The toll from a Ukrainian New Year’s missile strike on a Russian-controlled city in eastern Ukraine rose to 89 on Wednesday, upping pressure on Russia’s military leadership.
The strike on Makiivka has led to Moscow’s biggest admission of loss of life since it sent troops to Ukraine in February 2022 and has been met with anger at home.
The devastation from the strike intensified criticism of army commanders, with even pro-Kremlin commentators suggesting the death toll could be in the hundreds.
The deadly strike came after months of discontent towards the military, since the Kremlin launched an unpopular mobilisation drive.
In the early hours of Wednesday, Russia’s defence ministry said the death toll had climbed to 89.
It announced a commission was working to clarify what happened and vowed that “guilty” officials would be punished.
In a video, Lieutenant General Sergei Sevryukov said the tragedy had likely taken place because Russian troops had used cell phones, giving away their location to Ukrainian forces.
But some critics have accused the military of trying to shift the blame.
State television military correspondents – whose influence has risen during the offensive – have accused top commanders of deadly incompetence.
The strike also led to a rare public display of grief in some cities, including in the Samara region on the Volga River.
Thousands of people have been killed in Ukraine and millions forced to flee their homes since President Vladimir Putin ordered troops to attack on February 24.
Following a wave of Russian strikes on Ukrainian targets, Moscow said Ukraine struck a temporary base in Makiivka at 12:01 am local time on January 1, using US-supplied HIMARS rocket systems.
Putin has not yet commented on the strike, which came shortly after his New Year address in which he hailed Moscow’s “heroes” fighting in Ukraine.
Kyiv has taken responsibility for the strike and said the toll could be much higher.
In a sign that criticism was being taken seriously, the influential head of Russia’s sate RT television channel Margarita Simonyan welcomed the army’s promise that officials “will be held accountable.”
“I hope that the names of these persons” will be announced, she said.
“It is time to understand that impunity does not lead to social harmony. Impunity leads to new crimes. And, as a result, to public dissent.”
There have been reports that the servicemen were quartered in an unprotected building which was destroyed because munitions were stored on the premises and detonated in the strike.
The Telegram account Rybar, which has around a million followers, said it was “criminally naive” for the army to store ammunition next to sleeping quarters.
The UK’s defence ministry said Wednesday that claims of ammunition being stored near where troops slept was a “realistic possibility.”
“The Russian military has a record of unsafe ammunition storage,” it said in a statement.
“This incident highlights how unprofessional practises contribute to Russia’s high casualty rate.”
‘Hero’ troops praised
The governor of the Samara region – where some of the servicemen came from – Dmitry Azarov was due to visit the wounded that had been brought to the southern city of Rostov near the Ukraine border.
In comments to local media, he hailed the “courage” of the troops.
“After the shelling soldiers and officers – wounded and with concussions – saved others, pulling comrades from under the rubble,” Azarov said.
Among the dead were rank-and-file soldiers as well as “representatives of the command staff”, he said.
East Ukrainian separatist leader Denis Pushilin also hailed the “heroism” of the troops.
“The majority of them, after barely getting out of the building hit by American Himars and regaining consciousness, returned back to pull out their comrades,” Pushilin said on Telegram.
As Moscow grappled with the aftermath of the Makiivka strike, authorities in Russia-annexed Crimea as well as the southern Rostov region said drones had been shot down over their territories.
The governor of the Rostov region Vasily Golubyev said the region’s air defence systems went off in a village outside the major city of Rostov-on-Don.
In Samara, some 200 people gathered on Tuesday to mourn the Makiivka troops as an Orthodox priest recited a prayer.
Ekaterina Kolotovkina, head of a group of army spouses, called for revenge.
“We will crush the enemy together. We are left with no choice.”