A January 1 Ukrainian missile strike against a vocational school with mobilized Russian troops in Ukraine’s Russian-controlled Donetsk region has become one of the bloodiest incidents of Russia’s nearly year-long war in Ukraine.

What do we know and what do we not know about what happened?

What happened?

The strike at No. 19 professional engineering school in Makiivka, a sister city of the regional capital Donetsk controlled by Russian plenipotentiary forces since 2014, took place during the first minute after midnight on New Year’s Day, Daniil Bezsonov, a Donetsk official installed by Russia , said.

Russia’s defense ministry said Ukraine struck with six US-made HIMARS missiles.

The governor of Russia’s Samara region said many of the dead soldiers were local residents.

Unconfirmed footage circulating on social media reportedly shows residents watching Russian President Vladimir Putin’s midnight speech before taking cover as missiles hit the ground nearby.

Reuters photos of the scene show the ruined remains of the school.

Mavivka damage
Workers remove the rubble from a destroyed building believed to be the No. 19 Professional Engineering School in Makiivka [Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

Capital punishment

Reports of victims vary. Reuters could not independently verify how many people were killed.

Russia’s defense ministry said on Monday that 63 soldiers had been killed in the attack, an assessment echoed by a source close to the Russian-installed Donetsk separatist leadership, who told Reuters dozens had been killed.

The ministry only acknowledged the attack in the last paragraph of a 528-word daily summary, more than 36 hours after the attack took place.

Russia has consistently downplayed its casualty count, including claiming only one man was killed in the sinking of the battleship Moskva in April 2022.

Ukraine claims a much higher casualty count, saying about 400 were killed.

A number of Russian military bloggers, who have gained a large following by combining pro-Kremlin advocacy with unvarnished information on the state of the front, have also reported casualties closer to Ukrainian numbers.

In a post on the Telegram messaging app, Igor Girkin, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who was instrumental in starting the first war in the Donbas in 2014, said there were “many hundreds” of dead and wounded .

Girkin said ammunition and military equipment were stored in the buildings, adding to the force of the blast. He blamed Russia’s “untrainable” generals for the losses.

Gray Zone, a Telegram channel linked to the Wagner mercenaries, said about 500 men were billeted in the complex.

In images circulated on social media and geolocated by Reuters, the vocational school, a large complex of Soviet-era buildings, appears virtually razed to the ground as aid workers sift through the rubble.

Memorial to fallen Russian soldiers
People take part in a ceremony in memory of Russian soldiers killed during the Russia-Ukraine conflict in Samara, Russia, the day after 63 Russian servicemen died in Makiivka [Albert Dzen/Reuters]

Backlash in Russia

At the height of New Year celebrations, Russia’s most important holiday of the year, the attack has resonated in Russia.

A report by the state news agency TASS, citing Donetsk officials as saying Ukrainian troops were able to identify the target from soldiers using their Russian mobile phones, has sparked outrage among the Russian military blogger community.

“As expected, the blame for what happened in Makiivka began to be placed on the mobilized soldiers themselves. See, they turned on their phones and got noticed,” said the Telegram channel Gray Zone.

Gray Zone then blamed commanders for housing large numbers of soldiers in a building that was vulnerable to artillery fire.

In a Telegram post, Sergei Mironov, leader of a Kremlin-loyal party in Russia’s parliament, said an investigation was needed to determine whether “treason or criminal negligence” was behind the strike. He said the responsible officials should be prosecuted.

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