On the evening of Jan. 1, 2023, almost simultaneously, information began to spread among pro-Kremlin bloggers and “war correspondents” (pro-Kremlin Telegram channels Neofitsialnyy Bezsonov "Z" [Unofficial Bezsonov "Z"], Zastavny, Colonelcassad, and Readovka) that the building of vocational school No. 19 in Makiivka (a settlement in the occupied territory of the Donetsk region), where Russian mobilized soldiers were located, was hit with HIMARS MLRS on the night of Dec. 31 to Jan. 1. In addition, back on New Year’s night, TASS [Russian state-owned news agency] reported about a strike on Makiivka, without providing any details of the incident. Initially, mobilized servicemen from the Saratov region were reported to have been hit, but later those appeared to be mobilized soldiers from the Samara region located in the vocational school, as Governor of the region Dmitry Azarov confirmed.
After a short time, photographs (1, 2) and videos (1, 2) taken in Makiivka appeared in various sources. Based on these data, one could see that the vocational school building had been completely destroyed as a result of the rocket hit, which meant that, given the scale of destruction, the number of victims must have been significant.
The same information was reported by numerous war correspondents and bloggers, who estimated the death toll to be from dozens to hundreds of people (the pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Zapiski Veterana [Veteran’s Notes] (1, 2), Telegram channel of Ukrainian pro-Russian blogger Anatolyi Sharii, and the prominent pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Rybar [ex-press officer of the Russian Defense Ministry Mikhail Zvinchuk]). Due to media attention, the Russian Defense Ministry had to act in an unusual manner and not only admit the fact of the strike but also confirm the information about the victims. It should be noted that at the time of publication, it was the only case when the Ministry of Defense officially acknowledged the death of mobilized soldiers.
Since the Russian Defense Ministry commonly tends to withhold information and hush up problems, let alone the well-known facts of outright lies spread by the Ministry about developments in the war in Ukraine, the death toll announced by the Ministry of Defense was initially questioned even by pro-Russian bloggers (Anatolyi Sharii and Igor [Strelkov] Girkin, a former Russian separatist commander and military blogger). We decided to find out in detail what had happened.
After analyzing the information obtained from open sources, we managed to significantly restore the overall situation in more detail. Male residents of the Samara region, called up for military service at the beginning of “partial” mobilization announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, were gathered in the training centers of the 2nd Guards Combined Arms Army. In December, after several months of preparation, they were sent to the combat zone as part of the 1444th Motorized Rifle Regiment (military unit 95385), and on Dec. 17, arrived in Makiivka, which had been occupied by pro-Russian forces since 2014.
Upon arrival in Makiivka, all the personnel of the 1st Battalion (according to the pro-Kremlin Telegram channel GREY ZONE, they numbered 120-150 people, according to the VChK-OGPU Telegram channel — over 400 people, and according to Anatolyi Sharii — up to 600 people) was housed in the three-story building of vocational school No. 19 at 48 Kremlevskaya Street by order of the command. In addition, based on reports of various sources (Igor Girkin [Strelkov] and Rybar), it can be concluded that the unit’s ammunition and fuel supply were also placed in the same building, in violation of existing regulations. As a result of the MLRS strike, all those apparently exploded, causing much more destruction and a fire that left almost no chance for the soldiers trapped under the rubble to be rescued. Reports about military vehicles parked near the building were not confirmed — those were still about to arrive at the time of the strike.
Such concentration of the enemy’s manpower in a building in the occupied territory near the front line (Makiivka is only 14 km from the line of battle contact) could not remain unnoticed by the AFU. No measures were taken to disperse the servicemen or conceal their presence in the vocational school building. As a result of the natural development of events on New Year's night, a high-precision weapon hit the vocational school building (a legitimate military target). Photos that appeared later (1, 2) indicated that some servicemen had gathered to celebrate the New Year. However, the video of a soldier allegedly wounded in the attack on Makiivka, in which he claims that the draftees were gathered in the assembly hall to watch Putin's New Year's greetings, turned out to be a hoax. Draftee Anton Golovinsky, whose identity was assumed by the man in the video, was eventually found among the killed. As it became known later, part of the regiment's command, including its commander Colonel Yenikeev (who worked in the Ministry of Transport and Highways of the Samara region before mobilization), was absent at the time of the attack.
Even though information about the incident began spreading virally on Jan. 1, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a statement only the next day on Jan. 2. The Ministry acknowledged the attack on a temporary deployment point for one of the units of the Russian Armed Forces and announced 63 servicemen killed. Two days later, on the evening of Jan. 4, the Ministry of Defense issued a second statement, according to which, after cleaning the rubble, the death toll reached 89 people.
In addition, the Ministry of Defense blamed the servicemen themselves for the incident, "It is already obvious that the main reason for what happened was the use of mobile phones by servicemen within the range of enemy weapons in violation of an existing ban." It is worth noting that this explanation was first reported by TASS on Jan. 2 with reference to "a source in the law enforcement agencies of the [so-called] DPR", then it was picked up by pro-Kremlin military bloggers, probably in an attempt to prepare the public for the official status of this version.
Family members of the draftees, as well as the "patriotic" public, reacted negatively to the assigning of responsibility to the draftees, seeing it as an attempt to shift blame from the Ministry of Defense, which placed the 1444th Regiment in the vocational school.
At the outset, it became clear that the Ministry of Defense had been seeking to underreport the losses taking into account eyewitness testimony by draftees who survived the attack and who were interviewed by independent media outlets, for example, Vazhnyye Istorii [iStories] and Vyorstka. In that context, several publications independently calculated the real losses. In particular, the Idel.Realii [part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty] online media outlet and BBC News Russian published such reports. On Jan. 26, Idel.Realii named 88 draftees from the Samara region who were killed on the night of Jan. 1 as a result of the attack on Makiivka, and the BBC named 92 killed servicemen. These two lists do not completely overlap. Detailed explanations of the differences are discussed in the following chapter.
The CIT team, together with our volunteers, also started compiling a list of the draftees killed in the attack on Makiivka. Our calculations are based on careful examination of obituaries posted on social networks.
We reviewed posts by relatives and friends of the killed servicemen, as well as statements by local administrations and media reports about memorial events. When studying the information, we paid attention to the combination of several factors:
We also thoroughly examined the comments under the relevant posts if the connection between the deceased and the event described didn’t look strong. Through this, we were able to identify and cross out several names of servicemen who, in our opinion, had been erroneously attributed to those killed in Makiivka.
We also compiled a list of mobilized servicemen missing in action based on their relatives' social media posts and information published in media outlets. It included 62 names, 19 of which were subsequently confirmed dead. The fate of the rest remains unknown at the time of publication.
While gathering data for this article, we had to face the fact that the number of those who died from wounds could not be established. We could not keep track of those injured in the strike, who later died in medical facilities. Information on this subject is either just absent, or cannot be fully verified. Such cases certainly took place within the described incident, but we cannot say with certainty whether there are servicemen on our list who subsequently died of wounds or if this category remained completely beyond our scope.
Based on the described methodology, as of Jan. 29, we managed to establish the names of 96 servicemen killed in the strike on the Makiivka vocational school.
As of Jan. 27, having compared our list with the lists published by Idel.Realii and BBC News Russian, we have found certain discrepancies. Among those on our lists, but not on Idel.Realii/BBC’s list, we identified 3 names of particular interest. These are Yegor Ilyin, Nikolay Konovchenko, and Sergey Gridchin. Based on the information we have collected, we can state with high confidence that all of them were not killed in Makiivka.
Nikolay Konovchenko volunteered to go to the war no later than the summer of 2022. He last contacted his relatives on Aug. 23 from the Izium area. His relatives had been posting about his search on social media long before the strike on Makiivka. The timing of his funeral coincided with those of servicemen killed in Makiivka because only by then had his body been delivered to the Samara region.
Yegor Ilyin was conscripted into military service at the end of 2019. Subsequently, he signed and repeatedly prolonged his contract with Russia’s Armed Forces. And in the legal status of a contract soldier, he was killed in action on Dec. 14, as his aunt reported on social networks (by now, the post has been deleted, but the CIT team has a screenshot of that post).
Sergey Gridchin was mobilized from Stary Oskol (Belgorod region) and killed in early January (the 2nd or 3rd) near Makiivka. It should be noted that in this case, it might be a completely different settlement — Makiivka in the Luhansk region, in the vicinity of which heavy fighting has been ongoing for several months. Based on a number of factors (place of mobilization, date, and place of death), we also consider his death not related to the strike at the Makiivka vocational school.
Our list also contains the names of those killed that our colleagues do not have. Since our material has been released the latest, it is possible that at the time of the publication of their lists, the journalists of Idel.Realii and BBC News Russian were not completely sure that those killed were from Makiivka. Their names may still be added to the updated lists if any, and those three soldiers mentioned above may be excluded. In any case, these discrepancies are not of great importance.
The key fact is that we, like our colleagues, were able to prove that the death toll from this incident actually exceeds the numbers officially declared by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. We suppose that our list is far from complete. More accurate lists with new names will certainly appear over time.
Since the announcement of “partial” mobilization, our team has closely monitored both the process of mobilization itself and the practice of deploying and using mobilized soldiers in the combat zone. Since fall, it became obvious that both the higher and middle command staff, in most cases, treat mobilized soldiers as expendable. This is clearly visible by the conditions of their accommodations. In the fall months, they were often accommodated in unprepared barracks, tent camps deployed in a hurry, and sometimes just in an open field. We were observing the same pattern from the beginning to the middle of Feb. 2022 at the border areas with Ukraine, where Russian contract soldiers were transferred. Over time, the situation improved somewhat under the pressure of complaints appearing in the public domain from mobilized soldiers and demonstrations of their living conditions. However, right after the mobilized were sent to the combat zone, it became clear that the command staff prefers not to waste time and effort on creating adequate conditions for the servicemen in the absence of incentives from society. The video footage taken at different times and sectors of the front by mobilized soldiers of the 423rd and 392nd Motorized Rifle Regiments could be a good illustration to this statement.
It is worth mentioning the lack of initiative on the part of the officers responsible for personnel training as well as an acute shortage of junior command personnel. Actually, this problem is typical not only for the units staffed with mobilized soldiers but also for the regular military units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Moreover, most of the junior command staff are the same mobilized sergeants and junior officers who acquired military specializations and ranks at civilian educational institutions. They do not have any experience serving in the military. Typically, to solve the problem of the shortage of junior commanders and to simplify control over the troops, the Russian Ministry of Defense organizes mobilized troops in larger groups. Such groups, including those located at the line of contact, are often controlled by one or two officers.
There are examples of units with no command staff at all. In those cases, the mobilized choose their own "commanders". That does not contribute well to the quality of the overall command.
The combination of the above reasons leads to the appearance of large groups of mobilized soldiers at the front, including areas vulnerable to shelling. This is a widespread practice by the command despite the obvious fallacy of such actions.
The strike targeting the vocational school in Makiivka is not the only incident when a large number of servicemen were killed at the same time. Due to various reasons, this particular incident attracted significant media attention and, consequently, the attention of society. For example, on Oct. 24, 2022, at least 34 mobilized soldiers from the Volgograd region were killed (1, 2). This information, however, did not go beyond the region. Only the local press has tried to find out the details of what happened and declare mourning in the region. However, no period of mourning was declared, just as it was not declared in the Samara region, where local authorities limited themselves to holding a “mourning” rally. This event was remembered by the “fiery” speech of Yekaterina, the wife of General Kolotovkin, commander of the 2nd Guards Combined Arms Army, and flags of political parties inappropriate at such an event.
Classifying the information coming out of the military environment is the main and often the only method the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation uses to deal with any problems, including the mass death of military personnel in Makiivka.
The fight against information coming from mobilized soldiers to their relatives has already had a repressive character. There are known cases when servicemen were locked in improvised prisons, usually located in basements, where they were subjected to torture as a punishment for information "leakage".
In the case of Makiivka, the Ministry of Defense was unable to completely conceal the episode because of its sheer magnitude. However, in just a few days following the incident, it became apparent that the Ministry and, possibly, some civilian authorities are attempting to intervene and take control of the narrative about the incident. For example, personal social media and Telegram posts as well as obituaries, including the ones that informed our research, started to disappear or be subjected to heavy editing. Relatives either took the posts telling of their loved ones’ deaths down entirely or removed the information as to where and when they were killed. At the same time, pro-government “bloggers” and “military correspondents” blocked users who attempted to point out the scale of the losses or posed “inconvenient” questions. Furthermore, these bloggers went back and altered their own posts to remove “unnecessary” information.
Despite the lack of direct evidence that the process of “cleansing” the information field was launched directly from “above,” what is occurring currently in the public space is completely identical to how activities of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation were presented in the media in the past, including during the so-called “special military operation.” Advice posted in the VKontakte [Russian social network] groups associated with the Samara regional administration is a case in point: relatives of the killed soldiers are instructed to change the names on their social network profiles, restrict public access to their pages, avoid any mention of their relatives serving in the military, and delete any information about them if posted previously.
The cover-up is a systematic policy of the Russian government. Its application to draftees who were wounded or are missing in action is also apparent. First and foremost, one must note that the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, as a “security precaution,” refused to publish any lists of service members, whether it be of those killed, wounded, or missing in action. The Ministry didn't even mention anyone being missing, nor did they speak of the number of soldiers wounded. Shortly after the incident, however, family members started posting about their loved ones in the social network groups dedicated to searching for missing soldiers (several of such groups sprang up essentially as soon as the so-called “special military operation” began). In their posts, the relatives wrote that their loved ones had been inside the vocational school building at the time of the strike and that they had not been heard from since. Yet, according to the relatives, they were unable to obtain any information on the fate of their loved ones from government officials.
The Protocol.Samara news outlet managed to obtain a non-public list of service members missing in action that was compiled by their relatives. The list contained the names of approximately 60 people, 19 of whom were later confirmed killed, as mentioned above. Considering that a month has passed, it is extremely unlikely that any of the remaining two-thirds of the people on the list will be found alive. Therefore, the real death toll could be significantly higher than the 96 people whose names we were able to confirm.
Nor do we rule out the possibility that the Russian Ministry of Defense is deliberately prolonging the process of identifying the remains of those killed and releasing their bodies by carrying it out gradually and in small batches in order to avoid drawing increased attention to the Makiivka incident as a whole and to the actual number of servicemen killed there in particular.
Based on the established practice of using mobilized soldiers at the front and the conditions in which they find themselves thanks to the command, as well as the subsequent reaction and the conclusions drawn, we can confidently predict the repetition of such incidents in the future, although perhaps on a smaller scale. Moreover, after the incident in Makiivka, various sources have repeatedly reported on incidents related to attacks on bases where military personnel was stationed and posted videos showing the aftermath of such attacks.
The incident in Makiivka clearly shows the institutional problems that have developed in the command system of the Russian Defense Ministry and the attitude of the Army leadership towards the personnel.
The mobilized servicemen from the Samara region were killed a week after being sent to the front line without even having a chance to participate in hostilities. Moreover, in the public spotlight, the victims themselves are still to blame for what has happened.
The fate of the mobilized, who missed a chance to make a difference on the battlefield, is the same as that of the column of the National Guard of Russia's troops, described previously by our team. It was destroyed in the first days of the war, when, without the cover of Russian heavy weapons, it tried to break through to Kyiv, blindly following (as it later turned out from documents captured by the Ukrainians) the plans drawn up by the higher command. These two examples clearly show that during this invasion, the Russian Army leadership does not consider either the loss of military personnel or the expediency of their use.
According to pro-government "military expert" Boris Rozhin, President Putin instructed the military and the Investigative Committee to investigate the incident and present the results by Jan. 6. However, neither on Jan. 6 nor later any results of the investigation were announced or at least made public. Almost a month after the incident occurred, no representative of the command or other officials responsible for the deployment of mobilized troops in the building of vocational school No. 19 has taken any public responsibility.
- lack of competent command,
- communication issues inside and between the military units,
- supply issues and the quality of medical support of military units,
- systematic lies and concealment of information at all levels of command of the Armed Forces.
We initially predicted and repeatedly discussed the issues that led to the incident, but, as the incident in Makiivka and the response to it revealed, no comprehensive conclusions were made, and, as one can easily surmise, they will never be. This means that the mindless use of military personnel, including those who have been mobilized will continue, which, combined with the situation at the front, makes a new wave of mobilization in the Russian Federation inevitable. The deaths of mobilized servicemen from the Samara region are not an exception. This is rather a typical example of what is happening in this war with Russian military personnel. It is not a coincidence but a logical outcome of the practices employed by the Ministry of Defense. Incidents like the Makiivka tragedy have already happened and will continue to happen, which means that the number of senseless deaths in this aggressive war will continue to grow.
In conclusion, we would like to once again express our gratitude to our volunteers for their help and the translation of the original piece. This material would not have appeared without their active participation.