A Ukrainian missile strike on January 1 against a vocational school housing mobilised Russian troops in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region of Ukraine has become one of the bloodiest incidents of Russia’s nearly year-long war in Ukraine.
What do we know, and what do we not know, about what happened?
The strike on Professional Technical School No 19 in Makiivka, a twin city to the regional capital of Donetsk that has been controlled by Russian proxy forces since 2014, occurred during the first minute after midnight on New Year’s Day, Daniil Bezsonov, a Russian-installed Donetsk official, said.
Russia’s Ministry of Defence said Ukraine struck with six United States-made HIMARS rockets.
The governor of Russia’s Samara region said that many of the dead soldiers were locals.
Unconfirmed footage circulated on social media purportedly shows residents watching Russian President Vladimir Putin’s midnight address before running for cover as missiles strike the ground nearby.
Reuters photographs from the scene show the ruined remains of the school.
Reports of casualties vary. Reuters was unable to independently verify how many people were killed.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Monday that 63 soldiers had been killed in the strike, an assessment echoed by a source close to Donetsk’s Russia-installed separatist leadership, who told Reuters that dozens had died.
The ministry acknowledged the attack only in the final paragraph of a 528-word daily roundup, more than 36 hours after the attack took place.
Russia has consistently underplayed its casualty figures, including claiming that only one man died during the sinking of the battleship Moskva in April 2022.
Ukraine has claimed a far higher casualty figure, saying that around 400 died.
A number of Russian military bloggers, who have gained large followings through mixing pro-Kremlin advocacy with unvarnished information on the state of the front, have also given casualty figures closer to the Ukrainian numbers.
In a post on the Telegram messaging app, Igor Girkin, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer instrumental in starting the initial 2014 war in the Donbas, said that there were “many hundreds” of killed and injured.
Girkin said that ammunition and military equipment had been stored in the buildings, contributing to the strength of the blast. He blamed Russia’s “untrainable” generals for the losses.
Grey Zone, a Telegram channel linked to the Wagner mercenary outfit, said that around 500 men were billeted in the complex.
In footage circulated on social media and geolocated by Reuters, the vocational school, a large complex of Soviet-era buildings, appears virtually razed as emergency service workers sift through the rubble.
Backlash in Russia
Coming at the climax of celebrations for the New Year, the most important holiday of the year in Russia, the attack has resonated within Russia.
Mourners voiced grief and anger at a rare public commemoration in Russia for the scores of soldiers killed in the Ukrainian strike.
A report by state-owned news agency TASS, citing Donetsk officials and saying that Ukrainian forces were able to identify the target from soldiers using their Russian mobile phones, has provoked anger among Russia’s military blogger community.
“As expected, the blame for what happened in Makiivka began to be blamed on the mobilised soldiers themselves. You see, they turned on their phones and got spotted,” stated the Telegram channel Grey Zone.
Grey Zone went on to blame commanders for lodging large numbers of soldiers in a building vulnerable to artillery fire.
In a post on Telegram, Sergei Mironov, leader of a Kremlin-loyal party in Russia’s parliament, said that an investigation was necessary to determine whether “treachery or criminal negligence” was behind the strike. He said that the officials responsible should be prosecuted.
“What conclusions will be drawn? Who will be punished?” Mikhail Matveyev, a member of parliament representing Samara, wrote on social media.