At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day in Makiivka, in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, a volley of GPS-guided rockets from a Ukrainian High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System precisely struck a school building in which newly-mobilized Russian army conscripts were sleeping or, equally likely, celebrating.
The M30/31 rockets exploded, pancaking the multi-story building and killing or wounding potentially hundreds of conscripts.
It almost certainly was one of the deadliest single strikes by Ukrainian forces since Russia widened its war on Ukraine back in February—and a startling demonstration of the Ukrainian army’s fast-improving precision artillery capability.
It took just one volley of six 227-millimeter rockets from a single U.S.-made HIMARS to kill scores of Russians. Thanks to the United States, Ukraine has dozens of HIMARS—and practically is writing a new book on using the launchers.
We don’t know exactly how the Ukrainian army determined that the Russian army was housing hundreds of new conscripts in the concrete schoolhouse in Makiivka, an industrial city of 300,000 people that’s adjacent to Donetsk, the seat of a pro-Russian separatist “republic” in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
But once the Ukrainians verified their intelligence—perhaps using drones, satellite imagery, special operations forces or even tips from local residents—it was only a matter of time before a HIMARS zeroed in. Makiivka is just 15 miles from the front. A HIMARS can lob M30/31 rockets as far as 57 miles.
The Ukrainian defense ministry initially claimed it destroyed 10 vehicles in the Makiivka strike but declined to specify how many enemy troops may have died. “The losses of personnel of the occupiers are being investigated,” the ministry stated.
The scale of the devastation became clearer as the sun rose, photos and videos circulated online and Russian and separatist officials began blaming each other for exposing so many troops to attack. The Kremlin copped to losing 63 soldiers killed, but didn’t report the number of wounded.
Sixty-three deaths could be an undercount. And the wounded could number several times that, if you believe Igor Girkin, a former Russian army officer who played a key role in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. “The number of dead and wounded goes to many hundreds,” Girkin wrote on social media.
It didn’t have to be this bad. Those 10 vehicles the Ukrainians claimed they destroyed? They were parked right next to the building without any camouflage, Girkin wrote. Not only could the vehicles signal to the Ukrainians the presence of a large nearby garrison, they and weapons stored in the schoolhouse apparently cooked off in the rocket barrage, fueling the blasts and fires that collapsed the building and killed so many of its occupants.
In any event, there was no excuse for hundreds of conscripts to crowd together in a single structure so close to the front. “These are the mistakes of the spring and summer of 2022,” wrote Pavel Gubarev, a separatist leader. “We are in the 11th month of the war! Settle in small groups—everyone knows that. The conscripts might not know, but the authorities should know!”
HIMARS strikes on concentrations of Russian and separatist troops aren’t new, of course—Ukraine got its first HIMARS launchers back in the spring and immediately put them to good use. Throughout 2022 “there were also quite a few” of these precise strikes, Girkin wrote. “Although, as a rule, with fewer victims.”
Girkin blamed stubborn generals for refusing to learn obvious lessons about dispersing their troops. “Our generals are untrainable in principle.” Russian generals have no idea what’s really happening along the front in part because they “prefer to stay away from the locations of their troops, outside the radius of destruction of enemy missiles.”
While rescuers in Makiivka dug out the dead and wounded and Russian and separatist leaders pointed fingers, the Ukrainian military struck a taunting tone. “Don’t tease our HIMARS,” the Ukrainian defense ministry quipped on social media. “They bite.”