Moscow’s growing list of failures in the Ukraine war means Russia is losing the backing of even senior military figures.
Anti-war protests from the general public and reluctance to join the war effort after Russian president Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilisation in September have been widely reported.
But now, it seems even those towards the top of the military hierarchy are turning on the Kremlin’s efforts, particularly after a strike reportedly killed 89 Russian soldiers this week.
Russian invasion of Ukraine
Dozens of Russian military personnel were killed after a missile strike hit a school building in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, although Ukraine has refused to take responsibility.
Crucially, the strike – launched on New Year’s Eve – hit the Russian held town of Makiivka, part of one of the Ukrainian regions Moscow illegally annexed back in September.
It was a significant blow for Putin, especially with the one-year anniversary of his invasion itself looming, and very few military successes under his belt.
Moscow initially said the strike killed 63 soldiers, before revising the number to 89 Russian troops. Ukraine claimed the real number was up to 400.
Even if the number is really 89, this is still the largest number of casualties in a single incident admitted by Moscow since the war started.
Russia’s Defence Ministry then blamed its own soldiers for the strike for illegally using mobile phones in the area, and has ordered an investigation.
“This factor allowed the enemy to track and determine the co-ordinates of the soldiers’ location for a missile strike,” the Defence Ministry claimed.
However, the UK’s Ministry of Defence blamed the force’s military habits instead.
It claimed on Wednesday: “The Russian military has a record of unsafe ammunition storage from well before the current war but this incident highlights how unprofessional practices contribute to Russia’s high causality rate.”
Workers remove debris of a destroyed building purported to be a vocational college used as temporary accommodation for Russian soldiers, dozens of whom were killed in a missile strike.
Who within Russia has criticised the Kremlin’s response?
The Kremlin’s efforts to blame low-level soldiers may not have had the desired effect though – two prominent figures have openly condemned it, while another has indicated just how strong the Ukraine opposition is on the frontline.
A well-known Russian war correspondent, Semyon Pegov, who was awarded the Order of Courage by Putin at the end of 2022, publicly questioned the defence military’s explanation.
According to CNN, he wrote on the social media app Telegram on Wednesday: “The story of mobiles is not very convincing. I rarely say this – but this is the case when it would probably be better to remain silent, at least until the end of the investigation.
“As such, it looks like an outright attempt to smear the blame.”
He also claimed that that the death toll was likely much larger than the official number acknowledged by Moscow of 89, saying: “Their number will still be growing.”
Pegov then claimed that apathy on the battlefields will also lead to more “tragedies”, appearing to touch on the ongoing worries about poor training, especially around new mobilised troops, and low morale.
He said: “If you ask me personally what is the most dangerous thing in war, I will answer unequivocally: not to bother.”
Head of pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic
The head of the separatists self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, the pro-Russian leader, also appeared to defend the beleaguered soldiers by praising the bravery of the soldiers killed in a Ukrainian strike.
He wrote on Telegram: “We know and we know first hand, what it is to suffer losses. Based on the information I have, I can say with certainty that there were many displays of courage and real heroism by the guys in this regiment.”
Key ally of Putin
And, in a less direct criticism of the military efforts, the head of the Russian Wagner mercenary group and a key ally of Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, admitted how difficult it was for Russian soldiers to make any progress.
According to the Guardian, he recently spoke about Russia’s failing efforts in the current centre of the battle, Bakhmut, where the Ukrainians are determinedly still holding their ground.
He said: “Every house [in Bakhmut] has become a fortress. Our guys sometimes fight for more than a day over one house.
“Sometimes they fight for weeks over one house. And behind this house, there is still a new line of defence, and not one. And how many such lines of defence are there? Five hundred would probably not be an exaggeration.”
What will happen next?
Ukraine has remained confident that Russia’s string of losses will continue.
Speaking to the ABC News on Wednesday, Ukraine’s major general Kyrylo Budanov said he was “very glad to see” such attacks inside Russia, but that he was unable to answer whether Ukraine had played a part in the strikes.
The reporter asked Budanov: “Do you think there will be more?”
“I think so,” he replied.
“Inside Russia? deep inside Russia?”
“Deeper and deeper.”
This could mean Russia continues to blame those on the frontline for its own failings.
Dr Gregory Asmolov, expert in crisis communication at King’s College London, told The Times that Moscow blamed soldiers’ phones for the missile strike in a bid to maintain its reputation.
He said: “They [the Kremlin] had to start to explain why bad things were actually happening and why they were not able to provide victory as soon as it was promised.”
He said that the Kremlin had to make sure it is “immune” and instead will shift to blame those lower down in the pecking order for its failures.
Ukrainian Head of Military Intelligence Kyrylo Budanov in an interview with @ABC, said that there will be more strikes on Russian territory and they will be "deeper and deeper".
Video: ABC News pic.twitter.com/l0vaMVHrbW
— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) January 2, 2023