Fellow service members gather Wednesday at the St. Feodosiivsky Monastery in Kyiv for the funeral of 128th Mountain Assault Brigade soldier Mykyta Vlaskov.

Fellow service members gather Wednesday at the St. Feodosiivsky Monastery in Kyiv for the funeral of 128th Mountain Assault Brigade soldier Mykyta Vlaskov. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)

KYIV — Members of Ukraine’s 128th Mountain Assault Brigade gathered Friday morning for a medal ceremony near the front line in the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhia — continuing a military tradition dating back to Soviet times, which Ukrainian officials had sustained to prop up morale among exhausted troops.

“The Soviet era came back,” said one member of the 128th Brigade, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive events. “It resembled scenes from Russian propaganda films about World War II, where soldiers stand in rows, looking all glamorous.”

But instead of celebrating the fighters’ bravery and service, the award ceremony turned into a bloodbath. A Russian missile strike killed at least 19 soldiers in attendance, including several high-ranking officers and some of the brigade’s best warriors. Many had removed their helmets for the proceedings and suffered head injuries. Dozens of others were wounded.

“When the attack occurred, it was difficult to say how many people were injured or killed,” said a second brigade member, who spoke to his colleagues after the incident and was also granted anonymity. “At the moment after the shelling, 21 bodies were counted. Whether everyone survived in the hospital is unknown.”

The attack on the 128th Brigade has unleashed a wave of public criticism on social media unusual for Ukraine — a society that instinctively plays down battlefield losses out of patriotism and fear of providing fuel to Russia’s propaganda machine.

Indeed, initially there was no public announcement of the deadly incident, which occurred in the village of Zarichne, about 20 miles from the front line.

News of the missile strike began to filter out on social media later on Friday and through the weekend.

By Sunday, Ukrainian news outlets were reporting the attack, and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov said a “tragedy” had struck the brigade, but he did not provide any details. Later, the 128th Brigade published the death toll on its Facebook page.

The awful toll from the ceremony, which was called in honor of Ukrainian Missile Force and Artillery Day, has raised searing questions about why such a large public event was held in a location that could easily be seen by Russian drones and was well within range of Russian missiles.

A Russian missile, two by some accounts, struck the gathering 10 minutes after the ceremony began at about 10 a.m.

Often such medal ceremonies are small, with perhaps 30 people in attendance, and take place in a well-protected bunker or trench. Friday’s gathering, however, occurred in an open area and involved nearly 100 people, including many who were not receiving medals, brigade members said.

“They gathered people from all the units - the best people,” said a Ukrainian serviceman with knowledge of what happened. “There were 43 on the list [of those to receive medals].”

“In fact, there were many more people, because they had to be transported there, and there were about 20 vehicles,” he said.

On Monday, Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation said it was opening a criminal inquiry into the circumstances of the attack, based on the crime of “negligent attitude of a military official to service.”

The first brigade member said the location of the ceremony was “constantly within the range of ballistic missile strikes and everything else that flies from afar.”

The missile struck a courtyard in a building where the ceremony was taking place and the road outside.

Noting the many head wounds, the serviceman said: “The medics said they had not seen something like this since the beginning of the full-scale war.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has mentioned the ceremony strike repeatedly in recent days, expressing his condolences to the families of the dead. It was “a tragedy that could have been avoided,” Zelensky said in his Sunday evening address.

On Monday, the president personally announced that the brigade commander, Dmytro Lysiuk, had been suspended while the investigation continues.

“The whole situation is being analyzed minute by minute,” Zelensky said. “And it will be found out who exactly violated the rules on the safety of people in the area accessible to enemy aerial reconnaissance. There will be no avoidance of responsibility.”

How the Russians knew to target the ceremony is a main question, brigade members said.

“It’s still unclear what exactly happened — whether it was the locals who called and reported that a bunch of people had gathered or that there was a leak of information from the internal headquarters of the brigades,” the first brigade member said.

But the strike had to be planned in advance, he said. “You can’t launch a missile in two minutes or in 15 — when the enemy aimed a missile there, he was well aware that there was a lot of leadership and it would be a pretty big hit,” he said.

There were also conflicting reports of who planned the ceremony and what time it was supposed to start. Some said the event was delayed by 30 minutes, leaving the soldiers standing in the courtyard for an extended period. Lysiuk, the brigade commander, arrived at the ceremony late - minutes after the missile struck, the second brigade member said.

“Everyone is angry at the command,” the second brigade member said. “They could have given an order to move everything to another location or some shelter. Move everything and conduct the ceremony there.

“Why this didn’t happen, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just military stupidity.”

However, even after the attack, some officials defended the practice of awarding medals near the combat zone. Former deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar said the ceremonies were a “very important part” of military culture.

“I myself have had the honor of awarding ministerial and state awards to our soldiers on the front lines — this is a very exciting moment for everyone,” Maliar wrote on the Telegram messaging platform. Such events are especially meaningful, she added, because “this happens in the presence of brothers in arms, and not alone.”

The Russians could have found out about the ceremony from “an inadvertent leakage of information” caused by “the human factor,” Maliar wrote.

“Due to the fact that the full-scale war has been going on for more than a year, the sense of danger has faded for many,” she wrote. “It is difficult for a person to constantly be in a state of increased attention and concentration at the risk of death.”

The serviceman, however, said that the practice of Soviet-style ceremonies must end immediately. “Soldiers and military, officers are afraid that this will not be done and it all can happen again, God forbid,” he said.

The serviceman said that if the relatives of the soldiers had not “raised a cry” on social media after the attack, “then no one would have known.”

After the strike, Viktor Mykyta, the governor of the southwestern Transcarpathia region where the 128th Brigade is usually based, announced a three-day mourning period. On Monday, residents of the region’s two largest cities, Uzhgorod and Mukachevo, held candlelight vigils for the victims.

The 128th Mountain Brigade draws its members from across Ukraine, however. On Wednesday, dozens gathered at a church in central Kyiv to attend the funeral of Mykyta Vlaskov, 25, who died in the strike.

Among the mourners were a group of Vlaskov’s schoolmates, who had known each other since sixth grade. Oleksii Herasymchuk, 25, said the friends met Vlaskov every time he came home from the front. The last time was Aug. 18, he said.

Herasymchuk said 10 of their classmates were part of a group chat on Telegram and that Vlaskov usually “responded pretty quick to my messages.”

“I’m monitoring numerous news channels, so immediately texted him after the news about the attack on his brigade,” Herasymchuk said. “He didn’t respond and we were looking for any news on him since Friday.” On Sunday, Vlaskov’s mother told his friends that he had died.

“He was talented, fun, and stylish, actually. He used to paint,” Herasymchuk said. The attack, he added, “is not only a tragedy for this brigade, but all of Ukraine.” Andriy Sholtes in Uzhgorod, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

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