Russia’s defence ministry on Wednesday blamed the use of mobile phones by its soldiers for a deadly Ukrainian missile strike that killed dozens of conscripts, sparking anger among relatives of the soldiers.
Commenting on the deadliest single incident Moscow has acknowledged since the start of the war that it said killed 89 servicemen, Lt Gen Sergei Sevryukov said in a video statement that a commission was working to investigate the circumstances of what had happened.
“But it is already obvious that the main reason … was the turning on and massive use by personnel of mobile phones within reach of enemy weapons contrary to the ban,” he said, without providing evidence for the claim.
The ministry also said in a statement that it would provide “all necessary help and support” to the families of the dead and punish those who allegedly were responsible for the incident.
The quick response by Russian officials, who admitted mass casualties in Makiivka a day after the shelling, will be seen as an attempt to defuse public anger. The Kremlin has previously been accused of concealing information about the deaths of its soldiers.
Most notably, the reaction was in contrast to the sinking of the flagship cruiser Moskva last April when it took days for Moscow to admit that conscripts had died; and the Kremlin to this day does not acknowledge that the ship was hit by Ukrainian missiles.
Some of the relatives in the southern Russian city of Samara, where many of the Makiivka conscripts came from, criticised the defence ministry’s official version of events on Wednesday, claiming the army was scapegoating their loved ones.
“It is easier to blame everything on our soldiers than to admit incompetence among our commanders. I didn’t expect anything else,” said Maksim, the brother of a soldier who was injured in Makiivka.
A number of social media groups have also sprung up with soldiers’ relatives gathering information and criticising the alleged lack of transparency from the authorities. “Why haven’t they released the full list of deceased? The fate of so many children remains unknown,” said one post on the social media network VK.
The ministry of defence statements on Wednesday also angered the pro-war nationalist correspondents who have gained influence in recent months.
Semen Pegov, a military blogger who recently received a medal from Putin, said in a post on Telegram that while the use of mobile phones near the frontlines was “obviously” not a good thing, “the story with ‘mobiles’ is not convincing”.
He added: “This is not a personal opinion, it is objective. It is a blatant attempt to smear blame … The only real solution to prevent this in the future is to not place personnel en masse in big buildings.” He referred to the decision to use civilian infrastructure to house hundreds of soldiers.
But while there were calls on Wednesday by relatives and pro-war commentators to punish military officials deemed responsible for the events, there was little direct criticism of Vladimir Putin or of the war in general.
Instead, Maksim and others called for new attacks on Ukraine. “We should strike them twice as hard to teach them a lesson,” Maksim said.
During a remembrance ceremony in Samara, Ekaterina Kolotovkina, head of a group of army spouses, called for the victims of Makiivka to be avenged. “We will crush the enemy together. We are left with no choice,” she told about 200 mourners.
The deadly strike on the conscripts in Makiivka came amid warnings from Ukrainian officials that Russia was planning to order a second mobilisation drive for a new offensive.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in his nightly video address on Tuesday: “We have no doubt that the 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. We have to disrupt this Russian scenario. We are preparing for this. The terrorists must lose. Any attempt at their new offensive must fail.”
Ukraine received a boost late on Wednesday when French president Emmanuel Macron told Zelenskiy that the Paris government would send light AMX-10 RC armoured combat vehicles to help in the war against Russia.
“This is the first time that western-made armoured vehicles are being delivered in support of the Ukrainian army,” a French official told journalists after the phone call between the two leaders.
The official did not give any details about the volume or timing of the planned shipments.
Zelenskiy on Twitter said that he had a “long and detailed conversation” with Macron, thanking the French president for the “decision to transfer light tanks and Bastion APCs to Ukraine”.