Russians furious at commanders over Ukrainian rocket strike that killed scores

MAKIIVKA, Russian-controlled Ukraine (Reuters) - Russian nationalists and some lawmakers have demanded punishment for commanders they accused of ignoring dangers as anger grew over the killing of dozens of Russian soldiers in one of the deadliest strikes of the Ukraine conflict.

In a rare disclosure, Russia said 63 soldiers were killed in the Ukrainian strike on New Year's Eve that destroyed a temporary barracks in a vocational college in Makiivka, twin city of the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Russian critics said the soldiers were being housed alongside an ammunition dump at the site, which the Russian defence ministry said was hit by four rockets fired from U.S.-made HIMARS launchers.

TV footage showed a huge building reduced to rubble as cranes and bulldozers picked through concrete debris lying several feet deep.

Ukraine and some Russian nationalist bloggers put the Makiivka death toll in the hundreds, though pro-Russian officials say those estimates are exaggerated.

Rallies to commemorate the dead were held in several Russian cities, including Samara, where some came from, RIA Novosti news agency reported. Mourners laid flowers in the centre of Samara.

"I haven't slept for three days, Samara hasn't slept. We are constantly in touch with the wives of our guys. It's very hard and scary," RIA quoted Yekaterina Kolotovkina, a representative of a women's council at an army unit, as telling one rally.

"But we can't be broken. Grief unites ... We will not forgive, and, definitely, victory will be ours."

The strike on Makiivka came as Russia was launching what have become nightly waves of drone attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address that the attacks were aimed at "exhausting our people, our anti-aircraft defences, our energy".

Ukrainian air force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat told Ukrainian TV that 84 drones had been shot down in two Russian attacks since the New Year.

Ukraine's armed forces are organising mobile groups to hunt them down, using jeeps and other vehicles equipped with anti-aircraft machine guns and searchlights, Ihnat said.

Zelenskiy, whose forces rely heavily on weapons and other equipment provided by Western nations, held separate phone calls on Tuesday with the Dutch and British prime ministers.

"We agreed to intensify our efforts to bring victory closer this year already," he said on the Telegram messaging app of his call with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

FOREIGN MERCENARIES

Russia's Defence Ministry did not mention Makiivka in its daily bulletin on Tuesday but announced several offensives, including strikes launched by Russian Aerospace Forces that it said had killed more than 130 foreign mercenaries in Donetsk.

It said missile and air strikes launched at a "hardware concentration" near Druzhkivka railway station in Donetsk had killed up to 120 Ukrainian personnel, and destroyed two HIMARS launchers and more than 800 rockets.

Russia, which invaded Ukraine last Feb. 24, has increasingly resorted to mass air strikes against Ukrainian cities after suffering defeats on the battlefield in the second half of 2022. It denies targeting civilians.

Front lines have scarcely budged for weeks with most intense fighting raging around the city of Bakhmut, described by commanders on both sides as a "meat grinder".

Russian forces are literally trying to advance over the corpses of their own soldiers toward Bakhmut and the military situation there remains the most difficult, Ukrainian military commander in chief General Valery Zaluzhny said.

The governor of Ukraine's Luhansk province, which along with neighbouring Donetsk forms the industrial Donbas region claimed by Moscow, said on Tuesday Ukrainian forces had made steady advances in the direction of Russian-held Svatove and Kreminna.

Elsewhere, Ukraine's military General Staff said a Dec. 31 strike on a Russian-held area of the southern Kherson region had killed or injured some 500 Russian troops.

Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.

Reuters footage showed a team of Ukrainian volunteers known as "Black Tulip" exhuming dead soldiers' bodies near the front line in the Donetsk region.

"Whenever you dig up a boy, you live through his nightmare and the horror he went through in his last moment, when he understood this is the end," said volunteer Oleksii Iukov, 37.

RUSSIAN FURY

Russian military bloggers condemned the decision to store ammunition in the same building in Makiivka that was being used as a barracks, despite commanders knowing it was within range of Ukrainian rockets.

Igor Girkin, a former commander of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and now one of the highest-profile Russian nationalist military bloggers, said hundreds had been killed or wounded. Military equipment stored at the site was uncamouflaged, he said.

Ukraine almost never publicly claims responsibility for attacks on Russian-held territory in Ukraine.

Grigory Karasin, a member of the Russian Senate and a former deputy foreign minister, demanded vengeance against Ukraine and its NATO military alliance supporters but also "an exacting internal analysis".

Sergei Mironov, a legislator and former chairman of Russia's upper house of parliament, demanded criminal liability for officials who had "allowed the concentration of military personnel in an unprotected building" and "all the higher authorities who did not provide the proper level of security".

A little known patriotic group that supports the widows of Russian soldiers called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to order a large-scale mobilisation of millions of men.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the appeal. Putin said last month there was no need for a further mobilisation on top of an additional 300,000 men called up in September.

(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv and by other Reuters bureaux; Writing by Michael Perry and Gareth Jones; Editing by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie, Alexandra Hudson)