In a rare disclosure, Russia’s defence ministry said 63 soldiers were killed on New Year’s Eve in a fiery blast that destroyed a temporary barracks in a vocational college in the city of Makiivka, in Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine and some Russian nationalist bloggers have put the death toll much higher, in the hundreds, though pro-Russian officials say such estimates are exaggerated.
The soldiers were reportedly being housed alongside an ammunition dump at the site, which the Russian defence ministry said was hit by four rockets fired from US-made HIMARS launchers.
Fury is growing in Russia over the attack, where some lawmakers have demanded punishment for commanders they accused of ignoring dangers.
“What happened in Makiivka is horrible,” wrote Archangel Spetznaz Z, a Russian military blogger with more than 700,000 followers on the Telegram messaging app.
“Who came up with the idea to place personnel in large numbers in one building, where even a fool understands that even if they hit with artillery, there will be many wounded or dead?” he wrote. Commanders “couldn’t care less”, he said.
The strike - one of the most deadly carried out during the war - came as Russia was launching what have become nightly waves of drone attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.
After firing dozens of missiles on New Year’s Eve, Russia launched more than 80 Iranian-made Shahed drones on New Year’s Day and January 2, all of which had been shot down, according to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Mr Zelensky said Russia was planning a protracted campaign of such attacks in a bid to “exhaust” Ukraine.
“It is probably banking on exhaustion,” he said during his nightly video address to the nation. “Exhausting our people, our anti-aircraft defences, our energy.”
Ukraine, he said, had to “act and do everything so that the terrorists’ fail in their aim, as all their others have failed”.
Ukraine almost never publicly claims responsibility for attacks on Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine, and President Zelensky did not address the Makiivka strike in his nightly speech on Monday.
However, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces reported the Makiivka attack as “a strike on Russian manpower and military equipment”. It did not mention casualties.
Meanwhile, the anger in Russia has extended to lawmakers.
Grigory Karasin, a member of the Russian Senate and former deputy foreign minister, not only demanded vengeance against Ukraine and its NATO supporters over the attack, but also “an exacting internal analysis”.
Sergei Mironov, a legislator and former chairman of the Senate, Russia‘s upper house, demanded criminal liability for the officials who had “allowed the concentration of military personnel in an unprotected building” and “all the higher authorities who did not provide the proper level of security”.
Unverified footage posted online of the aftermath of the blast at the Russian barracks in Makiivka showed a huge building reduced to smoking rubble.
Some of the dead came from the southwestern Russian region of Samara, the region’s governor told Russian media, urging concerned relatives to contact recruitment centres for information.
Having suffered defeats on the battlefield in the second half of 2022, Russia resorted to mass air strikes against Ukrainian cities.
Ukraine said on Monday it had shot down all 39 drones Russia had launched in a third night of air strikes on civilian targets in Kyiv and other cities.
Ukrainian officials said their success proved that Russia’s tactic in recent months of raining down missiles and drones to knock out Ukraine’s energy infrastructure was increasingly failing as Kyiv beefs up its air defences.