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Russians mourn soldiers killed in attack as Kremlin blames troops’ cell phone use for revealing location

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his address to the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2022. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Residents in the Russian region of Samara gathered on January 3 to mourn the loss of local soldiers killed in one of Ukraine’s deadliest defensive strikes as Moscow put the blame on its own soldiers for using their mobile phones, which might have provided the data Ukraine used to locate them.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said 89 soldiers were killed when Ukraine launched the artillery attack on December 31 on the Moscow-controlled town of Makiyivka in the Donetsk region. The ministry had put the figure at 63 a day earlier. Ukraine’s military has claimed around 400 soldiers were killed or wounded in the attack. Some sources said on social media that the number may be even higher. RFE/RL is unable to confirm either side’s data.

Russian military bloggers, whose information has largely been reliable during the war, said ammunition stored close to the facility housing the soldiers had exploded in the attack and contributed to the high number of casualties.

The Russian Defense Ministry on January 3 claimed that Ukraine discovered the location of the Russian soldiers by geolocating their mobile phones when in use, though analysts said that could be just one of several explanations.

Many of those who died in Makiyivka were from Samara region in southwest Russia.

In the regional capital, also called Samara, several hundred people gathered on January 3 for Orthodox commemorative services, placing flowers on the ground in front of the city’s main war memorial. Similar services were held in other towns throughout the region.

“Dear friends, it is very difficult for me to speak. I haven’t slept in three days. Samara hasn’t slept in three days,” Yekaterina Kolotovkina, the chairwoman of an officially sanctioned council representing mothers and wives of soldiers, told the gatherers in Samara.

Many people in Samara don’t know the fate of their relatives, one family member told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.

Samara Governor Dmitry Azarov met with Defense Ministry officials on January 3 to coordinate medical help and other aid for survivors.

The blast in Makiyivka left many surviving Russian soldiers without basic necessities, prompting Samara officials and relatives to call for donations of such items as socks, underwear, shoes, and gloves.

Azarov’s office denied reports that many of those killed were recently mobilized men. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision in September to announce a mobilization was highly unpopular, triggering a mass exodus of military-age men. If mobilized men were killed in Makiyivka, it could stiffen resistance to serve should the Kremlin seek to again draft citizens.

The attack is among the deadliest single blasts carried out by Ukraine since the start of the invasion in February. Putin has yet to comment on the situation.

Some commentators have criticized Russia’s military brass for concentrating so many soldiers in one spot within the firing range of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) provided by the United States.

Ruslan Leviyev, the founder of Conflict Intelligence Team, an open-source intelligence firm, told RFE/RL it is unclear how Ukraine’s armed forces discovered the location of the Russian troops in Makiyivka.

He said Ukraine could have been tipped off by local residents who support the government in Kyiv or it could have been the work of special forces. He did not exclude that Russian soldiers could have given away their location by posting photos on social media or using their phones to call home.

The Ukrainian military said later on January 3 that it destroyed two Russian ammunition warehouses and a warehouse of fuel and lubricants in the direction of Kreminna-Svatove. Serhiy Cherevatiy, the spokesman for the Ukrainian Army’s Eastern Group of Forces, described it as part of an ongoing “systematic destruction of the logistics of the enemy’s warehouses and command posts.”

According to Cheravatiy, Russian troops are moving their forces in the Kreminna-Svatove direction and are trying to equip engineering facilities, but the initiative and control of the situation “is still more on the Ukrainian side.”

In its daily update on January 3, the General Staff of the Ukraine Armed Forces also said that the Russian military had launched six missile and 52 air strikes as well as 77 attacks from rocket launcher systems. It said all six missile strikes and 30 of the air strikes targeted civilian infrastructure.

Ukrainian forces also shot down 27 Iranian-made Shahed drones launched by Russian forces, the General Staff added.

Russia appears to have stepped up its air strikes against civilian targets in the capital, Kyiv, and other cities in recent days.

The Russian military attacked the outskirts of Zaporizhzhya with rockets late on January 3, said regional Governor Oleksandr Starukh. The city of Zaporizhzhya was struck by about 15 Russian missiles, causing a fire in a civilian infrastructure facility and injuring one person, Starukh said on Telegram.