Russia has accused soldiers of using mobile phones to launch missiles

  • 89 Russian troops killed in New Year attack – Defense Ministry
  • Pakmut on the eastern front was the scene of even fiercer fighting
  • Kiev again believes that Russia will begin a major mobilization
  • This story includes material produced in Russia, where law restricts coverage of Russian military operations in Ukraine

MOSCOW, Jan 4 (Reuters) – Russia’s defense ministry said on Wednesday that a missile attack in Ukraine killed 89 soldiers, raising the death toll to 63.

The New Year’s Eve strike, the deadliest single incident Moscow has acknowledged since the start of the war, angered pro-war Russian commentators, who have become increasingly vocal about what they see as a half-hearted and inept campaign in Ukraine.

Criticism has centered on military commanders above Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has not commented publicly on the attack, dealing a further blow after a major battlefield retreat in recent months.

Four Ukrainian rockets hit makeshift Russian barracks at a vocational college in Makhivka, the twin city of Donetsk, the capital of the Russian-occupied region in eastern Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

Although an investigation was launched, the Russian ministry blamed the attack on the military’s widespread use of mobile phones, which it described as illegal.

“This factor allowed the adversary to track and determine the coordinates of the soldiers’ location for a missile attack,” it said in a statement issued at 1 a.m. Wednesday (2200 GMT Tuesday).

Russia has effectively shut down all direct opposition to the war, with open criticism banned by strict media rules. But it has given pro-war nationalist bloggers relatively free rein, with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.

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Semyon Bekov, a war correspondent who was awarded the Order of Courage by Putin, said in Telegram that pointing fingers at troops using mobile phones “seems like a direct attempt to condemn the crime”. There were other ways that Ukraine found the site, he said.

Bekov said the death toll could rise further: “The reported data are for those immediately identified. The list of the missing is, unfortunately, significantly longer.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who rarely comments on specific Ukrainian military strikes, made no mention of the attack in a video address on Tuesday.

Ukraine initially claimed hundreds of Russians were killed in Makhivka. It later declined to comment.

‘The Great Russian Offensive’

Zelensky said Russia was about to launch a major offensive.

“We have no doubt that Russia’s current masters will throw everything they have left at them and try to turn the tide of the war and at least delay their defeat,” Zelensky said in a video address.

“We must destabilize this Russian situation. We are preparing for this. The terrorists must be defeated. Any attempt by them to launch a new attack must be defeated,” he continued.

With Russia losing territory in the second half of 2022, Putin ordered the first call-up of occupiers since World War II. Kiev has been saying for weeks that Russia plans to order another mass conscription drive and close its borders to prevent men escaping the draft.

In the latest sign that the Kremlin is considering such a move, a small group claiming to represent the widows of Russian soldiers called on Putin to order a mass mobilization of millions of men.

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The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said on Wednesday that Russia launched seven missile strikes, 18 airstrikes and more than 85 strikes from multiple missile rocket systems in the past 24 hours against civilian infrastructure in the three cities of Kramatorsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

“There have been casualties among civilians,” it said. Russia denies targeting civilians.

Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports.

Ukraine’s civil servants said Russian forces continued to focus on Baghmut, a city in Donetsk now reduced to rubble after months of fighting, while trying to improve their positions elsewhere on the front line in the region.

Mikhail Rasvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol in Crimea, said on the Telegram messaging app on Wednesday that air defense systems had shot down two drones near Belbek military airfield.

Putin plans to speak with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax, the latest in a series of talks between the two leaders since the war began.

Turkey brokered an agreement with the United Nations to allow grain exports from Ukrainian ports. But prospects for serious peace talks are remote, with Moscow demanding Kyiv annex the captured land and Ukraine pledging to expel Russian troops from all its territory.

Citing threats to Russian security and the need to protect Russian-speakers, Putin launched a so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24. Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked imperialist-style takeover.

Report by Reuters Bureau; Written by Michael Perry and Gareth Jones; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Peter Graf

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