired a gun salute.

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

Guardian staff and agencies

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