March 3, 2023
Since the start of Moscow’s war in Ukraine, Western analysts and Ukrainian sources have pointed to heavy losses for Russia’s most “elite” brigades. Several of the naval infantry units deemed “elite” have been “significantly degraded” in the year since the Kremlin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, the British Defense Ministry said last month.
A slew of brigades have hit the headlines in the past 12 months. In December, the 1st Guards Tank Army resorted to relying on reservists along Russia’s defensive line in Luhansk after suffering losses in previous months, according to military intelligence. Other brigades, such as the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade—based in the annexed Crimean city of Sevastopol—or the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, which attracted attention for three military failures, add to a list of disappointing performances.
Newsweek looked into why the Russian military’s most “elite” brigades have suffered throughout the Ukraine war, and whether they can snatch back their reputations for successful operations.
History of ‘Elite’ Units
One way of designating an “elite” unit is through the use of the “guards” label, which is just one measure of status in the Russian armed forces, military expert David R. Stone told Newsweek. There has been a Russian tradition of naming “elite” units, “guards,” for hundreds of years, he said, stretching to the time of famed Russian imperial leader Peter the Great. It continued throughout the Soviet Union and through to the contemporary Russian Federation, Stone added. Perceptions of the importance of the “guards” label differs, however.
Unlike the U.S. military, in the Soviet and then Russian military traditions, “it really means a lot to call a unit a “guards” unit, Stone emphasized. It is a “big deal,” he added. Yet today’s “guards” titles are more a “reflection of past glory” than meaningful modern designation, according to political scientist Pavel Baev.
Acclaim for “elite” units also comes from when, where and how they operate, according to Ed Arnold, a research fellow for European security at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank.
“Elite” units can provide morale boosts for friendly troops—or inspire fear in the opposing forces—and can often get access to better equipment or more training, Arnold told Newsweek. Because of this, they will also be selected for tasks in which they can be trusted to get the job done, he added.
“Elite” units have been typically handed the hardest tasks, and this is true in the ongoing war in Ukraine, too, Samuel Ramani, a politics tutor at Oxford University, U.K., and a RUSI associate fellow, told Newsweek.
This is backed up by British military intelligence. The British Defense Ministry said on February 26 that the “elite” Russian Naval Infantry brigades in Ukraine had been “tasked with some of the toughest tactical missions in the war.”
This led to “extremely high” casualty rates in the brigades, the government department said, referencing the 155th Naval Infantry’s recent engagements in Donetsk.
What Went Wrong in Ukraine?
But the problems for Russia’s “elite” brigades really started at the very beginning of the war more than 12 months ago, experts said.
Russia relied very heavily on “elite” units in the earliest stages of the war, military experts widely agree. Several, interlinked issues come into play here for the “elite” soldiers, the first of which is a resource void for today’s brigades.
Battalion tactical groups (BTGs) are formed from the larger brigades, and take the most experienced troops and best resources to take to battle. The initial weeks of the war likely used up these key resources, and “what you’re left with is brigades that have lost their best soldiers, their best officers, and the best equipment, and now have to generate new fighting forces,” Stone said. “So there’s a real quality drop-off.” “Most certainly, the casualties suffered by several high-readiness units in the initial stage of the war have resulted in their very serious deterioration,” Baev said. They are nowhere near their “former strength,” he added, as they have been replenished with “newly mobilized and poorly trained crowds of reluctant warriors.”
Backfilling these brigades with conscripts means they are never going to reach the same effectiveness, according to analysts. But this applies not just to “elite” units but regular tank and infantry units as well.
The first wave claimed not just the lives of the soldiers but also the commanders in these specific units, Arnold added. “So a lot of these prestige regiments are now just hollowed out [compared] to where they were a year ago.”
The “elite” units have “never actually been tested on the battlefield in the way that they are currently fighting at the moment, and I think that’s exposed them,” Arnold said. But it’s not just about the regiments themselves, Arnold stressed, it’s also about the planning and command decisions taken around the fighters that reflect poorly on the soldiers on the ground.
Generals far away from the front lines have been making poor decisions on faulty intelligence, Ramani added. This combines with a fear of reporting failures to superiors in Russia’s military command structure, he added, and the lack of transparency and honesty, leading to the “elite” brigades suffering.
But many of the “elite” forces are considered so because of their specialties. The 155th Naval Infantry Brigade was trained for amphibious missions, and Russian paratroopers were heavily involved in the first days and weeks of the war. However, they weren’t deployed with a mind on their specialties, experts said. Rather, they behaved as regular infantry.
The Russian army leaned heavily on airborne units in the initial weeks of the invasion on February 24, 2022, he said. This displayed “overconfidence” in Russian military commanders, Stone said, because these airborne forces—travelling often in helicopters or with parachutes—are not carrying heavy equipment.
So “elite” forces that sucked up a lot of investment over a long period were decimated in the first weeks, Stone said. These airborne forces are a different class of “elite,” Stone argued, because they enjoy the “elite” label not just in honorific terms, but in “actual, recent practice.”
The airborne units are “a separate chunk” of Russia’s military, unlike many Western forces, he added. “They get their pick of the recruits, they get extra training; they are the ones that are really seen as an elite,” and in many ways, the airborne forces’ “elite” status is “much more meaningful” than the designation of “guards,” Stone argued.
They are also the units Russia’s upper political circles would rely on for protection, he said. The heavy losses suffered among the airborne forces might have even larger implications, according to Stone. Airborne forces also need a lot more training than regular units, meaning they are even more difficult to replace, Stone said.
By the six-month mark in the war, the BBC’s Russian service had confirmed that more than 900 elite specialists had been killed in Ukraine.
One thing uniting airborne forces and “elite” naval infantry brigades is they did not perform the air assault or amphibious missions they specifically trained to carry out. The same can be said for the Arctic regiments typically stationed near Russia’s border with Finland or in the east of the country, Arnold said. The 200th Motor Rifle Arctic warfare brigade was sent in Russia’s initial assault on Kharkiv, and “one of Russia’s most formidable” brigades was “effectively destroyed,” according to The Washington Post.
These specialized forces were therefore “chewed up” in the initial, bloody weeks and battles, Stone said.
The 155th Naval Infantry Brigade
One of the most referenced of Russia’s “elite” brigades in Ukraine is the 155th Naval Infantry. The 155th became a “guards” unit only recently, Stone pointed out, as it gained the “elite” label of “guards” during the war in Ukraine, ostensibly for military achievement.
Yet this is not what has defined much of the last year for the 155th. It is thought they have been committed to battle three times in the 12 months since troops poured into Ukrainian territory—first in Bucha, then Donetsk and most recently around the Donbas village of Vuhledar. Ukrainian officials said the 155th has been restaffed three times.
None of the operations were a success, Arnold said, which showed they do not “have the ability to regenerate their force at the quality threshold that they would like.” “Three military defeats on the battlefield in a year is not a good look for any military unit, let alone an elite unit,” Arnold said.
Last week, the British Defense Ministry singled out the 155th for their performance in Vuhledar. The brigade “has been at the forefront of recent costly offensives,” the ministry said, noting a number of Russian vehicle losses linked to the 155th in Vuhledar.
The “supposedly enhanced capability” of the naval infantry “has now almost certainly been significantly degraded because it has been backfilled with inexperienced mobilised personnel,” the government department concluded.
With the heavy losses suffered by the 155th in its three key battles in Ukraine, it’s unclear whether “any of the soldiers who were around when it earned that name of the guards unit would still be around now,” Stone argued.
Therefore, the proficient personnel that populated the “elite” ranks just has not been replaced, experts said. But the 155th might be recommitted once more to assaults around Vuhledar despite reduced capacity, the British Defense Ministry added.
But the 155th attracted attention for another reason. In November, an open letter attributed to the 155th was published after failed attacks on the Ukrainian village of Pavlivka.
The letter, posted on a Telegram channel associated with the Wagner mercenary group operating in Ukraine, blamed Russian commanders for the “incomprehensible offensive” it said claimed the lives of 300 soldiers in four days of fighting. The letter added to a list of problems identified by Western analysts in Russia’s armed forces, including “shell hunger,” a lack of ammunition and supplies, as well as widespread low morale.
In a rare move of acknowledging criticism leveled at its military commanders, the Russian Defense Ministry denied the reports, saying the unit commanders had been “competent” in decision-making. “Due to the competent actions of the unit commanders, the losses of marines for the given period do not exceed one percent of combat strength, and seven percent wounded, a significant part of whom have already returned to duty,” the ministry said, according to Reuters.
Analysts are split over whether the criticism from an “elite” brigade like the 155th stung the Russian military more than other circulating reports. Stone questioned how much of an impact the letter had, suggesting that the public complaints from the 155th likely came after internal complaints were ignored. But it is nonetheless difficult to track the inner workings of the Russian military system, he said.
Baev questioned the true importance of amphibious brigades like the 155th but said that “even if the real status of these units is far from “elite,” critical voices coming from them generate more resonance than complaints from the regular battalions.”
Yet it is embarrassing for “elite” units to voice their criticism so openly, some experts said. It also fuels negative judgments of the Russian military command from the influential “milblogger” accounts, Ramani said.
The Russian command and defense ministry will also probably see more of this public dissent as problems continue with ammunition and supplies, Arnold added.
But ultimately, it’s a combination of factors leading to the failures of “elite” brigades, much like the Russian military as a whole, analysts said. The problems endemic in the “elite” brigades also resonate with the rest of Russia’s military committed in Ukraine, such as low morale, ammunition shortages and poorly trained, ill-equipped soldiers. “No one expected in Russia that the war would be lasting as long, so there’s absolutely going to be morale problems,” Stone said. “The Russian army has eaten up a lot of its human capital in the course of this war, and to bring that back is going to take a very long time,” Stone said. But specifically rebuilding naval infantry or airborne forces will take much longer than training regular infantry troops.
It will “certainly” take years, Stone said, and Arnold suggested a three- to five-year period could be reasonable, if they’re not engaged in fighting. It might be longer, possibly near the decade mark, for specialized forces like the cold weather fighters, Arnold added. “It’s very difficult to reconstitute if you’re in a current battle,” he said. “After their first defeat, they [the 155th] shouldn’t have been then reinvested into the fight twice.”
The precise number of years depends on how long the war in Ukraine drags on, Stone said. “If this war drags on for a very long time, and Russia never has a chance to rebuild, then obviously, the deterioration is going to be that much longer in nature.”
The loss of colonels and generals, not just front-line soldiers, means that rebuilding the expertise at higher command levels will take some time, experts said. It also raises the question of who will train the next generation of fighters needed to replenish the ranks to a high standard.
Military success resuscitates a moribund reputation, Ramani said. “Nothing is permanent,” he added, arguing that substantial gains for Russian forces around Donetsk and the wider Donbas would “largely restore” the reputation of elite units.