Waves of anger and shock swept across Ukraine’s far western Zakarpattia region on Monday in the wake of a deadly Russian missile strike that killed or wounded dozens of soldiers in a local unit over the weekend.
A three-day mourning period with flags flying at half-mast was in effect in Uzhgorod, the thickly multi-ethnic Zakarpattia administrative seat on Ukraine’s border with Slovakia, as officials and relatives of Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) service members from the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade began preparations for funerals, local media reported.
In the Uzhgorod Holy Trinity Church, on Sunday, Bishop Varsonofy of Uzhhorod and Zakarpattia called on the faithful in all the churches of the region to pray for the fallen soldiers.
Protestant and Greek Orthodox houses of worship also held memorial services for the 128th’s dead and wounded, the reports said.
“Every morning at 9 a.m. we will honor the memory of the soldiers with a moment of silence, and religious services will be held in churches of various denominations in the region,” Zakarpattia regional head Viktor Mykyta said in a Sunday statement.
A Monday announcement by 128th Brigade headquarters, the unit’s first official acknowledgment of the Nov. 3 attack, said that 19 soldiers and officers died and vowed survivors would revenge the losses “one hundredfold” in future combat against Russian forces.
There was no information about the wounded.
The regional government in the city Mukacheve, site of the 128th brigade headquarters, in a Monday announcement, said the local budget would transfer 300,000 UAH ($8,321) to each of the three families in the city with a service member father or son killed in the strike.
Another 270,000 UAH ($7,489) was allotted to construction of memorials for the three fallen soldiers, 400,000 UAH ($11,094) to support of two children losing their fathers, and 950,000 UAH ($26,350) would be distributed to 19 service members injured in the attack for medical treatment and recovery, the announcement said.
The Karpatsky Obyektiv local news platform on Monday reported 26 villages, towns and cities across Zarkapattia region had a local resident killed or wounded by a Russian Iksander ballistic missile striking a compound where the leadership and selected soldiers of the 128th had been forming up for an awards ceremony.
Video published by pro-Russia media showed Ukrainian troops and vehicles clustered along the main street of the village of Zarechie, in the Zaporizhzhia region, and in a three-sided building compound.
Despite of the relatively short distance to Russian lines, the Ukrainians are shown not to be wearing protective armor or helmets.
Russian drone video recorded a surface explosion causing structure damage and setting fires in a ground zero 100-150 meters wide.
According to the Kremlin-supporting Readovka information platform, the awards ceremony had been scheduled to take place on the premises of the village's local defense office.
Ground images recorded in the minutes following the Russian missile strike showed an asphalted village street with a meter-deep crater smashed into its center, defoliated trees and bushes, adjacent buildings with roofs torn off, and fires burning. Other images showed brigade vehicles with doors ripped off and windows destroyed, and bodies in Ukrainian army uniforms.
Russian “war correspondent” Vladimir Rogov in a Sunday blog post said at least 28 and possibly 50 Ukrainian service personnel died in the strike.
Alla Sprinchinat, a Zakarpatiya-based reporter for Ukraine’s 1+1 TV channel, in a Nov. 5 report said the brigade had been preparing for the awards ceremony ahead of time and the unit had published internal names of soldiers that would attend the event, and its planned location.
AFU standard procedures call for the deployment of jammers to protect concentrations of troops from Russian drone observation, the TV report said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday in a statement said that army leadership would investigate the missile attack to determine how Russian strike planners learned about the 128th Brigade’s plans for an awards ceremony and the concentration of dozens of soldiers and officers in range of an Iskander missile.
“It was a tragedy that could have been avoided…Criminal proceedings have been initiated. The main thing is to establish the truth to make sure something like this does not happen again. Every soldier in the combat zone, in the enemy’s line of fire and reconnaissance, knows how to behave in the open, how to ensure safety. Now the investigation must provide honest answers,” Zelensky said.
A Monday statement by Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) said that it had opened a case looking into possible criminal negligence of a military official in connection with the Zarechie missile strike.
Clarifying the circumstance and “bringing those involved to justice is currently one of the priority tasks of the SBI,” the statement said.
The Ukrainian UNIAN news agency said that 128th Brigade commander Dmitro Lysiuk was responsible for ordering the ceremony and reported that he was scheduled to preside and hand out medals, but did not appear.
Volodymyr Boiko, a Kyiv-based journalist focusing on corruption and government mismanagement, in a Sunday Facebook post, reported that in 2019 Lysiuk was sentenced to a 119,000 UAH ($3,316) fine in a civil court for smuggling cigarettes from the 128th Brigade defense sector in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, to traders in Russia-controlled territory to the east.
He purportedly commanded 128th Brigade’s 10th Battalion at the time.
According to Boiko, Lysiuk’s illicit cigarette business across the ceasefire line operated for nearly two months before intervention by agents from Ukraine’s national intelligence agency, the SBU, who arrested and charged Lysiuk in the city of Kramatorsk along with a local businessman.
Ukrainian national media widely reported Boiko’s account. Kyiv Post research confirmed its details.
By Monday afternoon, Lysiuk had made no public statements regarding the strike or allegations against him. Kyiv Post was unable to contact him.
One of the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s oldest and most combat-experienced infantry formations, the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade saw intense combat in the 2014-15 period in the country’s eastern Donbas region following a Kremlin-armed offensive by local fighters led largely by Russian army officers.
In February 2015 the men and women of the 128th found themselves effectively cut off from the rest of the AFU as Ukrainian defenses collapsed during a battle near the city of Debaltseve.
The brigade lost between 100-300 soldiers in a chaotic retreat alleged by some unit critics to have turned into a rout.
The 128th Brigade, during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has generally turned in a creditable battlefield performance, fighting in the eastern Kharkiv and southern Zaporizhzhia sectors.
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