Makiikva, The Makings Of A Watershed In Ukraine War
The killing of likely hundreds of Russian troops has set of a spiral of recriminations that could change the way Moscow approaches its 10-month-old invasion of Ukraine
PARIS — Since the start of the Ukraine invasion ten months ago, the Russian army has suffered its fair share of setbacks. But none, so far, had generated as strong a reaction as the Makiikva missile strike on Russian troops in occupied Ukraine, which undoubtedly claimed hundreds of lives. We may even ask ourselves if there won’t be a before and after Makiikva.
The Russian general staff raised its official death toll Wednesday, from 63 to 89 dead, but Ukrainian and Russian sources have been citing between 300 and 400 victims. The building hit by Ukrainian missile fire was destroyed, probably because it also housed an weapons depot.
Vladimir Putin remained silent seeing what is being experienced in Russia as a tragedy. But even while being isolated in the Kremlin, he can’t avoid the strong emotion and virulent criticism circulating for the past 48 hours. The vitriol spares him directly, because the "Tsar" is still unassailable — but the demands are for clear accountability, and revenge.
The main target of the criticism is the military hierarchy, from top to bottom judged responsible for the accumulation of failures that led to this week’s disaster.
Risk of impunity
The reaction of Margarita Simonyan, head of the RT propaganda television network, close to Putin, is typical: she welcomes the army's commitment for investigating on responsibilities and adds: "it must be understood that impunity does not lead to social harmony but to new crimes, and therefore to public disorder.” Pro-war Russian bloggers express their anger towards the hierarchy even more bluntly.
For two days, the main reactions have come from Samara, an industrial city on the Volga River, where some of the killed conscripts came from. A very tightly orchestrated ceremony took place that included a speech of a soldier’s mother quite in line with the Kremlin. But she also asked Putin to decree general mobilization, to win this war.
More brutal, a local politician asked what lessons would be learned from this dramatic event, and who would be held responsible.
Blaming the victims
In the immediate future, the army is shifting blame. The Russian general staff declared Wednesday that the conscripts had been spotted by the Ukrainians because of their mobile phone data. But on social media, the public accuses the generals of blaming the victims, and points out that officers are ultimately responsible for the mistakes of their men.
This debate over who is responsible takes place against the backdrop of a rivalry between different clans, with one personality becoming ever more visible: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner paramilitary group, who is increasingly visible in videos shot on the front lines, surrounded by his men.
What these videos mean is that Prigozhin is on the terrain, supporting his men in the face of difficulties in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, while we have not seen much of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or Army Chief General Valery Gerasimov on the front lines for the past 10 months.
These clan rivalries inside Russia’s power circles intensify with each failure. Makiikva may turn out to matter more than the rest.