Shaken by deadly airstrike, Russia is said to be considering more drone attacks

Workers and cranes clean rubble after a rocket strike in Makiivka, Ukraine.
Workers clear rubble Tuesday after a Ukrainian rocket strike in Makiivka, in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
(Uncredited / Associated Press)

Emergency crews Tuesday sifted through the rubble of a building struck by Ukrainian rockets in an attack that killed at least 63 Russian soldiers barracked there, in the latest blow to the Kremlin’s war strategy, as Ukraine says Moscow’s tactics could be shifting.

An Associated Press video of the scene in Makiivka, a town in the Russian-occupied eastern Donetsk region, showed five cranes and emergency workers removing big chunks of concrete under a clear blue sky.

In the attack, which apparently happened last weekend, Ukrainian forces fired rockets from a U.S.-provided HIMARS launch system, a Russian Defense Ministry statement said.


It was one of the deadliest attacks on Russian forces since Moscow launched the war more than 10 months ago and an embarrassment that stirred renewed criticism inside Russia of the way the war is being conducted.

The Russian statement Monday about the attack provided few other details. Other, unconfirmed reports put the death toll much higher.

The Strategic Communications Directorate of Ukraine’s armed forces said Sunday that about 400 mobilized Russian soldiers were killed in a vocational school building in Makiivka and about 300 more were wounded. That claim couldn’t be independently verified. The Russian statement said the strike occurred “in the area of Makiivka” and didn’t mention the vocational school.

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Satellite photos analyzed by the Associated Press show the apparent aftermath of the strike. An image from Dec. 20 showed the building standing; an image from Monday showed the school reduced to rubble. Other days had intense cloud cover, making photos by standard satellite imagery impossible.

Vigils for soldiers killed in the strike took place in two Russian cities Tuesday, the state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

In Samara, in southwestern Russia, residents gathered for an Orthodox service in memory of the dead. The service was followed by a minute’s silence, and flowers were laid at a Soviet-era war memorial, RIA reported.


Unconfirmed reports in Russian-language media said that the victims were mobilized reservists from the region.

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With the fighting in Ukraine raging much longer than anticipated by the Kremlin, and becoming bogged down in a war of attrition amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive backed by Western-supplied weapons, Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering ways of regaining momentum.

In a video address late Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country needs to strengthen its defenses in the face of what he described as Russian plans for a new offensive.

Russian leaders “will gather all they can to try to reverse the battlefield situation or at least delay their defeat,” he said. “We must derail that Russian scenario and are getting ready for it.”

In comments a day earlier, Zelensky said the Kremlin planned to step up the use of Iranian-made exploding drones.

“We have information that Russia is planning a prolonged attack by Shaheds” — the exploding drones — he said Monday night.


Zelensky said Moscow’s goal was to break Ukraine’s resistance by “exhausting our people, [our] air defense, our energy.”

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For the Russian military, the exploding drones are a cheap weapon that spreads fear among the enemy. The United States and its allies have sparred with Iran over Tehran’s role in allegedly supplying Moscow with the drones.

The Institute for the Study of War said that Putin is looking to strengthen support for his strategy among key voices in Russia.

“Russia’s air and missile campaign against Ukraine is likely not generating the Kremlin’s desired information effects among Russia’s nationalists,” the Washington-based think tank said late Monday.

“Such profound military failures will continue to complicate Putin’s efforts to appease the Russian pro-war community and retain the dominant narrative in the domestic information space,” it added.

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Meanwhile, drone advances in Ukraine have accelerated a trend that could soon bring the world’s first fully autonomous fighting robots to the battlefield. Experts say it may be a matter of time before Russia or Ukraine deploy them.


Putin’s additional reliance on drones might not help him achieve his goals, however, as Ukraine claims a high success rate against the weapons. Even so, part of the aim of the drone attacks is to exhaust Ukrainian air defenses.

During the first two days of the new year, which were marked by relentless nighttime drone attacks on Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure, the country’s forces shot down more than 80 Iranian-made drones, Zelensky said.

Since September, Ukraine’s armed forces have shot down almost 500 drones, Ukrainian air force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said in a television interview Tuesday, as reported by news website Ukrinform.

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As well as hoping to wear down Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invasion, the long-range bombardments have targeted the power grid to leave civilians at the mercy of biting winter weather.

In the latest fighting, a Russian missile strike overnight on the city of Druzhkivka in the Donetsk region wounded two people, the deputy head of Zelensky’s office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said Tuesday.

The Russian military Tuesday acknowledged carrying out strikes on Druzhkivka and Kramatorsk, also in Donetsk. The Russian Defense Ministry said it destroyed four HIMARS launchers in the area. The claim could not be independently verified.


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A reporter with French broadcaster TF1 was reporting live on television when a blast from one of the strikes erupted behind him in Druzhkivka. A German reporter with the Bild newspaper suffered a minor injury from shrapnel in the same bombardment.

Officials said the attack ruined an ice hockey arena described as the largest hockey and figure skating school in Ukraine.

In the recently retaken areas of the southern Kherson region, Russian shelling Monday killed two people and wounded nine others, Kherson’s Ukrainian governor, Yaroslav Yanushevich, said Tuesday. He also said two people were killed in the Kherson region Tuesday after driving over a mine.

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Elsewhere on Tuesday, Ukraine’s main security service said it was bringing criminal charges against two high-ranking Russian commanders accused of overseeing strikes against civilians.

The Security Service of Ukraine said on its website that it had collected a “high-quality body of evidence” against Sergei Kobylash, commander of Russia’s long-range aviation force, and Igor Osipov, the former head of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The two are charged under Ukrainian law with violating the country’s territorial integrity and with “planning, preparing, initiating and conducting a war of aggression,” which carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Although it is unlikely that Kyiv will be able to bring Kobylash and Osipov to trial in the near future, the announcement marks the first time Ukrainian authorities have brought charges linked directly to attacks on residential areas and civilian infrastructure.


Additionally, Ukraine’s chief military officer, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said he had his first phone call this year with U.S. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Zaluzhnyi said on Facebook that he told Milley about heavy battles around Svatove-Kreminna and in the direction of Lysychansk. “The most difficult situation remains in the Soledar-Bakhmut-Mayorsk area,” he said, adding that the Russians are trying to advance by “effectively marching on corpses of their own.”

He said Ukrainian forces securely keep their defenses in the Zaporizhzhia region and make efforts to protect Kherson from Russian shelling, while the situation along the border with Belarus is fully controlled.