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Putin avoids (for now) playing the blame game after the Ukraine attack (analysis)

(CNN) — It was New Year’s Eve, one of the most precious holidays in Russia. Recruits in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, hundreds of them mobilized just a few months ago, were housed in makeshift barracks at a vocational school in the occupied city of Makiivka, in the Donetsk region. Next door was a large ammunition depot.

The soldiers missed their wives and families, so they turned on their cell phones and called home. Suddenly, HIMARS rockets, satellite-guided precision weapons supplied to Ukraine by the United States, hit the school, almost completely destroying it and setting the ammunition cache on fire.

This, officially at least, is how the Russian military explains the deadliest known attack on its forces in Ukraine since the war began, in February 2022. The Defense Ministry blamed the troops themselves, claiming that the “main cause” of the attack was the use of cell phones “contrary to the prohibition.” Russian troops are prohibited from using personal cell phones in the field, as their signals have been geolocated.

But that explanation, and the details of the attack that have emerged, ignited an extraordinarily public national blame game among Russians.

It started with the death toll. The Russian Defense Ministry initially said 63 soldiers were killed, later increasing that number to 89. Ukraine claimed about 400 dead. But even pro-war Russian bloggers, an increasingly influential element in the way Russian civilians get information about what is really going on in Ukraine, dismissed the official tally, estimating that hundreds of soldiers had been killed. The actual number is not yet known.

One such blogger, Semyon Pegov, who goes by the online name “War Gonzo” and was recently awarded a medal by Vladimir Putin, also rejected the military’s claim about cell phones, calling it a “blatant attempt to smear and blame ”.

“Grey Zone”, another blogger, called the cell phone explanation a “99% lie”, an attempt to evade responsibility. He said the attack was more likely due to an intelligence failure.

Members of the ministry of workers and emergencies remove rubble from a destroyed building that was allegedly a vocational school used as temporary housing for Russian soldiers, 63 of whom were killed in a Ukrainian missile attack, according to the statement the day before by the Russia’s Defense Ministry, in the course of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict in Makiivka (Makeyevka), Russia-controlled Ukraine, January 3, 2023. (Credit: REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)

Russian lawmakers intervened, demanding an investigation into who had ordered so many troops to be temporarily housed in an unprotected building. Sergey Mironov, a prominent politician and party leader, said there should be “personal criminal liability” for any officer or other military personnel who made such a decision. And, hinting that the military had a lax approach to war, he warned: “It’s time to realize that it won’t be the same as it used to be.”

“This is a battle for the future of Russia,” Mironov said. “We must win it!”

Mironov’s comments struck a sensitive nerve. Hardliners like him think Putin’s “partial mobilization” of reservists in September, calling up 300,000 men, was not enough. They want a total mobilization that puts the entire country on a war footing. And they want to take revenge on Ukraine.

Yet so far no one—at least publicly—blames Vladimir Putin for the deaths. Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the international state network RT and a regular on Russian television talk shows, said she hoped “responsible officials would be held accountable” and their names released. But she also hinted that the attack could fuel public discontent: “It is time to understand that impunity does not lead to social harmony. Impunity leads to more crimes and, as a consequence, to public dissent”.

Many of the soldiers who perished in Makiivka came from Samara, a city on the Volga River in southwestern Russia. Their families are in mourning, so they carry red carnations to a rare public memorial service, as priests lead prayers and a choir sang the liturgy for young men newly sent to the front.

The Defense Ministry’s acknowledgment that a significant number of mobilized troops had been killed in the attack, as well as the open debate among military bloggers, are signs that the Kremlin takes the Makiivka attack very seriously. After all, Putin’s government has the means to stop reporting events it doesn’t want the public to know about.

Even in this “open” discussion, several commentators have raised the possibility that “informants” tipped off the enemy, a conspiracy theory often promoted by Russia’s state propaganda media. Then there is the usual complaint after almost any tragedy in Russia, attributing it to “Khalatnost” or, in other words, neglect.

But the finger of blame, so far, points only to the military leadership, not higher. President Putin has not made any public comment on the Makiivka attack, a strong indication that he intends to stay as far away from an obvious debacle as possible.

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