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Friday, March 31, 2023

Russia’s “elite” units may not be so elite

Since the start of the Moscow war in Ukraine, Western analysts and Ukrainian sources have pointed to heavy casualties for Russia’s “elite” brigades.

Several of the naval infantry units classified as “elite” have been “significantly demoted” in the year since the Kremlin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, the UK Defense Ministry said last month.

A number of brigades have made headlines in the last 12 months. In December, the 1st Guards Tank Army, according to military intelligence, relied on reservists along Russia’s defense line at Luhansk after suffering casualties in the previous months.

Other brigades, such as the 810th Marine Infantry Brigade based in the annexed Crimean city of Sevastopol or the 155th Marine Infantry Brigade, which attracted attention through three military failures, add to the list of disappointing performances.

news week examined why the Russian military’s “elite” brigades suffered during the Ukraine war and whether they can reclaim their reputation for successful operations.

One way to designate an “elite” unit is to use the label “guard,” which is just a measure of status in the Russian armed forces, said military expert David R. Stone news week.

There has been a Russian tradition of calling “elite” units “Guardians” for hundreds of years, he said, dating back to the time of famous Russian imperial leader Peter the Great.

It continued throughout the Soviet Union and into what is now the Russian Federation, Stone added. However, perceptions of the meaning of the label “guardian” differ.

Unlike the US military, in the Soviet and then Russian military tradition, “there’s really a lot of value in calling a unit a ‘sentry’ unit,” Stone said. It’s a “big deal,” he added, and is more of a “mirror of past glory” than a meaningful modern label, according to political scientist Pavel Baev.

Recognition for “elite” units also comes from when, where and how they operate, according to Ed Arnold, research fellow on European security at London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

“Elite” units can provide morale boosts to friendly troops — or instill fear in opposing forces — and often get access to better equipment or more training, Arnold said news week. That’s also why they’re chosen for jobs where they can be counted on to get the job done, he added.

“Elite” units were usually tasked with the most difficult tasks, and this is true in the ongoing war in Ukraine, too, said Samuel Ramani, a politics tutor at the University of Oxford, UK, and a RUSI associate fellow news week.

This is backed by British military intelligence. Britain’s Defense Ministry said on February 26 that the “elite” of Russia’s naval infantry brigades in Ukraine had been “tasked with some of the toughest tactical missions of the war”.

This led to “extremely high” casualty rates in the brigades, the government ministry said, citing recent deployments of the 155th Marines in Donetsk.

But the problems for Russia’s “elite” brigades really started right at the start of the war more than 12 months ago, experts said.

Russia relied heavily on “elite” units in the earliest stages of the war, military experts largely agree. For the “elite” soldiers, several interrelated issues come into play here, the first of which is a resource that is empty for today’s brigades.

Formed from the larger brigades, Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) take the most experienced troops and best resources to go into battle. The first few weeks of the war likely depleted these vital resources, and “what remains are brigades that have lost their best soldiers, their best officers and best equipment and are now having to raise new forces,” Stone said. “So there’s a real drop in quality.”

“Certainly, the losses suffered by several high-readiness units in the initial stages of the war led to their very serious deterioration,” Baev said. They are far from their “former strength,” he added, as they have been replenished with “newly mobilized and ill-trained hosts of reluctant warriors.”

Filling up these brigades with conscripts means they will never reach the same level of effectiveness, according to analysts. However, this applies not only to “elite” units, but also to regular tank and infantry units.

The first wave claimed the lives of not only the soldiers but also the commanders of those special units, Arnold added. “A lot of those prestige regiments are just hollowed out now [compared] to where they were a year ago.”

The “elite” units had “never been tested on the battlefield the way they’re currently fighting and I think that exposed them,” Arnold said. But it’s not just about the regiments themselves, Arnold stressed, it’s also about the planning and leadership decisions around the fighters that cast a bad light on the soldiers on the ground.

Generals far from the front lines made bad decisions because of flawed intelligence agencies, Ramani added. This is combined with a fear of reporting failures to superiors in Russia’s military command structure, he added, and a lack of transparency and honesty that is causing the “elite” brigades to suffer.

But many of the “elite” forces are considered such because of their specializations. The 155th Marines Brigade was trained for amphibious missions and Russian paratroopers were heavily involved in the early days and weeks of the war. However, according to experts, they were not used with an awareness of their specialties. Rather, they behaved like regular infantry.

The Russian army relied heavily on airborne units for the first few weeks of the February 24, 2022 invasion, he said. This shows “overconfidence” in Russian military commanders, Stone said, because these airborne troops — who often fly in helicopters or parachutes — don’t carry heavy equipment.

“Elite” forces, which have eaten up a lot of investment over a long period of time, were thus decimated in the first few weeks, Stone said. These airborne troops are a different class of “elite,” Stone argued, because they enjoy the label of “elite” not only in honor but in “actual, recent practice.”

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