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Russia Blames Troops’ Cellphone Use for Deadly Ukrainian Strike

MOSCOW—Russia blamed the use of banned mobile phones by soldiers for a deadly strike by Ukrainian forces on a facility that housed newly mobilized Russian soldiers and raised the death toll to 89, as Ukraine’s president warned that the Kremlin was preparing for a new offensive in the war.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the strike occurred at 12:01 a.m. local time on New Year’s Day. The regiment’s deputy commander was killed in the attack, the ministry said. It was the deadliest known assault on Russian forces during the war.

“It is already obvious that the main reason for what happened was the inclusion and massive use, contrary to the ban, by personnel of mobile phones in the reach of enemy weapons,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement on its Telegram messenger channel Wednesday. The use of cellphones allowed opposing forces to pinpoint the location of Russian forces, it said.

The statement, attributed to Lt. Gen. Sergei Sevryukov, first deputy chief of the main military-political directorate of Russia’s armed forces, said an investigation was under way in which “the guilty officials will be brought to justice,” it said.

Mourners gather to lay flowers in memory of the Russian soldiers killed on New Year’s Day.



Photo:

arden arkman/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The move to attribute blame for the attack on the soldiers themselves came after the war’s most staunch supporters criticized Russian military leaders for concentrating troops in an unsecure location next to stockpiles of ammunition and other military equipment.

Ukraine’s President

Volodymyr Zelensky

meanwhile warned that Russia was preparing a new offensive in an attempt to reverse Moscow’s fortunes in a war in which Russian forces have lost swaths of Ukrainian territory that they occupied in the earlier stages of the conflict.

“We have no doubt that the current masters of Russia will throw everything they have left and everyone they can muster to try to turn the tide of the war and at least postpone their defeat,” Mr. Zelensky said in his nightly address to the nation late on Tuesday.

Ukraine’s top military commander also said late on Tuesday that the fighting around the city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, was particularly difficult. The commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhny, said the battle around the city was “the most challenging situation” faced by Ukrainian forces. Bakhmut has been the scene of intense fighting for months, with both sides ensnared in a battle that has drone comparisons to the trench warfare of World War I.

“There, the enemy is virtually attempting to advance over their corpses,” said Gen. Zaluzhny in an update on a call with the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen.

Mark Milley.

Separately, the Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol in Crimea, which Russia occupied in 2014, said Wednesday that air defenses shot down two drones near an airfield near the city. The statement came after explosions were reported near Sevastopol overnight. Ukrainian forces have repeatedly targeted Russian forces and infrastructure in Crimea in recent months to put pressure on the Kremlin’s military in areas far behind the front lines.

Russian forces, meanwhile, launched a missile strike on a civilian infrastructure facility near the city of Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, sparking a fire that injured at least one person, said the region’s governor,

Oleksandr Starukh,

on his official Telegram channel early on Wednesday. Nearby industrial and residential buildings were also damaged in the strike, said the governor, who also posted images showing a burned out car, damaged buildings, and a large crater in the ground.

Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to fight around the city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine.



Photo:

Joseph Sywenkyj for The Wall Street Journal

Destroyed cars brought by volunteers from the front line near Bakhmut on display in Lviv, Ukraine.



Photo:

Mykola Tys/Zuma Press

Military analysts have said Russian forces are repeating basic errors that are compromising the security and safety of their own soldiers in occupied Ukraine. They say the failure to shut down cellphone use in areas where troops are concentrated within range of Ukrainian artillery is the latest example of poor Russian operational security.

In its statement about the attack on New Year’s Day, the Russian Defense Ministry said Ukrainian forces launched six missiles from the U.S.-supplied Himars rocket system at the temporary deployment point of one of the Russian military units near the settlement of Makiivka, a city in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine. Two rockets were intercepted by Russian air-defense forces on duty, the ministry said, but another four, carrying “a high-explosive fragmentation warhead” hit the building where Russian military personnel were stationed, causing the ceilings of the building to collapse, the ministry said.

It said Russian forces returned fire and destroyed the launcher of the rocket system used in the attack.

The wounded Russian soldiers were provided first aid and evacuated to medical facilities, the ministry said. Others were found buried in the rubble of the reinforced concrete structures, pushing the death toll to 89 from 63. The deputy commander of the regiment who was killed was named as Lt. Col. Bachurin.

On Tuesday, Rybar, a Telegram channel with links to the Russian military, said more than 100 Russian servicemen were killed, while Ukraine’s armed forces—without saying they were behind the strike—said Monday that 400 troops had died and 300 were wounded at the facility. Some Russian military journalists and bloggers, who embed with the Russian military, estimated that casualties ranged from 200 to 600 people and blamed commanders for concentrating so many soldiers in one building that is close to munitions.

Write to Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com and Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com

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