The attack is one of the deadliest attacks on Moscow forces since the war began 10 months ago, but some influential pro-military voices in Russia, as well as officials in Kyiv, suggested the death toll may have been much higher. NBC News was unable to verify the claims on either side.
The defense ministry’s public stance appeared to do little to quell criticism from nationalist bloggers and pro-war voices at home.
Semyon Pegov, a war correspondent who was recently awarded an Order of Courage by Putin, questioned the official explanation for the attack.
“The ‘mobile’ story is not very convincing,” Pegov said in a Telegram post on Wednesday. “I rarely say this, but this is the case where it would probably be best to remain silent, at least until the end of the investigation. As such, it looks like an outright attempt to smear the blame.” He suggested that there were other ways Ukrainian forces could have identified the base.
Exploiting the use of mobile phones to locate enemy positions is not new in this war, but experts said the weekend attack may highlight unprofessional practices and a disregard for human life on the part of Russian military authorities.
“It is entirely plausible that the uncontrolled use of mobile phones was a contributing factor in the attack on this building in Makiivka, but it will not be the only reason for the large number of casualties,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert and consulting member. from Chatham House, a London think tank, told NBC News.
The missile completely destroyed the school building where the Russian military were located, according to the British Ministry of Defense. The extent of the damage suggested that weapons and artillery were stored very close to where the soldiers were staying, the ministry said in its daily report on Wednesday.
“Given the extent of the damage, there is a realistic possibility that ammunition was stored near the troops’ quarters, which detonated during the attack creating secondary explosions,” the report read.
“This incident highlights how unprofessional practices contribute to Russia’s high casualty rate,” the ministry added.
The possibility that the soldiers were housed together with the ammunition speaks to a “disregard for casualties and the way in which the thin crust of modernity and professionalism has been stripped away in the Russian Armed Forces,” Giles said.
While it is a blow to morale and military prestige, the deadly attack may not be a major battlefield issue for the Kremlin.
“It’s a tactical setback for Russia, but it’s one they can easily absorb because Russia’s response to the challenge of fighting war so often in Russia’s past is to throw more bodies at Ukrainian bombs and bullets,” Giles said.
Putin has already called up hundreds of thousands of reservists to try to bolster his invasion fight after a series of embarrassing defeats.
In his late-night speech on Tuesday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that the Kremlin may be planning another mobilization and urged his country to prepare for a new Russian offensive.
“Now is the time that together with our partners we must strengthen our defense. We have no doubt that the current masters of Russia will throw down everything they have left and everything they can muster to try to turn the tide of the war and at least postpone their defeat,” Zelenskyy said.
Associated Press Y Reuters contributed.