Amid anger in Russia over one of the deadliest strikes on Moscow’s forces in the war, official blame has fallen on the targeted soldiers themselves, with the suggestion that their cellphone use enabled Ukrainian forces to home in on their location.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement on Wednesday that it was clear the “main reason” for the strike, which took place on New Year’s Day in the city of Makiivka in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, was the collective use of cellphones by personnel within reach of Ukraine’s firepower.
They were using the phones despite a ban, the ministry said.
Russian soldiers’ use of open cellphone lines in Ukraine has been a known vulnerability for its military, often revealing forces’ positions. Intercepted calls have revealed the disarray and discontent in Russia’s ranks.
Some Russian lawmakers and military bloggers have pushed back against the swift assignment of blame, calling it an attempt by the military to fault the rank and file rather than their commanders. A number of influential bloggers criticized commanders for not taking basic precautions to protect troops, such as dispersing the newly arrived soldiers to safer locations and housing them away from munitions.
In its daily analysis, the British Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that the Makiivka attack showed how “unprofessional practices contribute to Russia’s high casualty rate,” noting the possibility that ammunition had been stored near the makeshift barracks, creating secondary explosions, as a main contributing factor to the extent of the damage.
“The Russian military has a record of unsafe ammunition storage from well before the current war,” the statement said.
The strike by Ukraine in Makiivka, using U.S.-supplied guided rockets, hit a vocational school that Russian soldiers had been using as a barracks. The Ukrainian military said that “about 400” troops had been killed but did not claim responsibility for the strike. On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry put the death toll at 89, adjusted from its initial figure of 63, in a rare acknowledgment of casualties. A deputy commander of the regiment was among those killed, the ministry said.
None of the claims about deaths could be independently verified. The unusually quick response by Russia’s Defense Ministry to acknowledge the mass casualties in Makiivka showed the Kremlin’s efforts toward offering greater transparency at home, as President Vladimir V. Putin seeks to prepare Russians, and his own military, for a long fight ahead.
Russian generals have spoken over unsecure phones and radios in the war, according to current and former American military officials, enabling the Ukrainians to locate and kill at least one general and his staff thorough an intercepted call.
But Andrei Medvedev, a Moscow lawmaker and state television host, wrote on Telegram that it was “predictable” the blame would be placed on individual soldiers. “Well, of course. It is not the commander who gave the order to place personnel in the vocational school building that is to blame,” he wrote.
A military blogger who writes under the moniker “Grey Zone” called the assessment that phone use led to the strike “99 percent a lie” and “an attempt to throw off the blame.” The blogger said that an intelligence failing was more likely the cause.
Outrage on Russian social media over the soldiers’ deaths was directed at senior officials but did not seem to extend to President Vladimir V. Putin.