KYIV — Russia’s missile strike on the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv at the weekend not only killed seven people and injured 120, it also scored a second hit for the Kremlin by stoking internal anger against drone-makers, who are accused of turning the city into a target with a security blunder.
On a bright holiday morning, as Ukrainians were returning from church on Saturday after celebrating the Apple Feast of the Savior — a harvest festival of the Orthodox church — a Russian Iskander-type ballistic missile exploded over the theater in the center of Chernihiv, a city north of Kyiv, only some 70 kilometers from the border with Russia.
The prosecutor’s office has started an investigation into a war crime that led to a mass murder.
Online commentators, however, are already pronouncing guilty verdicts on an unexpected group of former national heroes, blaming not only Russia, but also Ukrainian drone producers and military volunteers who organized and advertised an event on the same day at the theater that was ultimately targeted, with the help of local military administration.
“Is Russia to blame for the fact that it struck the theater in Chernihiv and killed civilians there? Of course. But didn’t the organizers have to turn on their brains and think that such an event is highly likely to become a target for Russian missiles? Especially if they constantly say that drones are a weapon of victory? This is about responsibility,” Sergiy Fursa, deputy director of Dragon Capital, an investment company, said in a Facebook post.
Ukrainian military volunteer Roman Sinicyn chimed in, adding that by organizing their event in the city center so close to Russia, Ukrainian military producers, soldiers, and volunteers, as well as the local military administration, demonstrated supreme recklessness. “However, we should not shift all the blame on a specific and effective volunteer organization. The event was approved by officials, not volunteers. And quite specific representatives of ministries, special services, and the military were aware of the event,” Sinicyn said.
Maria Berlinska and Lyuba Shypovych from the Dignitas Fund, a Ukrainian military volunteer organization that has pushed for systemic changes in Ukraine’s drone production and supply industry as well as the training of drone operators, are now taking most of the online hate from Ukrainians.
Dignitas Fund was among the organizers of the “Angry Birds” event, together with Chernihiv’s regional military administration and Ukraine’s defense innovation cluster Brave 1.
The event organizers publicly announced the time and date of the meeting and said what city it was happening in, but revealed the exact location only to participants some four hours before the start.
Someone then leaked that information to the Russians or Russia intercepted the communication. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Russian forces were targeting a military meeting and even published an invitation with detailed maximum-security measures for the attendees who were not supposed to wear their military uniforms.
Both Shypovych and Berlinska are declining to give any comments to the media as they are now taking part in the investigation of the event, Shypovych told POLITICO.
According to social media posts by both volunteers, the participants in the event survived the attack, as most of them were able to escape to a shelter. The security services are now investigating the information leak that triggered the Russian missile launch, Shypovych wrote.
After the wave of online hate, many members of Ukraine’s military, NGOs, and cultural sphere wrote posts in support of Berlinska, who has been a vocal critic of Ukraine’s defense ministry, and who has raised awareness of the Ukrainian authorities’ initial neglect of the crucial role that military drones should play in Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion.
“Believe me, I would want to die instead of those people,” Berlinska said in a statement.