Ukraine live briefing: Moscow blames Russian soldiers’ cellphone use for Donetsk strike; Ukraine says Russia low on missiles

Workers remove debris from a destroyed building in Makiivka, Ukraine, where Russia said dozens of its soldiers were killed in a missile strike. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
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In the aftermath of a strike on the occupied city of Makiivka in Ukraine’s Donetsk region that killed dozens of Russian service members, officials in Moscow have begun laying blame. The Russian Defense Ministry said the attack was a result of illicit cellphone use among its soldiers, in what some observers see as an attempt to shift culpability from top commanders.

Ukraine has not directly confirmed its involvement in the attack but has claimed that at least 400 Russian soldiers were killed. The Washington Post could not independently verify the figures. The White House on Wednesday defended the strike, stressing that Kyiv is well within its rights to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.

Russia is running low on missiles, especially its most advanced models, as evidenced by reduced-scale barrages and found fragments indicating that Moscow is firing missiles just off the production line, Gen. Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy intelligence chief, said in an interview Wednesday with news outlet RBC-Ukraine. He said that Russia would turn to new tactics, including increased use of drones, to make up for the shortage.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

1. Key developments

Russia's defense ministry blamed mobile phone use by its soldiers for a deadly Ukrainian missile strike that it said killed dozens on Jan. 1. (Video: Reuters)
  • Russia’s Defense Ministry blamed on-site cellphone communication by soldiers in a Makiivka building for the deadly strike, saying it allowed Ukrainian forces to locate the target. “It is already obvious that the main reason, despite the restriction, was turning on and massive use of mobile phones by the personnel within the range area of enemy firepower,” Kremlin officials said in an explanation of the attack posted to Telegram.
  • The ministry raised the Russian death toll to 89 in a statement early Wednesday — a rare acknowledgment of a significant loss.
  • The number of Russians killed in the strike is difficult for the United States to determine, White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday. The fighting in the region has been “quite intense in recent weeks,” with Russia continuing to send in additional troops.“It’s war, and it’s bloody, and it’s vicious, and it has been over the last several weeks,” Kirby said. “The winter is upon us. The fighting has not stopped, and the fighting in the east has been particularly intense, and I think we need to expect that that kind of fighting will continue for quite some time.”
  • Since the attack, Russian military leaders have faced scrutiny for squeezing soldiers into high-density barracks in the same buildings used to store ammunition. Igor Girkin, a former Russian paramilitary commander in Ukraine, wrote on Telegram that he “was warned that this could happen again at any moment,” The Post reported. Russian officials said that the attack was carried out by Ukraine using the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, and that Russia responded by destroying two launchers. Kirby said the United States has no information that Russia was able to do so.
  • France on Wednesday agreed to send French-manufactured light tanks to Ukraine for the first time, according to statements from the French and Ukrainian governments.

2. Battleground updates

  • Careless Russian military practices may have contributed to the high death toll following the Makiivka strike, Britain’s Defense Ministry said on Twitter. “There is a realistic possibility that ammunition was being stored near to troop accommodation, which detonated during the strike creating secondary explosions,” the ministry’s intelligence analysts said. “The Russian military has a record of unsafe ammunition storage from well before the current war,” they added.
  • Military strikes will reach “deeper and deeper” within Russia, Ukraine’s head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, told ABC News. But he refused to say whether Ukraine was behind any of the attacks, until the war is over.
  • Moscow on Wednesday sent a frigate into the Atlantic armed with new Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported. As the world’s top militaries vie with each other to develop super-fast hypersonic missile technology, the move could be interpreted as an assertion of Russian power.
  • Zelensky warned of an impending Russian offensive without specifying locations and said Moscow was “on the eve of new mobilization processes.” In his nightly address on Tuesday, the president said Russian forces were throwing everything they have left at Ukraine to turn the tide of the war. In a separate Facebook post, Ukraine’s armed forces warned that the town of Bakhmut, in eastern Donetsk, is a top target for Russian forces.

3. Global impact

  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was set to hold a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told Turkish news agency NTV. Afterward, Erdogan was set to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kalin said .Turkey will “continue to maintain this intense diplomacy with both sides” in the Russia-Ukraine war, Kalin said in announcing Erdogan’s plan to speak with Putin and Zelensky on Wednesday. The NATO country has walked a fine line during the war, attempting to maintain its close relationship with Ukraine while still relying on Russian natural gas and imports. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed Putin’s call with Erdogan.
  • The United States has had direct conversations with Russian officials about Paul Whelan, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a news briefing Tuesday. He was responding to a question about efforts to free Whelan since the release of WNBA player Brittney Griner. Whelan, who the U.S. government has determined was “wrongfully detained,” has been held in Russia for four years on charges of espionage.
  • Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s military chief, spoke on the phone Tuesday with Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. They discussed the tensions in border regions and the intense fighting in Bakhmut, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine wrote on Facebook. Zaluzhny also outlined Ukraine’s defense needs as it continues its fight against Russia in the new year.

4. From our correspondents

Tinder in the trenches: How war has changed love and sex in Ukraine: When a 30-year-old Ukrainian soldier racked up 200 matches on Tinder in Kharkiv, he was enticed by the potential for a hookup. But as he started meeting up with dates, he quickly realized he lacked his normal charm and didn’t have the energy for conversation. The death and destruction of his daily life at war weighed on him too heavily.

Russia’s invasion has upended all aspects of life in Ukraine, and intimacy is no exception, write Jeff Stein, Samantha Schmidt and Kostiantyn Khudov. “It’s a real trauma, and trauma and romance don’t go together,” said Alexander Kolomiychuk, a sex therapist in Kyiv. “In war, there is no time for pleasure. There is no time for recreation.”

Rick Noack and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.