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Russia says 63 soldiers were killed in a Ukrainian attack

Updated January 2, 2023 at 8:08pm ET

Ukraine’s military boasts of an explosion that may have killed hundreds of Russian conscripts in Ukraine’s far east in the first minutes of the new year. The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the reports on Monday, but only spoke of 63 dead.

Officials in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic,” a part of Ukraine that Russia illegally annexed in September, expressed public outrage at the attack and blamed Moscow for grouping so many soldiers in one place.

Both sides say the strike took place in Makiivka, a suburb east of Donetsk, a major Ukrainian city that has been under Russian control since 2014, but the details of exactly what happened are unclear. Western journalists cannot enter the area and therefore rely on both Russian and Ukrainian sources for information.

The attack may set a record for Russian casualties in a single attack in the war to date.

Local social media channels in the Donetsk region reported massive explosions at precisely midnight on New Year’s Day. Videos of the destruction emerged Sunday afternoon, including one that appeared to show bodies and a pile of rubble where a trade school once stood. Internet detectives soon located and verified the videos.

“The school was a well-known Russian garrison dating back to 2014,” Oleh Zhdanov, a top Ukrainian military analyst, told NPR.

“[Since February]most of the Russian soldiers were scattered across the front lines, but when Ukraine noticed that reservists were gathering in one place, they acted,” Zhdanov added.

On the evening of New Year’s Day, the Strategic Command of Ukraine published a sarcastic note about “Santa Claus stuffing body bags with 400 corpses” on its official Telegram channel.

Russia rarely admits casualties on the battlefield

The news sparked anger among pro-Russian leaders in the breakaway region.

“I cannot blame Ukraine. The real killer is the son of a bitch who made our fighters easy targets,” posted Alexey Sukonkin, an influential blogger in Russian-occupied Ukraine.

Russia’s state news agency TASS blamed the soldiers’ mobile phone data for revealing the location of their barracks to the Ukrainians.

Igor Girkin, the former defense minister of the separatist Donetsk region, shared similar sentiments online and claimed to have visited the site of the attack.

“The number of dead and wounded is in the hundreds,” he said.

Finally, the Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement on Monday accusing Ukraine of using American-supplied HIMARS missiles to carry out the attack. The public statement made a rare admission of battlefield casualties.

The Ukrainian General Staff followed the Russian announcement by confirming the attack, but without specifying the suspected number of casualties or the weapons used.

“It takes a long time to find out how many people die in such an attack,” Zhdanov said. “But we can have a general sense.”

Attacks like this are likely to fuel unrest in Russia

The apparent attack on Makiivka came just days after Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, encouraged draft-age Russian men to desert or protest the war.

“As this war drags on, your personal chances of dying will increase,” he said.

When Russian media began reporting the destruction, Russian citizens who claimed to have conscripted relatives stationed in Makiivka wanted to know if they were among the dead.

Military analyst Oleh Zhdanov says strikes like this one are likely to continue fueling unrest in Russia, where anti-conscription demonstrations took place last summer.

“Of course there will be another mobilization soon,” says Zhdanov, “so the Russians downplay their losses because they fear mass resistance.”

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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