It was New Year’s Eve, one of Russia’s most cherished holidays. Recruits from President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine – hundreds of them mobilized only months ago – are housed in makeshift barracks, in the Donetsk region A vocational school in the occupied city of Majivka. Next door is a large ammunition depot.
The soldiers missed their wives and their families, so they turned on their mobile phones and called home. Suddenly, a HIMARS rocket, a satellite-guided precision weapon supplied to Ukraine by the United States, hit the school, almost completely destroying it and setting the ammunition depot ablaze.
That’s how the Russian military, at least officially, explains the deadliest known attack on Russian troops in Ukraine since the war began in February 2022. The Ministry of Defense put the blame on the army itself, claiming that the “principal reason” for the attack was the “violation of the ban” on the use of or mobile phones. Russian troops are banned from using personal cellphones on the battlefield because their signals have been geolocated to hone and kill other Russian troops.
But that explanation, and the details of the attack that have surfaced, have sparked a very public national blame game among Russians.
It starts with the death toll. The Russian Ministry of Defense initially said 63 soldiers had been killed, before increasing the figure to 89. Ukraine claims about 400. But even Russian pro-war bloggers are increasingly influential in how Russian civilians gain information about what’s really going on in Russia. Ukraine has dismissed official counts estimating hundreds of soldiers dead. The real figure is not yet known.
One of the bloggers, Semyon Pegov, who goes by the online nickname “War Gonzo” and was recently awarded a medal by Vladimir Putin, also dismissed the military’s claims about the phone as “blatant smearing”. .
Another blogger, Gray Zone, called the phone explanation a “99% lie” in an attempt to avoid responsibility. He said it was more likely an intelligence error.
Russian lawmakers chimed in, demanding an investigation into who had ordered the temporary camping of so many troops in an unprotected building. Sergey Mironov, a prominent politician and party leader, said any military officer or other military personnel who made the decision should bear “personal criminal responsibility”. And, hinting at the military’s lax approach to war, he warned, “It’s time to realize it’s not going to be like it used to be.”
“This is a fight for the future of Russia,” Mironov said. “We must win!”
Mironov’s comments hit a nerve. Hardliners like him argue that Putin’s “partial mobilization” of reservists in September, calling up 300,000 troops, was not enough. They want full mobilization, the whole country is ready for war. They want revenge on Ukraine.
So far, however, no one — at least publicly — has blamed Vladimir Putin for these deaths. Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the state-run international network RT and a regular on Russian domestic TV talk shows, said she hoped that “responsible officials will be held accountable” and their names published. But she also hinted that the attack could stoke public discontent: “It’s time to understand that impunity does not lead to social harmony. Impunity leads to more crime and therefore public dissent.”
Families of the victims, many of whom were from Samara, a city on the Volga River in southwestern Russia, mourned their loved ones, laying red carnations in a rare public memorial service where priests led a choir for prayers Young people recently sent to the front line sang the liturgy.
The Ministry of Defense’s acknowledgment that a large number of mobilized troops were killed in the attack, as well as the public debate among military bloggers, suggest that the Kremlin is taking the Makiivka attack very seriously. After all, Putin’s government has ways of stopping reporting on events it doesn’t want the public to know about.
Even in this “public” discussion, some commentators have raised the possibility that “informants” may have leaked information to the enemy, a preferred conspiracy theory often promoted by Russia’s state-run propaganda apparatus. Then came the usual grumbling after almost every tragedy in Russia, blaming it on “khalatnost:” negligence.
But so far, blame has been directed only at military leaders, not higher up. President Putin has made no public comment on the Makiivka attack, a strong indication that he intends to stay as far away from an apparent breakdown as possible.