The death of dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of Russian servicemen in a Ukrainian airstrike on a military base in the occupied city of Makiivka has been met with widespread rage, directed at political leadership in the Kremlin and military leaders, as well as Ukrainian forces and their Western allies, who supplied the weaponry used in the devastating attack.
“Makiivka is criminal negligence,” lamented Pavel Gubarev, a pro-Russian militia leader in Donetsk, the Ukrainian region that has been occupied by Russia since 2014. Like others, he vented on the popular social media platform Telegram.
Military commanders blamed conscripts for using their cellphones, which they said allowed Ukrainians to identify Russian positions. But influential military bloggers, many of them veterans themselves, said those commanders were themselves to blame.
“The milbloggers are furious at the decision of commanders to put so many people into one place, at once,” analyst Aric Toler of the intelligence firm Bellingcat told Yahoo News.
The bloggers voiced “general complaints about how there is no accountability and responsibility among leadership,” Toler said. A viral video of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly partying at a Moscow restaurant at around the same time as the Makiivka attack seemed to accentuate the seemingly eternal divide between Moscow elites and ordinary Russians. (The provenance of the video has been called into question, but the clip has continued to proliferate widely and garner outrage.)
The attack on Makiivka — a suburb of Donetsk — was carried out by using rockets fired by the sophisticated HIMARS system. Advanced military equipment supplied by the United States and European allies has frustrated a Russian military mired in the thinking, and equipment, of the 1990s — if not the 1980s.
“Such profound military failures will continue to complicate [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s efforts to appease the Russian pro-war community and retain the dominant narrative in the domestic information space,” wrote analysts for the Institute for the Study of War in their assessment of the Makiivka strike and its consequences.
For older Russians, the attack can only serve as a reminder of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, where U.S.-equipped mujahideen fought off a young and inexperienced invasion force. The first war in Chechnya, waged in the mid-1990s, saw similar humiliations for ill-prepared and unmotivated Russian troops, leading some mothers to march to the battlefield in hopes of stopping the conflict and rescuing their sons.
That kind of popular uprising is precisely what Putin is seeking to avoid. With the nation’s newspapers and television networks solidly under Kremlin control, public discontent has been muted since the protests that broke out when the Ukrainian invasion began almost a year ago.
And pro-Kremlin propagandists have cast the invasion as an ideological, even existential, battle against the West, in which Ukraine is supposedly but a pawn — and Russia, improbably, is the underdog.
“Defending our motherland is the sacred duty we owe to our ancestors and descendants,” Putin said in his New Year’s address on the evening of Dec. 31, just before rockets fell on Makiivka. “The moral and historical truth is on our side.”
Though such high-handed rhetoric may be discordant to Western ears, many ordinary Russians see the conflict similarly, despite the fact that the provoked invasion of Ukraine was launched under entirely fictitious circumstances. Suspicions of the West, a staple of the Soviet period, remain deeply embedded in the Russian psyche.
In the city of Samara — from where some of the soldiers killed in Makiivka appear to have hailed — a woman speaking at a pro-war rally urged revenge against the West, which she said had “united to destroy us.”
The cost of war has often fallen on young men from the hinterlands, many of whom have never been to the power centers of St. Petersburg or Moscow, and who don’t necessarily share the Kremlin’s geopolitical goals — especially if they come from ethnic groups that had themselves been subjugated by Russia or the Soviet Union.
Last fall’s mobilization roiled Russia, and young men fled to avoid conscription. Ukraine has continued to gain ground, and peace talks seem distant, meaning that the war will likely continue well into 2023 — and perhaps beyond.
The question for Putin is how many more Makiivkas the Russian people are willing to countenance, how many more images of devastation from the front, followed by excuses from propagandists and invocations of patriotism and sacrifice from political and military leaders.
“Where are our patriots?” wondered Chechen warlord and Kremlin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, who has organized a fundraising drive for injured soldiers. “Don’t you want to help our heroes?”