Russia blames soldiers’ phones for Ukrainian rocket attack which killed new recruits
Russia’s defence ministry has blamed its soldiers’ use of mobile phones for a Ukrainian missile strike which killed at least 89 servicemen.
Four Ukrainian missiles hit a temporary Russian barracks in occupied eastern Ukraine on New Year’s Eve, according to the ministry.
The Ukrainian armed forces have claimed that some 400 newly mobilised Russian army recruits were killed in the attack on a vocational college which was housing the troops in Makiivka, a city of about 300,000 people, ten miles east of Donetsk.
While Russia has ordered an investigation, the defence ministry in Moscow claimed the main reason for the attack was the illegal use of mobile phones by its servicemen.
“This factor allowed the enemy to track and determine the co-ordinates of the soldiers’ location for a missile strike,” it said in a statement issued just after 1am local time this morning.
Russian nationalist bloggers and some pro-Russian officials in the region suggested the death toll may be in the hundreds, but officials have disputed these claims.
Semyon Pegov, a prominent Russian war correspondent awarded the Order of Courage by Putin last year, also questioned whether mobile phones could be used to target an attack.
“The story of mobiles is not very convincing,” he wrote on Telegram. “I rarely say this — but this is the case when it would probably be better to remain silent, at least until the end of the investigation. As such it looks like an outright attempt to smear the blame.”
Both Russians and Ukrainians have been known to track and exploit their opponents’ phone signals during the ten-month conflict. The Russian Leer-3 system involves using a pair of drones and a ground vehicle in order to track and jam phone signals over a nearly 6km radius. Ukraine has similarly managed to geo-locate and kill a Russian general using an unsecured phone.
However, the attribution of blame to mobile phone usage could simply be part of a shifting Kremlin strategy to explain away their failings over the course of the war — especially since Russia’s retreat from the southern city of Kherson.
Dr Gregory Asmolov, an expert in crisis communication at King’s College London, said Russia “had to start to explain why bad things were actually happening and why they were not able to provide victory as soon as it was promised,” adding that the ultimate goal is to ensure that the Kremlin “is immune” from criticism.
Workers sift through debris after a three-storey building used a temporary Russian barracks for new conscripts was hit by US rockets supplied to UkraineWorkers sift through debris after a three-storey building used a temporary Russian barracks for new conscripts was hit by US rockets supplied to Ukraine
“We don’t really know if [the latest strike] was because of the mobile phones or not,” he added. “But as a strategy for crisis communication and as an effort to attribute blame not to the high commanders, not to politicians, not to the authorities, but just to like those people, soldiers, who were recently mobilised and framing them as irresponsible, and responsible for their own death is their strategy of blame attribution . . . I think this is the main message: ‘we are not responsible for what happened to the soldiers that were recently mobilised’.”
The Russian ministry of defence claims the three-storey building was razed out by US-supplied Himars rockets and accused Ukraine of exaggerating the casualties.
The defence ministry initially said 63 Russian soldiers were killed in the weekend strike but has revised that number up to 89 in Wednesday’s statement.
Pegov also suggested that the number of casualties from the attack would rise.
“Unfortunately, their number will continue to grow. The announced data is most likely for those who were immediately identified. The list of the missing, unfortunately, is noticeably longer. I cannot disclose the sources, but I consider them reliable.”
In Samara, a city about 600 miles southeast of Moscow where some of the dead servicemen came from, around 200 people gathered to lay flowers and wreaths at a rare public commemoration in Russia.
Soldiers fired a gun salute while some mourners could be seen holding flags of United Russia, President Putin’s party.
“It’s very tough, it’s scary. But we cannot be broken. Grief unites,” Ekaterina Kolotovkina, head of a group of army spouses, said at the ceremony.
Kolotovkina, the wife of a general, said she had asked her husband to “avenge” the victims. “We will crush the enemy together. We are left with no choice,” she told mourners.
Similar gatherings were reported in other cities of the Samara region.
“What conclusions will be drawn? Who will be punished?” Mikhail Matveyev, a member of the Russian parliament representing the city, wrote on social media.
In Kyiv, President Zelensky did not mention the attack in his nightly video address on Tuesday.
The Ukrainian leader warned that Russia was set to launch another major offensive against his country after a series of setbacks and slow progress in the ten-month invasion.
“We have no doubt that [the] current masters of Russia will throw everything they have left and everyone they can round up to try to turn the tide of the war and at least delay their defeat,” said Zelensky.
“We have to disrupt this Russian scenario. We are preparing for this. The terrorists must lose. Any attempt at their new offensive must fail.”
Russian officials have denied that Putin will order a full-scale mobilisation.