- Several so-called “elite” Russian units have suffered heavy casualties on the battlefield in Ukraine.
- Military experts told Insider that these losses are a huge blow to Moscow’s combat capabilities.
- It also highlights an overdependence on these units to perform difficult tasks and missions.
The Russian military has lost many of its best-trained and most-skilled soldiers in Ukraine, where casualties continue to mount after more than a year of fighting, and it is having a crippling effect on the combat power of Moscow’s forces.
Multiple units long considered to be “elite” forces within the Russian military have suffered serious losses during the conflict as these forces are continually recommitted to the fight, often to carry out tasks inconsistent with their purpose.
These losses are a huge blow to Moscow’s combat capabilities and highlight Russia’s overdependence on these units, which have been tasked with missions that they weren’t meant to carry out and are largely incapable of doing, military experts told Insider.
Britain’s defense ministry shared in a late-February intelligence update that elements of Russia’s 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, considered to be an elite infantry unit in the armed forces, suffered substantial casualties in recent fighting near the eastern city of Vuhledar — one of several fronts in Ukraine where Moscow is executing an offensive.
The 155th has already been forced to restaff several times, and its capabilities have been severely degraded by the fact that more-skilled fighters who were killed or wounded in combat have been replaced with inexperienced and newly mobilized soldiers.
The 155th is only the latest so-called “elite” Russian unit to face serious setbacks on the battlefield. Within the first few weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, an elite airborne force known as the VDV took heavy losses at the center of Moscow’s offensive. And months later, the commandos of the GRU’s 3rd Guards Spetsnaz Brigade, some of the most skilled troops that Moscow has, suffered causalities during fighting in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lyman.
Another so-called elite Russian military unit, the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, faced so many losses in Ukraine that it was essentially wiped out and may take years to rebuild. Meanwhile, Moscow’s storied 1st Guards Tank Army has been beaten in battle by Kyiv’s forces on multiple occasions, limiting its future effectiveness.
An overreliance on well-trained units
All the setbacks that Russia’s top units have faced in Ukraine are adding up. Beyond affecting their reputations, these losses create serious problems for Russia.
“I think it impacts the combat capability a lot…these units were better trained and better equipped,” Jeffrey Edmonds, a Russia expert at the Center for Naval Analyses and former CIA military analyst, told Insider. “They’ve been decimated. So I think it’s much more of a blow to Russia’s ground force’s combat power than it is to their reputations.”
Russia loses critical equipment, leadership, and experience when these units endure battlefield losses. And at this point, Edmonds said, there’s enough evidence to point to the fact that Russia’s military was not as well trained at a tactical level as many anticipated.
“Calling them elite — it’s clear they were not as well trained as they could have been, but a lot of those guys were wiped out in the first couple weeks,” he said. “I mean, they’ve lost a lot since then — even more. But the initial shock of that was pretty severe.”
The failures of these better-trained units underscores a huge problem for the Russian military, in that Moscow has relied on these fighters to carry out specific tasks that they can’t do, Marina Miron, an honorary research fellow at King’s College London’s Centre for Military Ethics, told Insider.
These units have lacked the necessary logistical infrastructure, manpower, capabilities, and overall support to required to be successful, she said.
“The problem here is that they’re asked to do something which is, let’s say, above their pay grade,” Miron said. “So essentially, it’s a kind of military strategic problem because you are using your elite units for a task where it’s very unlikely that there will be enough capability to solve this task, and you are still sending them.”
Britain’s defense ministry said the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade has been at the front of some of Russia’s most “costly” offensives and has been tasked with undertaking some of the most difficult tactical missions throughout the war. As a regular presence on the front lines, this unit has suffered very high casualties.
‘A much-less capable force’
Miron said this strategy appears to be evident in the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked mercenary organization that has played a key role in fighting around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Tens of thousands of Wagner fighters — including recruited prisoners — have been sent to wage war in Ukraine, where they have been rushed to the front lines to absorb heavy Ukrainian fire alongside newly mobilized Russian troops.
Wagner is playing the “same role” in that its fighters are faced with solving “those dirty tasks on the battlefield that nobody wants to do” because it can expend people, Miron said, calling these forces “basically cannon fodder to send to the front lines.”
And like the regular Russian military, Wagner has also suffered extremely high causalities — Western intelligence estimates that up to 200,000 Russian-linked forces have been killed or wounded on the battlefield.
“I think it’s not the fault of the unit itself, but of those who are in higher military echelons who are making those decisions,” Miron added. Russia’s military leadership has at times faced criticism and even domestic outrage over its decision-making.
Going forward, Edmonds said, it will be difficult for Russia to create well-trained units because it does not have the time or infrastructure in place — traditionally, Russian soldiers are trained once they get to their units.
“If your unit is in Ukraine, your expectation of training is probably pretty low,” he said. “You’re just going to be deployed into combat with very little experience, and most of the people that had experience are dead. So it just, in general, makes it a much-less capable force.”
Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon, said this week that “Russia has lost,” arguing that it “will emerge from this conflict a shattered military power.”