A recipe for disaster: the Russian military negligence that led to their heavy casualties on the battlefield

A dead soldier on the outskirts of Kharkiv (REUTERS/Maksim Levin/File Photo) (MAKSIM LEVIN/)

The top brass of the Russian military came under increasing scrutiny on Wednesday as more details emerged about how at least 89 Russian soldiers, and possibly many more, were killed in a Ukrainian artillery attack on a single building.

The scene last weekend in the Russian-controlled eastern Ukrainian city of Makiivka, where soldiers were temporarily stationed, appears to have been a recipe for disaster. According to reports, hundreds of Russian soldiers were grouped in a building near the front line of the war, well within range of enemy Western-supplied precision artillery, possibly sitting near an ammunition depot, and perhaps unknowingly helping Kyiv forces to focus on them.

was one of the deadliest single attacks against Kremlin forces since the war began more than 10 months ago and the highest death toll in a single incident acknowledged so far by any party to the conflict.

Ukraine’s armed forces said the attack killed about 400 Russian soldiers mobilized housed in the building of a vocational school in Makiivka. About 300 more were injured, authorities claimed. It was not possible to verify the claims of either side due to the fighting.

The Russian army tried to blame the soldiers for their own deaths. the lieutenant general Sergey Sevryukov it said in a statement late Tuesday that signals from its phones allowed Kyiv forces to “determine the coordinates of the location of military personnel” and launch an attack.

Emily Ferrisa Russia and Eurasia Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told Associated Press that it is “very difficult to verify” whether cell phone signaling and geolocation were to blame for the precise attack.

He noted that active duty Russian soldiers have forbidden to use their phones, exactly because there have been many cases in recent years where they have been used to attack, including by both sides in the Ukrainian war. The conflict has made extensive use of modern technology.

Workers remove rubble from a destroyed building used as temporary housing for Russian soldiers, dozens of whom were killed in a Ukrainian missile attack, in Makiivka, Russian-controlled Ukraine.  January 4, 2023 (REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)
Workers remove rubble from a destroyed building used as temporary housing for Russian soldiers, dozens of whom were killed in a Ukrainian missile attack, in Makiivka, Russian-controlled Ukraine. January 4, 2023 (REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko) (ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/)

He also noted that blaming the soldiers themselves was a “useful narrative” for Moscow, as it helps deflect criticism and draw attention to the official ban on mobile phones.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also tried to move the conversation forward, having participated via video link in a farewell ceremony on Wednesday for a frigate equipped with the Russian navy’s new hypersonic missiles.

Putin said that 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. Russia says the missiles cannot be intercepted.

The Makiivka attack appeared to be the latest blow to the Kremlin’s military prestige as it struggles to advance its invasion of its neighbor amid a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive.

But Ferris, the analyst, said “there should be a bit of caution in leaning too heavily on this (attack) as a sign of the weakness of the Russian army.

As details of the attack have leaked in recent days, some observers have detected military negligence at the root of so many deaths.

UK intelligence officials said on Wednesday that the “unprofessional” military practices from Moscow were probably partly to blame for the high casualty rate in the troops.

“Given the extent of the damage, there is a realistic possibility that the ammunition was stored near the troop quarterswhich detonated during the attack, creating secondary explosions,” the UK Ministry of Defense said in a Twitter post.

In the same publication, the ministry said that the building hit by Ukrainian missiles was just over 12 kilometers from the front line, inside “one of the most disputed areas of the conflict”, in Donetsk partially occupied by Russia.

Photo taken from a video of the Zircon hypersonic missile fired from the Admiral Gorshkov frigate in the Barents Sea (Russian Defense Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)
Photo taken from a video of the Zircon hypersonic missile fired from the Admiral Gorshkov frigate in the Barents Sea (Russian Defense Ministry / Handout via REUTERS) (RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY /)

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

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

That sparked renewed criticism inside Russia over the way the Defense Ministry is handling the broader military campaign.

Vladlen Tatarskya well-known military blogger, accused the Russian generals of “proving their own stupidity and misunderstanding of what happens (among) the troops, where everyone has cell phones.”

“In addition, in places where there is coverage, the artillery fire is usually adjusted by phone. There are simply no other ways,” 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 mass staff in large buildings. Just not house 500 people in one place, but spread them out over 10 different locations.”

Unconfirmed reports in Russian-language media said the victims were reservists mobilized from the Samara region, in southwestern Russia.

The Institute for the Study of War he saw in the incident further evidence that Moscow is not properly using the reservists it began calling up last September.

“Systemic failures in Russia’s force-generating apparatus continue to affect personnel capabilities to the detriment of Russia’s operational capability in Ukraine,” the think tank said in a report late Tuesday.

Ferris, of the Royal United Services Institute, said the Makiivka attack shows that the Russian army is more interested in increasing its number of troops than in training them in warfare skills.

“This is really how Russia conducts much of its warfare: overwhelming the enemy with volume, with people,” he said. “The view of the Kremlin, unfortunately, is that the lives of the soldiers are expendable.”

(With information from AP)

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