(CNSNews.com) – In what may be the deadliest strike yet on its armed forces since invading Ukraine, Russia’s defense ministry says 63 personnel were killed when Ukrainian forces used U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket systems to target a building housing soldiers in the occupied Donetsk region.
The rare admission from Moscow of such heavy losses came on Monday, a day after the attack on a college building converted into a temporary barracks in the Russian-controlled Ukrainian city of Makiivka.
The Russian ministry said four rockets from the HIMARS system had struck a “temporary deployment point.” Two more rockets were reportedly shot down.
Ukraine’s Armed Forces confirmed a strike on Makiivka on New Year’s Eve, saying ten Russian military vehicles had been damaged, but that personnel losses were still being ascertained.
Some Russian military bloggers and commentators suggested that the actual death toll was considerably higher than reported by the Russian ministry. Igor Strelkov, a retired Russian intelligence officer who led separatist proxy forces in eastern Ukraine in 2014, claimed “hundreds” had been killed or wounded in Makiivka.
The U.S. agreed in mid-2022 to provide Kyiv with the advanced HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems), capable of firing multiple precision-guided rockets at targets more than 40 miles away.
The Biden administration declined to provide longer-range projectiles designed to be used with the launch systems, concerned about the potential escalation risks. It also sought a Ukrainian commitment not to use the HIMARS to strike inside Russia.
Makiivka is in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), one of two regions of eastern Ukraine’s Donbass which President Vladimir Putin last February recognized as independent, and purportedly annexed after referendums in October. The U.S. and its allies do not recognize the annexations, viewing the DPR and neighboring Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) as Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.
The loss of 63 Russian service personnel in a single attack is the largest reported by Moscow in the invasion up to now.
Military fatalities on both sides are shrouded in uncertainty, although Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in November that “well over” 100,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded in the conflict, and probably a similar number on the Ukrainian side.
The New Year weekend also saw Russian strikes kill at least five Ukrainian civilians in various parts of the country, as the war launched by Putin last February shows no sign of scaling down. Further attacks were reported on Monday.
In an annual New Year message, Putin doubled down on his territorial claims in Ukraine, telling the Russian people that the armed forces “are protecting our people in our historical territories in the new regions of the Russian Federation.” The “new regions” refer to DPR, LPR, and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions also annexed last fall. Russia has also occupied Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula since 2014.
Putin, flanked by uniformed military personnel, delivered the televised speech at Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, the major Russian city in closest proximity to the border with Ukraine.
Tying the war to Russia’s own security and future, he described 2022 as “a year of difficult but necessary decisions, of important steps toward Russia’s full sovereignty and a powerful consolidation of our society.”
Last year, Putin said, “became the frontier where we lay the foundation for our common future, our true independence.”
“The moral and historical truth is on our side.”
Putin repeated the Kremlin’s narrative about a devious and deceitful West supporting “neo-Nazis” in Kyiv as they commit atrocities “against peaceful civilians in the people’s republics of Donbass.”
“The West lied to us about peace while preparing for aggression, and today, they no longer hesitate to openly admit it and to cynically use Ukraine and its people as a means to weaken and divide Russia,” he said. “We have never allowed anyone to do this and we will not allow it now.”
Assessing Putin’s address, analysts at the Institute for the Study of War said it illustrated “that Putin is uncertain of his ability to shape the Russian information space and remains focused on justifying the war and its costs to his people.”
“This speech continued Putin’s rhetorical claims not only that Russia has historical rights to Ukraine, but also that Russia’s independence and sovereignty depend on regaining control of Ukraine. Putin thereby attempts to cast victory in the war as essential to Russia’s continued existence as an independent state.”
ISW said Putin’s remarks were likely aimed at justifying the costly war and appealing to ultranationalist Russians. But they also indicated that he “remains unwilling to contemplate a meaningful peaceful resolution of the war he began other than on terms he dictates to Ukraine and the West.”
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