The deadliest Ukrainian strike on Russian troops reported so far has reignited criticism of Moscow’s mobilization drive and laid bare a lack of trust in officials almost a year into the offensive.
The Russian army announced 89 soldiers were killed when Kyiv struck a temporary base in the Russian-occupied town of Makiivka with U.S.-supplied rockets just after midnight at New Year’s, while Ukraine put the toll in the hundreds.
Widespread reports of many recently mobilized men being among the dead stirred some anger after months of discontent over the chaotic draft.
There were also rare displays of public grief in Russia, with some frustration toward the army, whose actions in Ukraine are shrouded in secrecy.
Usually, officials would rush to blame the West and Ukraine.
But this time, for many pro-Kremlin commentators, the culprit was closer to home: the army leadership.
Many questioned if 89 was the real death toll, as reports spread on social media that ammunition was stored near where the soldiers slept.
The army blamed the troops themselves, saying the devastating strike likely came after they used their cell phones despite a ban.
But, in a rare move, the army also promised to punish its own officials for mistakes after an investigation.
Placing the blame on the troops caused some anger.
“Well of course. It is not the commander who gave the order to place personnel in the school building that is to blame,” Moscow lawmaker Andrei Medvedev said on Telegram. “But just a simple fighter with a phone, apparently, is to blame for the tragedy.”
‘Something is not going to plan’
Russia has introduced harsh laws against “discrediting the army” since sending troops to Ukraine, de facto banning criticism of its offensive.
And sociologist Denis Volkov said such deadly strikes have little short-term impact on the mood of Russians as state media had not been dedicating much airtime to Russian losses.
After authorities declared an end to the draft in late October, Volkov said “apathy has risen considerably” in Russian society.
He did, however, say that a series of defeats and withdrawals in Ukraine has led to a feeling among some Russians “that something is not going to plan.”
“People notice and it does influence the feeling that not everything is as rainbowlike as is portrayed or as they would like it to be,” Volkov said.
“But still, the majority think that everything is fine and that we need to continue (the offensive).”
‘I am shocked’
Yet in the Samara region, where some of the soldiers were known to have been from, the strikes led to public vigils that have been rare since Russia President Vladimir Putin launched the offensive.
Concern quickly spread on the social media pages of relatives of soldiers from Samara, calling for a thorough investigation.
“It is not cellphones and their owners that are to blame, but the banal negligence of the commanders, who I am sure did not even try to resettle the personnel,” read one social media post.
“I am shocked the commanders did not warn of the dangers,” one woman wrote on the same page.
Some questioned why authorities needed a mobilization in the first place.
Others were divided over whether the cellphones led to the devastation.
A group of activists in Samara have also called for army officials to be punished and for names of the dead to be made public.
“This is a big tragedy for the Samara region,” the group wrote on social media.
“It is important to remember, these were mobilized (people), not professional soldiers.”