How an elite brigade of Russian marines was repeatedly mauled in Ukraine and became an emblem of the invasion's failures
An elite brigade within Russia's military is a shadow of itself after taking huge losses in Ukraine.
The 155th brigade's reputation suffered heavily, including with open dissent among its ranks.
Critics have also accused it of war crimes, and it now relies on new recruits with limited supplies.
The 155th Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet is considered one of Russia's finest.
It was among the elite units that rushed to capture Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, in the first thrusts of the invasion in February 2022.
But a year later, its reputation is in tatters after repeated battlefield losses, accusations of war crimes, bad planning, poorly trained reinforcements, and open insubordination from its marines.
Over the past year, the brigade has fought in flashpoints synonyms with Russia's lowest moments in the war. Bucha, Irpin, Pavlivka, Vuhledar — all saw the 155th in action.
"They've gotten their asses handed to them again and again and again," William Alberque, who runs the arms-control program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Insider.
In many ways, the journey of the 155th reflects the larger struggles of the Russian military, which entered Ukraine expecting a quick victory but has instead suffered embarrassing setbacks.
An overconfident rush for Kyiv
The 155th entered the war with an elite status, said Pavel Baev, a Russian-military expert at the Brookings Center on the United States and Europe and at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, in an interview with Insider.
The brigade is part of the naval infantry, Russia's equivalent of the US Marines. Baev said that its members are supposed to be better trained and more professional than other parts of the Russian military, which can rely on conscripts.
But Baev said its "elite posture" evaporated after Russian forces failed to take the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in the first weeks of fighting.
Russia had expected to take Kyiv in just two days, according to US intelligence. Instead, it was forced to turn away from the capital and focus on the east of the country.
The 155th reportedly retreated back to neighboring Belarus in April after the Kyiv effort failed. It later emerged fighting in Ukraine's east, where it suffered more loss and humiliation.
Though only one part of a wider offensive, the 155th in particular has been accused of some of the highest-profile war crimes of the conflict.
Early in the war, representatives from the Ukrainian government found mass graves in and around the town of Bucha after Russian troops withdrew.
Investigators found some bodies with their hands tied behind backs and gunshot wounds to their heads.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an advisor to Ukraine's president, said in April that members of the 155th were among those responsible.
Investigators are still examining Bucha, including what role members of the 155th may have played in atrocities there, but said last year that there was evidence to show that Russian forces "carried out targeted, organized killings of civilians in Bucha."
Even so, days before Russian forces withdrew from the town, Russian President Vladimir Putin honored those serving in the 155th, granting them a new honorary title and praising their heroism and courage.
Alberque, from the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said that response goes against what most observers might have expected, which would have been for it to be stripped of honors rather than given new ones "for the kinds of failures that you see here."
Bitter fighting along key battlefronts
Russia hasn't used the marine brigade in Ukraine as a single large formation, according to the UK's Ministry of Defence, but instead has attached its individual units to other parts of the military.
In that role, it has "been tasked with some of the toughest tactical missions in the war and has suffered extremely high casualties," the MOD said.
The brigade was thought to have suffered heavy losses in the campaign to take Kyiv. And later in the intense battles of eastern Ukraine the same reality seems to have played out.
In January, the brigade joined the months-long battle for the contested town of Vuhledar.
There, one of its marines told 7x7, a Russian independent news website, that about 500 people in the brigade were killed in a matter of weeks, according to The Moscow Times. One of its companies was left with just eight members alive, he said.
The marine also said commanders were treating survivors like deserters.
A Ukrainian official told Politico that the brigade was around 5,000 strong when it started fighting near Vuhledar, and that it was almost entirely destroyed there, with troops killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
If true, that would imply that the brigade was now largely concentrated on one battlefront.
And in late February, the UK Ministry of Defence shared satellite imagery that seemed to show 10 destroyed armored vehicles near Vuhledar. The Ministry of Defence said the wreckage was "likely" part of the 155th.
—Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) February 26, 2023
Given the wrong roles
Alberque said the brigade's struggles could in part be because commanders gave it the wrong tasks, particularly early in the invasion when it was still a highly-trained fighting force.
"These guys get very specialized diving training and things like that," he said — the traditional marine roles of supporting action in and around water.
"Giving them a rifle and sticking them in the forest doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense."
Alberque also assigned some responsibility to commanders' motivations.
He said the navy was beloved in Russia as "a visible symbol of power," and so "the naval infantry want to be engaged somehow" in the war's biggest battles.
"On the one hand, the unit commander wants to make sure that they're involved in any high-profile assault and wants to volunteer for anything," he said.
"But on the other hand, this is not what these troops were trained for."
And, as the fighting dragged and more marines died, the Russian military kept reinforcing the 155th with fresh recruits, which brought its own problems.
Relying on new recruits appears to have kept the brigade going. But bringing in rookies has significant drawbacks.
Russian defectors and Western intelligence have repeatedly said that the newer Russian troops, especially those drafted during a mass call-up in October, receive little training and poor equipment.
By the time of an attack late last year on Pavlivka, marines in the 155th described a depleted and inexperienced force.
Several told The New York Times last year that they were deployed with 50-year-old rifles, almost no food, and hardly knew what they were doing. Some had been baristas, truck drivers, and factory workers just weeks earlier.
They also told The Times that their commanders reassured them that they wouldn't see much combat, precisely because they were so green. Many then died in what one marine called the "destruction of the Russian people by their own commanders."
The brigade's losses have been so high that the military has had to replenish it as many as eight times, according to the Washington DC-based Institute for the Study of War.
But each infusion of new recruits dilutes the ability of the brigade to fight at a high level. This is likely a reason for the brigade's losses at Vuhledar, the Institute for the Study of War said.
Baev said that many of the new troops "cannot even be called marines," while Alberque described the level of restaffing as "extraordinary," with debilitating effects on the fewer hardened survivors.
"That's got to destroy your morale," he said. "Here you are in what you think of as an elite division, and you're getting conscripts rounded up and given minimal training and pointed in the right direction."
Anger spills over in public
Perhaps as a result of this, marines in the 155th took the rare step of openly criticizing their leaders.
Russian military bloggers reported in November that members of the brigade wrote a letter to the governor of their home province, saying that they had seen huge and "pointless" casualties.
The letter forced Russia's defense ministry into a rare public denial, where it disputed the high casualty figures and said the 155th had not suffered "significant losses."
In February, Putin said on Russian state TV that the "naval infantry is working as it should right now" and that the Pacific and Northern fleets were "heroically fighting."
Yet earlier this month Ukraine claimed that commanders in the brigade were refusing to fight near the city of Vuhledar.
Down, but not out
The UK's Ministry of Defence said last month that while the 155th is seen as elite, its abilities had "almost certainly been significantly degraded" over the course of the war.
Even so, as fighting continued unabated in Ukraine, especially around hot spots like Vuhledar, brigades like the 155th will most likely continue to play a role despite their battlefield and reputational losses.
"The debacle at Vuhledar is not the end of the 155 brigade," said Baev, the Brookings Center expert.
He added that Putin's words last month about the naval infantry doing good work "signify the intention to rebuild the unit as fast as possible."
But, he said, "the quality of new reinforcements, however, will most probably remain poor, so its real combat-readiness cannot be restored to the prewar level."
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