Kyiv, Ukraine — Ukraine has claimed a string of successful artillery strikes on Russian barracks in the first days of the year, claiming that it hit newly drafted men and other soldiers where they slept or gathered, killing more than 1,000 people or would have wounded.
The Russian military has confirmed one of the three alleged waves of attacks, although the death toll was much lower than Ukrainians had estimated. But even the lower casualty figure of 89 soldiers killed in that attack represents a chilling setback for the Russian military.
Posts on social media, reports from local residents and Russians blogging about military affairs offered partial confirmation of the other attacks Ukraine had claimed, but no confirmation of the casualty toll.
Military analysts say the Ukrainians’ use of long-range artillery, including American-supplied HIMARS precision missiles, to target barracks represents a shift for artillery forces, which had spent months focusing on material such as ammunition depots.
The Ukrainian military’s focus on Russian infantry is among the first changes seen in its tactics with its American-supplied weapons in response to Russia’s mobilization of hundreds of thousands of soldiers during the fall. The indiscriminate movement of additional soldiers into the war zone, many of them poorly trained and guided, has presented new targets behind the front lines for howitzers that can fire more than 20 miles and HIMARS missiles with a range of up to about 50 miles, analysts said say.
Russian authorities say the use of personal cellphones by conscripts on New Year’s Eve helped Ukrainians locate a vocational school used as a shelter for soldiers that was hit in the eastern Ukraine town of Makiivka.
Ukraine said the attack killed or wounded several hundred soldiers, while the Russians reported 89 dead. Casualty estimates could not be independently verified, and military personnel often exaggerate their enemies’ casualties and downplay their own. But in this case, pictures of the wrecked vocational school and the Russian military’s confirmation of heavy casualties showed a well-planned strike.
In the days that followed, the Ukrainian military launched two more attacks on a number of towns in the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions of southern Ukraine, with all three series of attacks claiming around 1,200 casualties. It was far from clear how reliable the claims were.
The Russians downplayed the damage in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, but residents in nearby areas of the occupied territory told Ukrainian officials they heard loud explosions around the time of the alleged strikes.
Analysis of video footage from the New York Times confirmed severe damage to a Tokmak veterans’ association attached to a hospital complex and the partial destruction of a four-story building next to a commercial street in Vasylivka. Both cities in the Zaporizhia region were places where the Ukrainian military had attacked. It was unclear whether any of these buildings housed Russian soldiers.
Some of the Ukrainian casualty demands may be aimed at unsettling the enemy.
On Friday, Ukrainian officials issued a warning, apparently part of a campaign to encourage men in Russia to evade conscription: Much of Russian-held southern Ukraine, they said, is now within range of Ukrainian artillery.
“Since our foreign partners are supplying us with new weapons, the so-called land corridor to Crimea is certainly not safe,” Andriy Cherniak, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence service, told Ukrinform news agency on Wednesday. The reference was to the area along the Sea of Azov that connects southern Russia to the occupied Crimea peninsula, a tract of land that Russia conquered early in its invasion.
Serhiy Hrabsky, a former Ukrainian military colonel who is now a commentator for Ukrainian media, said the recent attacks indicated that Ukraine had started targeting conscripts on duty.
“We are now seeing a large concentration of Russian troops on the front lines,” Mr Hrabsky said.
Lacking sufficient trucks and other vehicles to disperse soldiers within range of Ukrainian missiles, Russian commanders would have left large groups assembled – and vulnerable – behind. “You have to focus them just to move them from point A to point B,” Mr Hrabsky said.
Russian bloggers covering the war and taking a more unvarnished look at the Russian military than state media generally downplayed the strikes in southern Ukraine, although they slammed the Russian military command for the admitted attack in Makiivka.
But the bloggers circulated video on New Year’s Day showing a badly damaged building that The Times geolocated to a country club about 28 miles from a town where Ukraine’s military said it had attacked troop assemblies.
Several military bloggers said a Russian volunteer may have inadvertently revealed the location of the site, the Grand Prix Country Club, through a social media post. A man by the name of Petr Lozhkovoy posted pictures of the site online in November and December and said Russian special forces were present.
The Russian Ministry of Defense has not commented on any other attacks apart from Makiivka. Russian correspondents and occupation authorities who supported the war offered limited details on the other attacks, saying military casualties were minimal while highlighting civilian collateral damage.
Two prominent Russian military social media outlets confirmed a Ukrainian attack in the Chulakovka region of the Kherson region on New Year’s Eve without providing casualty figures. Telegram channel Gray Zone, which is linked to the Russian mercenary group Wagner, said the strike had hit an agricultural complex near the village, but gave no further details.
A review of medium-resolution satellite imagery of Chulakovka, as well as the agricultural complex, by The Times showed no detectable damage caused by a strike, although that doesn’t mean none occurred.
Radio Liberty quoted a local city official as saying that explosions were heard in the area of a pig farm where Russian soldiers were stationed.
During a strike in the Zaporizhia region on January 2, residents of nearby towns reported hearing a loud explosion, Dmytro Orlov, the exiled mayor of the Russian-held city of Enerhodar, said in a telephone interview.
Pro-Russian bloggers reported on strikes in the region two days after Ukraine’s military announced the attacks, claiming that civilian facilities, including a hospital, had been hit.
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Reporting was provided by Oleksandr Chubko from Kyiv, as well as Alina Lobzina and Dmitriy Khavin. James Surdam contributed to the production.