Russia said Wednesday the toll climbed in its worst single reported loss from a Ukrainian strike, which an increasingly criticised Moscow blamed on troops using mobile phones.
The Ukrainian military’s strategic communications unit has said nearly 400 Russian soldiers were killed in the town of Makiivka in eastern Ukraine, and even Russian commentators have said the death toll may be far higher than the 89 Russia has reported.
As Moscow grappled with the aftermath of the strike, France’s President Emmanuel Macron told Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky that his country would send French-made light tanks to help repel the Russian invasion.
The death toll in Makiivka is the highest reported by the Russian military in a single strike since its troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
The deadly strike came after months of discontent within Russia towards the military following a series of battlefield defeats and a hugely unpopular mobilisation drive.
Russia’s defence ministry on Monday — in an extremely rare admission — said 63 soldiers had been killed.
On Wednesday, the ministry said the toll had climbed to 89 after more bodies were found under the rubble of the temporary base where the troops had been housed.
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 said the military is trying to shift the blame, and Russian military correspondents have accused commanders of incompetence.
The strike also led to rare public displays of grief, including in Russia’s Samara region on the Volga River, home to some of the victims.
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 on New Year’s Eve, Moscow said Ukraine struck Makiivka at 12:01 am local time January 1, using US-supplied HIMARS rocket systems.
Putin has not yet commented on the strike, which came shortly after a New Year address in which he hailed Moscow’s “heroes” fighting in Ukraine.
– ‘Defending themselves’ –
Following criticism in Russia over the use of US-delivered weaponry by Ukrainian defenders, including in the Makiivka strike, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Russia was to blame.
There is no “hand-wringing by the administration at all. This is a war. They have been invaded and they (Ukrainians) are striking back and defending themselves,” Kirby said.
“Russian soldiers in their territory are legitimate targets for Ukrainian military action, period.”
Across the Atlantic, French President Emmanuel Macron told Zelensky that Paris would increase aid to Ukraine by delivering AMX-10 RC light tanks.
“It is the first time that Western-designed tanks are supplied to the Ukrainian armed forces,” the presidency said after both leaders spoke by telephone. No other details were provided.
Zelensky on Twitter said he thanked Macron “for the decision to transfer light tanks” to Ukraine.
In Russia, calls mounted to draw conclusions after the Makiivka tragedy.
The influential head of state television channel RT, Margarita Simonyan, welcomed the army’s promise that officials “will be held accountable”.
“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,” she said.
There have been reports that the servicemen were quartered in an unprotected building that was destroyed because munitions stored on the premises had detonated in the strike.
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