Oct 7, 2022
In late 2014, the Kremlin organized a new army brigade for a new kind of war. Anticipating escalating tensions in the resource-rich—and rapidly thawing—Arctic region, the army combined two existing motorized rifle battalions with supporting artillery, air-defense and engineer units, equipped them with specialized cold-weather vehicles and placed them under the banner of the 80th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade in Alakurtti near Russia’s border with Finland.
Eight years later, the 80th SMRB is fighting for its life in an environment it never planned for—the wide-open farms of southern Ukraine’s breadbasket around the port of Kherson. Under attack by the Ukrainian army’s battle-hardened 128th Mountain Brigade, the 80th SMRB and whatever remains of a Russian navy coastal-defense brigade—another unit that’s out of its element—are falling back toward Beryslav, a town whose durable crossing over the Dnipro River makes it an obvious location for a last stand before Russian troops quit Kherson Oblast.
The 80th SMRB sat out the first few months of Russia’s wider war in Ukraine starting in late February. It, along with the heavier 200th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, remained at their posts near Finland as Finland—reacting swiftly to the Russian invasion of Ukraine—moved to join NATO.
As Russian losses mounted over the summer—then exceeding 50,000 killed and wounded, by some estimates—the Kremlin began pulling brigades from, well, everywhere—and rushing them to Ukraine. The 80th SMRB began showing up in northeast Ukraine in July. By this fall, the brigade was in Kherson Oblast, fighting alongside naval infantry and the army’s 49th Combined Arms Army as the Ukrainians launched a broad counteroffensive in the region.
The 80th SMRB wasn’t an obvious choice to reinforce Kherson. Its original equipment—wide-track MT-LB armored tractors and BTR-82 wheeled fighting vehicles—was meant for Arctic operations. The 80th SMRB’s troopers had trained to fight in snow, sometimes even using snowmobiles, dog-sleds and reindeer for mobility.
But the Kremlin long ago stopped trying to optimize its forces for the battlefield. Steep losses, and an utterly broken mobilization system, compelled the Russians to make do with whatever forces they could scrape from the existing order of battle. Russian deployments got even more chaotic as the Ukrainian counteroffensives gained momentum, in the east as well as in the south.
Today the 80th SMRB is damaged and retreating. Whether it succeeds in holding fast around Beryslav and stalling if not stopping Ukrainian attacks northeast of Kherson depends more on what the Ukrainians choose to do than it does on any options the Kremlin might still have. The
leadership in Kyiv apparently aims to launch a third counteroffensive aimed at occupied Mariupol, an operation that could cut the Russian army in Ukraine in half.
A Mariupol counteroffensive would need a lot of brigades—and might require the Ukrainians to slow the counteroffensives in the east and south in order to shift forces toward the center. Ukrainian economy of force could spare the 80th SMRB immediate embarrassment.
In that case, the Russian Arctic brigade might actually get a chance to fight in conditions it trained for. Winter is coming in Ukraine. The first few months are wet and muddy. Then, it gets cold, snowy and frozen. Not as cold, snowy and frozen as the Arctic, but maybe close enough for the 80th SMRB.