The New Year strike on a Russian military base in Makiivka has led to Moscow’s biggest admission of loss of life since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022. But aside from the devastating, and still mounting, death toll, experts say the incident has exposed something even more alarming for Russia: broad incompetence and carelessness at the heart of its military command.
Just minutes after Ukraine rang in the New Year, four US-made HIMARS rockets rained down on a purported school building housing Russian army recruits in the industrial town of Makiivka, in the occupied region of Donetsk. Ukraine, along with Russian military bloggers, quickly put the death toll at a staggering 400. Moscow on the other hand, first estimated it at 63, but early Wednesday revised it up to 89.
In either case, it is the biggest loss of life Moscow has reported from a single strike since it began its invasion of Ukraine ten months ago.
The announcement from the Russian Defence Ministry was an event in itself since Russia rarely comments on its losses, and if it does, often plays them down or completely denies them.
The admission came after news of the tragedy went viral, and Russian war bloggers began to put the blame on some of the country’s top commanders, accusing them of failing to protect their forces.
Jeff Hawn, a specialist on the Russian military and consultant for the American geopolitical research centre New Lines Institute, said Russia, by playing down the losses, was trying to spin the strike in its favour. “They want to minimise it, as usual, in order to minimise the backlash but they also want to say: ‘Look at the cowardly Ukrainians who are killing our men in their sleep’,” he explained.
‘It shouldn’t happen’
But the Kremlin isn’t expected to dwell on the losses for long, Hawn said, since the circumstances leading up to the deadly strike highlights “an important failure of operational readiness”.
One of the main criticisms levied at Russia’s military leadership in the wake of the attack is that too many of the newly mobilised recruits are believed to have been lodged in the same building. In addition, the base was also located far too close to enemy lines and within striking distance of Ukrainian missiles.
“It shouldn’t happen if you maintain good operational security,” Hawn said.
Information has also emerged suggesting the Russians stored ammunition nearby, or even in, the same building as the soldiers, possibly contributing to the enormous blast that left the premises completely flattened.
It also remains unclear exactly how the Ukrainians knew to target the building. On Wednesday, Russian Lieutenant General Sergei Sevryukov squarely put the blame on the new arrivals themselves: “The main reason … was the turning on and massive use by personnel of mobile phones within reach of enemy weapons contrary to the ban,” he said in a video released by the defence ministry.
Hawn said that it would rank as a major security gaffe if true. “They should not be able to use their personal phones because the signal can be traced to triangulate and pinpoint their location,” he explained.
Glen Grant, a senior analyst and an expert on the Russian military at the Baltic Security Foundation, added that the commanders may have chosen to turn a blind eye to the ban during the New Year festivities for fear of making the already unhappy recruits even angrier “and quite frankly capable of killing their officers”.
“So they decided to let them call their families.”
Regardless, it is a disastrous military blunder given that Ukraine has frequently managed to geolocalise Russian troops through phone signals and social media apps like Tinder and Instagram since the war broke out.
Grant said the success of the Ukrainian strike was also due to the use of American-made HIMARS. “They are almost impossible to intercept because their flight is so short, and also because Russia doesn’t haven’t good enough air defence systems capable of intercepting them.”
But one burning question remains: Why did the Russian commanders place the new recruits so close to the front?
One crass explanation, Grant said, could be that the commanders simply did not care about them, viewing them “as just meat”.
Hawn, on the other hand, offered another – but equally serious – explanation, attributing it to “gross criminal incompetence”.
“There is a lack of competent personnel, especially at the lower- and mid-level of command, and it makes sense to send the best officers to the front directly,” he said.
Grant said it could also be due to a wider flaw in Russia’s military strategy, by concentrating too many troops in the same area. “There are just too many people at one location, and you have to fit everyone in,” he said.
Faced with the HIMARS-equipped Ukrainians, that strategy could very well turn into more devastating losses for the Russians.