Sitting ducks? Russian military flaws seen in soldier deaths

Kyiv, Ukraine — Senior Russian military brass came under intense scrutiny on Wednesday as further details emerged of how at least 89 Russian soldiers, and possibly many more, were killed in the of a Ukrainian artillery attack against a single building.

Last weekend’s scene in the Russian-held town of Makiivka in eastern Ukraine, where soldiers were temporarily stationed, appears to have been a recipe for disaster. Hundreds of Russian troops are believed to have been herded into a building close to the frontline of the war, well within range of enemy precision artillery supplied by the West, possibly seated near a store of ammunition and perhaps unwittingly helping the Kyiv forces to focus on them. .

It was one of the deadliest attacks on Kremlin forces since the start of the war more than 10 months ago and the highest death toll in a single incident recognized so far by the two parties to the conflict.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces claimed the strike killed around 400 mobilized Russian soldiers housed in a vocational school building in Makiivka. About 300 more of them were injured, officials said. It has not been possible to verify the claims of either side due to the fighting.

The Russian military sought to blame the soldiers for their own deaths. Lieutenant General Sergei Sevryukov said in a statement on Tuesday that their phone signals allowed Kyiv forces to “determine the coordinates of the location of military personnel” and launch a strike.

Emily Ferris, a Russia and Eurasia researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told The Associated Press that it was “very difficult to verify” whether cellphone signaling and geolocation were behind precise hitting.

She noted that Russian soldiers on active duty are prohibited from using their phones – precisely because there have been many instances in recent years where they have been used for targeting, including by both sides in the war in Ukraine. The conflict made extensive use of modern technology.

She also noted that blaming the soldiers themselves was a “helpful narrative” for Moscow because it helps deflect criticism and draw attention to the official cellphone ban.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also sought to move the conversation forward by participating via video link on Wednesday in a ceremony to send off a frigate equipped with the Russian Navy’s new hypersonic missiles.

Putin said the Zircon missiles carried by the Admiral Gorshkov frigate were a “unique weapon”, capable of flying at nine times the speed of sound and with a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). Russia says the missiles cannot be intercepted.

Makiivka’s strike appears to be the latest blow to the Kremlin’s military prestige as it struggles to push forward its neighbor’s invasion amid a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive.

But Ferris, the analyst, said that “one must be careful before relying too much on this (attack) as a sign of the weakness of (the) Russian military”.

As details of the strike have been leaked in recent days, some observers have detected a lack of military rigor behind so many deaths.

British intelligence officials said Wednesday that Moscow’s “unprofessional” military practices were likely partly responsible for the high casualty rate among troops.

“Given the extent of the damage, there is a realistic possibility that ammunition was stored near troop accommodations, which exploded during the strike, creating secondary explosions,” the UK Ministry of Defense said in a statement. a message on Twitter.

In the same message, the ministry said the building hit by Ukrainian missiles was just over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the front line, in “one of the most contested areas of the conflict. “, in Donetsk partially occupied by Russia. Region.

“The Russian military has a history of unsafe ammunition storage long before the current war, but this incident highlights how unprofessional practices contribute to Russia’s high casualty rate,” the update adds.

The Russian Defense Ministry, in a rare admission of casualties, initially said the strike killed 63 soldiers. But as emergency crews searched the building’s rubble, the death toll rose. The regiment’s deputy commander was among the dead.

It has sparked fresh criticism in Russia over how the wider military campaign is being handled by the Defense Ministry.

Vladlen Tatarsky, a well-known military blogger, accused the Russian generals of “showing their own stupidity and misunderstanding of what is happening (among) the troops, where everyone has cell phones”.

“Also, in places where there is cover, artillery fire is often settled by telephone. There is simply no other way,” Tatarsky wrote in a Telegram post.

Others blame the decision to station hundreds of troops in one place. “The cell phone story is not very convincing,” wrote military blogger Semyon Pegov. “The only remedy is not to house staff en masse in large buildings. It is simply not a question of housing 500 people in the same place, but of spreading them over 10 different sites.

According to unconfirmed reports in Russian-language media, the victims were mobilized reservists from the Samara region in southwestern Russia.

The Institute for War Studies saw the incident as further evidence that Moscow is misusing the reservists it began calling up last September.

“Systemic failures in Russia’s force generation apparatus continue to strain personnel capabilities to the detriment of Russian operational capability in Ukraine,” the think tank said in a report on Tuesday.

Ferris, of the Royal United Services Institute, said the Makiivka strike shows the Russian military is more interested in increasing the number of its soldiers than in training them in war skills.

“That’s really how Russia conducts a lot of its war – crushing the enemy with volume, with people,” she said. “The Kremlin’s view, unfortunately, is that soldiers’ lives are expendable.”


Kozlowska contributed from London.


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