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MAKIIVKA, Russian-controlled Ukraine — Russian nationalists and some lawmakers have demanded punishment for commanders they accused of ignoring dangers as anger grew over the killing of dozens of Russian soldiers in one of the deadliest strikes of the Ukraine conflict.
In a rare disclosure, Russia's defense ministry said 63 soldiers were killed in the Ukrainian strike on New Year's Eve that destroyed a temporary barracks in a vocational college in Makiivka, twin city of the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Russian critics said the soldiers were being housed alongside an ammunition dump at the site, which the Russian defense ministry said was hit by four rockets fired from U.S.-made HIMARS launchers.
TV footage showed a huge building reduced to rubble as cranes and bulldozers picked through concrete debris lying several feet deep.
Ukraine and some Russian nationalist bloggers have put the Makiivka death toll in the hundreds, though pro-Russian officials say those estimates are exaggerated.
Rallies to commemorate the dead were held in several Russian cities, including Samara, where some came from, RIA Novosti news agency reported. Mourners laid flowers in the center of Samara.
"I haven't slept for three days, Samara hasn't slept. We are constantly in touch with the wives of our guys. It's very hard and scary. But we can't be broken. Grief unites ... We will not forgive, and, definitely, victory will be ours," RIA quoted Yekaterina Kolotovkina, a representative of a women's council at an army unit, as telling one of the rallies.
The strike on Makiivka came as Russia was launching what have become nightly waves of drone attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address that the attacks were aimed at "exhausting our people, our anti-aircraft defenses, our energy."
Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat told Ukrainian TV that 84 drones had been shot down in two Russian attacks since the New Year.
Ukraine's armed forces are organizing mobile groups to hunt them down, using jeeps and other vehicles equipped with anti-aircraft machine guns and searchlights, Ihnat said.
Zelenskyy, whose forces rely heavily on weapons and other equipment provided by Western nations, held separate phone calls on Tuesday with the Dutch and British prime ministers.
"We agreed to intensify our efforts to bring victory closer this year already," he said on the Telegram messaging app of his call with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Russia's Defense Ministry did not mention Makiivka in its daily bulletin on Tuesday but announced several offensives, including strikes launched by Russian Aerospace Forces that it said had killed more than 130 foreign mercenaries in Donetsk.
It said missile and air strikes launched at a "hardware concentration" near Druzhkivka railway station in Donetsk had killed "up to" 120 Ukrainian personnel, destroyed two HIMARS launchers and more than 800 rockets.
Russia, which invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, has increasingly resorted to mass air strikes against Ukrainian cities after suffering defeats on the battlefield in the second half of 2022. It denies targeting civilians.
Ukrainian officials said Russia had struck Ukraine-controlled parts of the Donetsk region on Monday, hitting the village of Yakovlivka, the city of Kramatorsk and destroying an ice rink in Druzhkivka.
The governor of Ukraine's Luhansk region, which along with neighboring Donetsk forms the industrial Donbas claimed by Moscow, said on Tuesday that Ukrainian forces had made steady advances in the direction of Russian-held Svatove and Kreminna.
Elsewhere, Ukraine's military general staff said a Dec. 31 strike on a Russian-held area of the southern Kherson region had killed or injured some 500 Russian troops.
Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.
Reuters footage showed a team of Ukrainian volunteers known as "Black Tulip" exhuming dead soldiers' bodies near the front line in the Donetsk region.
"Whenever you dig up a boy, you live through his nightmare and the horror he went through in his last moment, when he understood this is the end," said volunteer Oleksii Iukov, 37.
Russian military bloggers condemned the decision to store ammunition in the same building in Makiivka that was being used as a barracks, despite commanders knowing it was within range of Ukrainian rockets.
Who came up with the idea to place personnel in large numbers in one building, where even a fool understands that even if they hit with artillery, there will be many wounded or dead?
–Archangel Spetznaz Z, Russian military blogger
Igor Girkin, a former commander of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and now one of the highest-profile Russian nationalist military bloggers, said hundreds had been killed or wounded in the Dec. 31 strike. Military equipment stored at the site was uncamouflaged, he said.
"What happened in Makiivka is horrible," wrote Archangel Spetznaz Z, a Russian military blogger with more than 700,000 followers on Telegram.
"Who came up with the idea to place personnel in large numbers in one building, where even a fool understands that even if they hit with artillery, there will be many wounded or dead?" he wrote. Commanders "couldn't care less," he said.
Ukraine almost never publicly claims responsibility for attacks on Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine. Zelenskyy did not mention the Makiivka strike in his nightly speech on Monday.
The fury in Russia extended to lawmakers.
Grigory Karasin, a member of the Russian Senate and former deputy foreign minister, not only demanded vengeance against Ukraine and its NATO supporters but also "an exacting internal analysis".
Sergei Mironov, a legislator and former chairman of Russia's upper house of parliament, demanded criminal liability for the officials who had "allowed the concentration of military personnel in an unprotected building" and "all the higher authorities who did not provide the proper level of security."
Contributing: Pavel Polityuk