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Death Toll In New Year's Eve Strike In Ukraine Much Higher Than Moscow Claims, Investigation Finds

Two men watch workers removing the debris of the building in Makiyivka where the Russian soldiers were housed when the strike hit on New Year's Eve.
Two men watch workers removing the debris of the building in Makiyivka where the Russian soldiers were housed when the strike hit on New Year's Eve.

"He never complained," a woman from Russia's mid-Volga region who asked not to be identified said about her partner, who was killed fighting in Ukraine on January 1, 2023. "He told us that everything was fine. Toward the end of December, they were moved to Makiyivka. And on January 1, tragedy struck."

Just after midnight, a Ukrainian rocket attack struck a trade-school dormitory in the Donetsk region city where Russian troops, mainly from the Samara region, were quartered. Scores of soldiers were killed in what was one of the most lethal strikes Ukraine has inflicted on the invading Russian forces.

Three months later, the Russian military remains tight-lipped about what happened and exactly how many soldiers were killed. Moscow only acknowledged the incident two days afterward, initially reporting that 63 soldiers had died. On January 4, that figure was raised to 89. At the same time, the Ukrainian military was claiming up to 400 soldiers had been killed and another 300 wounded.

In the days immediately following the strike, RFE/RL's North.Realities managed to speak with the relatives of several soldiers who were in the building.

"Please, don't use his name," one woman said of her husband, who survived the attack. "I'm afraid. He lived by a miracle, managed to run out of the building even after the initial explosion. He was surrounded by meat, meat and blood -- he just kept saying that over and over.... He doesn't know how he survived. Many boys from his unit were killed, but he still doesn't know what happened to a lot of them."

Since January 10, however, relatives of the mobilized soldiers who were at Makiyivka, just outside the regional capital of Donetsk, have largely refused to speak with the media. Unknown "moderators" on various local social-media forums have warned people not to talk to journalists. Russian government and military officials have also offered no further information on the deadly attack.

Officially, the Makiyivka death toll remains at 89. More than 56,000 people have signed an online petition urging the Defense Ministry to fully identify all those who were killed.

'Grateful For Any Information'

However, RFE/RL's Idel.Realities conducted an open-source investigation, monitoring social media and local government information resources to track war casualties, including those from the Makiyivka attack. RFE/RL has identified by name 140 soldiers killed in the incident.

In many cases, their ages, ranks, and hometowns have been determined. Of the 140 soldiers, 139 were from the Samara region, on the Volga River, and one was from Buryatia. Most of those killed were mobilized after President Vladimir Putin ordered a military call-up in late September. Their ages ranged from 21 to over 50.

The Russian government has released little information about its war casualties. On September 21, 2022, the military reported 5,937 soldiers had been killed since the start of the full-scale invasion seven months earlier, and it has provided no updates over the last half-year. Western experts put the total number of Russian killed and wounded at over 200,000.

RFE/RL's Idel.Realities has identified 4,125 killed Russian soldiers from the Volga Federal District alone. Of those, 401 were from the Samara region, meaning that more than one-third of the region's known casualties came on that single night in Makiyivka.

Sixty-four of those killed were posthumously awarded the Order of Courage.

RFE/RL attempted to speak to relatives and acquaintances of the slain soldiers, but most refused to speak to journalists.

One woman said her friend had been killed and that his body was only returned in mid-February. "I never met a nicer person," she told RFE/RL. "He was very friendly and willingly served in the 'special military operation.'" She added that her brother was currently on the front line in Ukraine -- "in a place where he shouldn't be."

In addition, RFE/RL has found 18 families who are still searching for information about their relatives, who they believe were stationed in Makiyivka at the time of the Ukrainian strike.

"Searching for Petrov, Dmitry Aleksandrovich, DOB November 6, 1979. Last seen at the vocational school in Makiyivka," reads a March 19 post on social media. "Soldiers carried him out on a metal door and loaded him into an ambulance. Since then, no information. I'd be grateful for any information."

Adapted from the Russian by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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