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Moscow and Ukraine dispute the number of Russian soldiers killed in blast

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Ukraine has carried out one of its deadliest attacks since the Russian invasion began. The New Year's Eve strike destroyed a barracks the Russian army was using to house newly mobilized soldiers in the Donetsk region. Russian officials acknowledge that 63 soldiers died. The Ukrainian government claims the death toll is in the hundreds. For more on this, we turn to Alexander Gabuev. He's a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently in Moscow. He joins us now from Istanbul. Alexander, good morning.

ALEXANDER GABUEV: Good morning.

SCHMITZ: What can be confirmed about the scope of this strike and its toll on the Russian army?

GABUEV: We don't have precise data. But it's the first time that the Russian Ministry of Defense actually confirmed such a huge loss. And 63 people killed on a spot in just one single strike is the highest casualty that the Russian government has ever admitted. But beyond the official lines, we have multiple confirmations on the Russian side from so-called war correspondents. These are the members of the Russian official propaganda media that are working in the front lines. So they confirmed that the death toll is really in the hundreds and is in line with what the Ukrainian government is saying.

SCHMITZ: Russian military bloggers said the Russian army was storing ammunition in the same building as the troop quarters. Why would commanders do that when they had to know that they would certainly be targets for Ukrainian rockets?

GABUEV: We definitely see a certain pattern here. The Russian military has made those mistakes very early on. And once the HIMARS - the high-precision weapons - that the Americans sent to Ukrainians throughout summer arrived, there were multiple incidents when the Ukrainians, having the right intelligence, were able to strike the enemy targets deep behind the front lines. And after 10 months of this war, mass incidents like this have mainly disappeared. The Russians have adapted. But this time, it took a big mistake of a commander to have troops together and with ammunition. So it shows that some commanders learned nothing.

At the same time, it also exposes the logistical problems that the Russians have. They have mobilized 250,000 troops throughout this fall and early winter, send half of that to the front lines. And it's just very difficult for the Russians to supply smaller groups, bringing water, hot food to various different buildings. So they tend to group them in larger buildings. And because these soldiers were allegedly calling home using open cellphone lines, that definitely gave the Ukrainians all the data they need to perform this strike.

SCHMITZ: Wow. And, you know, what's somewhat unusual about the aftermath of this attack is something you mentioned earlier, is that even the Kremlin is admitting big losses on its side, something it often avoids doing. How are Russian civilians reacting to news of these strikes?

GABUEV: To me, the Kremlin's statement - or to be precise, the ministry of defense - just shows how big the incident is. It's so big that you cannot say it never happened. So you need to admit something. But you probably want to downplay the number of casualties. And it looks like there will be a lot of body bags arriving to - right of the city where all of the killed soldiers have been mobilized from, and that the amount of grief will be there. But unfortunately, the Russian society remains very heavily oppressed and atomized. The regime is very confident and capable in instilling brutality and fear and just making all of the anti-war protests really very risky enterprise in Russia, both for the families of soldiers killed and wounded and for anti-war activists.

SCHMITZ: So what you're saying is a lot of the pro-Kremlin propaganda is actually still having a bigger impact than, you know, the division of body bags coming home to Russia.

GABUEV: That's true. And the problem is that the war propaganda is saying that, oh, these commanders are incompetent. They're nonprofessional. They should be court-martialed and replaced with commanders who are more capable and who would help us to win this war. It's not that the amount of body bags arriving back home leads anybody in public to say, oh, this is a terrible war that cost us so many lives, will cost us probably more and the best way to stop it is actually retreat and withdraw and seek a diplomatic resolution with Ukraine.

SCHMITZ: That's Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Alexander, thank you.

GABUEV: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.