(CNN) — It is New Year’s Eve, one of the most prestigious holidays in Russia. Hundreds of conscripts from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, mobilized months ago, are housed in makeshift camps at a vocational school in the occupied city of Makhivika in the Donetsk region. Next door was a large ammunition depot.
As the soldiers missed their wives and families, they turned on their cell phones and called home. Suddenly, HIMARS rockets, satellite-guided precision weapons supplied to Ukraine by the United States, hit the school, almost completely destroying it and setting the ammunition cache on fire.
Here’s how the Russian military officially explains the deadliest attack on its forces in Ukraine since the start of the war in February 2022. The Defense Ministry blamed the troops, saying they were the “main reason” for the attack. The use of cell phones is “contrary to prohibition.” Russian troops are banned from using personal cell phones in the field because their signals are georeferenced.
But that description, and the details of the attack that emerged, sparked an unusually public national blame game among Russians.
It started with the death toll. The Russian Defense Ministry initially said 63 soldiers were killed, but later increased the number to 89. Ukraine said about 400 people died. But even pro-war Russian bloggers, who have the most influence over Russian citizens getting information about what is really happening in Ukraine, rejected the official account, estimating that hundreds of soldiers were killed. The actual number is still unknown.
One such blogger, Semyon Bekov, who goes by the online moniker “War Gonzo” and recently received a Vladimir Putin medal, dismissed the military’s claim about the cellphones, calling it a “blatant attempt to smear and blame.”
“Grey Zone,” another blogger, called the cell phone description “99% false,” an attempt to avoid responsibility. He said the attack was more likely to happen due to intelligence failure.
Russian lawmakers intervened and demanded an investigation into who ordered the temporary deployment of so many troops to the unsecured building. Sergey Mironov, a prominent politician and party leader, said any officer or other military personnel who made such a decision should have “personal criminal responsibility”. Also, pointing out that the military had a lax approach to war, he warned: “It’s time to realize that it’s not going to be like it was before.”
“This is a battle for Russia’s future,” Mironov said. “We must win!”
Mirano’s comments struck a sensitive nerve. Hardliners like him think Putin’s “partial mobilization,” which called for 300,000 people in September, was not enough. They want a total mobilization that puts the entire country on war footing. They want revenge on Ukraine.
Yet no one has yet—at least publicly—blamed Vladimir Putin for the death. Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state-run international network RT and a regular on Russian television talk shows, said she hoped “responsible officials will be held accountable” and their names released. But he also pointed out that the attack would fuel public discontent: “It is time to understand that impunity does not lead to social harmony. Impunity leads to more crimes and consequently, public protest.
Many of the soldiers who died at Makhivka were from Samara, a city on the Volga River in southwestern Russia. Their families are grieving, so they carry red carnations to a rare public memorial service, as priests lead prayers and a choir sings a hymn for the newly sent youth.
The Defense Ministry’s acknowledgment that a significant number of mobilized troops were killed in the attack, as well as the open discussion among military bloggers, are signs that the Kremlin is taking the Makiivka attack very seriously. After all, Putin’s government has the means to stop reporting events it doesn’t want the public to know about.
Even in this “open” debate, many commentators have raised the possibility of “informants” targeting the enemy, a conspiracy theory often promoted by Russia’s state propaganda media. In Russia there is a usual complaint after almost any tragedy, that it is “kaladnost” or, in other words, ignored.
But the finger of blame so far has only pointed at the military leadership, not at the top. President Putin has not publicly commented on the Makiivka attack, a strong indication that he wants to distance himself as much as possible from an apparent failure.