Russia said on Wednesday the toll had risen in the worst reported loss from a Ukrainian strike, which an increasingly criticized Moscow blamed on troops using mobile phones.
The Ukrainian army’s strategic communications unit has said nearly 400 Russian soldiers have been killed in the eastern Ukraine town of Makiivka, and even Russian commentators have said the death toll could be much higher than the 89 reported by Russia.
As Moscow grappled with the aftermath of the strike, French President Emmanuel Macron told Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky that his country would send French-made light tanks to repel the Russian invasion.
The death toll in Makiivka is the highest reported by the Russian military in a single attack since troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
The deadly attack came after months of discontent within Russia with the military following a series of battlefield defeats and a hugely unpopular mobilization campaign.
Russia’s defense ministry said Monday — in an extremely rare admission — that 63 soldiers had been killed.
On Wednesday, the ministry said the toll had risen to 89 after more bodies were found under the rubble of the temporary base housing the troops.
It announced that a committee was working to clarify what had happened and promised that “guilty” officials would be punished.
In a video, Lieutenant General Sergei Sevryukov said the tragedy likely happened because Russian troops had used mobile phones and revealed their location to Ukrainian troops.
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 sparked rare public expressions of grief, including in Russia’s Samara region on the Volga, home to some of the victims.
Thousands of people have died in Ukraine and millions have had to flee their homes since President Vladimir Putin ordered troops to attack on February 24.
Following a spate of Russian strikes against Ukrainian targets on New Year’s Eve, Moscow said Ukraine hit Makiivka at 12:01 a.m. local time on January 1 using US-supplied HIMARS missile systems.
Putin has yet to comment on the strike, which came shortly after a New Year’s speech in which he praised Moscow’s “heroes” fighting in Ukraine.
– ‘Defend oneself’ –
Following criticism in Russia over the use of US-supplied weapons by Ukrainian defenders, including in the Makiivka attack, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Russia was to blame.
There is no question of “hand wringing by the administration” at all. This is a war. They have invaded and they (the Ukrainians) are striking back and defending themselves,” Kirby said.
“Russian soldiers on 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 supplying AMX-10 RC light tanks.
“It is the first time tanks of Western design have been delivered to the Ukrainian armed forces,” the presidency said after the two leaders spoke by phone. No other details were provided.
Zelensky said on Twitter that he thanked Macron “for the decision to transfer light tanks” to Ukraine.
In Russia, calls piled up for conclusions to be drawn after the Makiivka tragedy.
The influential head of the 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 discord,” she said.
There are reports that the military were billeted in an unprotected building that was destroyed when ammunition stored on the premises exploded during the attack.
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