HELSINKI – Nuclear-armed submarines wade in and out of the icy waters off the coast of Russia’s Kola Peninsula in Europe’s far north. In the surrounding hills, there are dozens of bunkers dug into the ground where missiles capable of destroying entire cities are stored.
Since the Cold War, this arctic arsenal has been guarded by a combat unit considered one of Russia’s most feared forces.The 200th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade, by this year it was to send its best men and weapons to Ukraine, where it was basically disbanded.
The 200th Brigade was one of the first units to land in Ukraine on 24 February as part of a fierce assault on the city of Kharkiv. but Already in May the unit was retreating behind the Russian border to regroup. According to internal brigade documents to which the newspaper had access Washington Post and hitherto declassified details that were provided by Ukrainian and Western military and intelligence agents.
According to a document detailing their rank positions, Of the 1,400 soldiers from the two tactical battalions that had left the 200th Brigade garrison in Russia, fewer than 900 men remained by the end of May. The brigade commander was seriously wounded, and some of those still numbered as part of the unit were listed as hospitalized, missing, or “in objection” (“deny”) who refused to fight, according to internal Russian military files obtained and shared by Ukrainian security services Washington Post.
In part, the collapse of the brigade reflects the difficulty of its mission as well as the courageous performance of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. But closer examination reveals that the fate of the 200th Brigade was also determined by the same forces that derailed the Russian president’s invasion plans. Vladimir Putin, Endemic corruption, strategic miscalculations, and the Kremlin’s inability to understand the true capabilities of its own or its opposing forces.
After months of handing over territory and losing thousands of troops, Putin is now trying to salvage his ambitious war enterprise with a force that looks a whole lot like the 200th Brigade’s current state: It is badly destroyed, significantly demoralized, and filled with new recruits.
According to Western officials and experts who examined the documents, the data and evidence collected reveal A brigade on the verge of collapse.
“They are only at 60% of their strength and are forced to rely on reinforcements that are not very far away,” says Pekka Toveri, a former head of Finland’s defense intelligence service. “There are boys who refuse to fight and soldiers who don’t show up. Everything indicates that Russia has done very wrong.
According to internal Brigade documents, During one attack the unit commander suffered head injuries so severe that he was left vomiting, disorientated and unable to remember the events of the battlefield, and was hospitalized shortly thereafter. Many of the unit’s most powerful weapons, including tanks and mobile rocket launchers, were destroyed or captured.
In the months following the May enlistment, the brigade suffered further losses in various engagements, including the July shelling of the village northeast of Harkov, and was one of the Russian forces defeated in the Ukraine counteroffensive, which took many casualties. was about to retreat. area of Kharkiv during the month of September.
Furthermore, the brigade was degrading from within. Skilled soldiers and professional officers were sent into battle at the beginning of the war with state-of-the-art T-80BVM tanks, leaving room for a large number of people. Poorly trained recruits with poor or outdated equipment.
Indeed, the brigade’s soldiers themselves describe the difficulties of their position.
“The unit is in position deep erosionsaid a soldier serving in the 200th during Putin’s massive recruitment drive in September. interviewed by Washington Post Earlier this month, the soldier and several of his comrades said that upon arrival they received “Painted helmet and unprotected vest from 1941”. “They don’t even train us. They just tell you: ‘You’re a rifleman now, here’s a machine gun’.”
The disbandment of the 200th also comes early in a war that has been disastrous for much of the Russian army. The brigade entered the conflict with better training, more modern equipment, and more combat experience, including previous missions in Ukraine, than most other Russian units. Now, considering the magnitude of his loss “Can’t even be considered a fighting force”Says a European military officer.
Part of the devastation of the 200th was due to it being given one of the most difficult tasks of the invasion. “The front assigned to him was very well defended by highly motivated Ukrainians”.says a senior European intelligence official.
The Ukrainian war plan primarily revolved around the defense of the country’s capital, Kyiv, but also required several armored units, including the 92nd Mechanized Brigade, to focus their firepower on defence. KharkivThe second largest city of Ukraine.
Those early battles on the 200th and the dozens more convictions that followed continued to be a source of warlike pride for senior Ukrainian officers. “What can be said about them?” Ukrainian General Oleksandr Syrsky, who later commanded the counteroffensive in Kharkiv, recently said this when asked about the Russian 200th Brigade. “What you can say is that they survive very well.”
The brigade also suffered from the same complications that affected other Russian units: lack of food and fuel, After consuming, selling or trading their significant stores in the weeks prior to the invasion.
Putin’s decision to keep the invasion secret until the last minute, even from his top advisers, left commanders at odds little time to prepare troopsAnd even less to coordinate plans of attack with other units.
Stunned by the unexpected Ukrainian resistance, Ukrainian officials say, the 200th spent the next few weeks digging in defensive positions north of Kharkiv to fend off further attacks. it was during this segment of the war The brigade commander, Colonel Denis Kurillo, 44, was seriously wounded. in an attack that destroyed the vehicle carrying him, according to Western officials. Initially, Ukrainian officials reported that the attack had taken place in late March and that Kurilo had been killed. But internal brigade records speak of a “battle injury of 22 April” which eventually required the hospitalization of the Russian colonel.
Only indications of the massacre were made public by Brigade Headquarters. In mid-March, the governor of Russia’s Murmansk region, where the 200th’s base garrison is located, announced that three soldiers and an officer had been killed in Ukraine, whom he described as “true heroes”.
But this was only a small part of the actual casualties.
The squad’s internal records include a detailed description of surviving staff In May, after his return across the Russian border in the Belgorod region. The authenticity of the documents accessed by The Post was confirmed by Western security officials.
One page includes a list of 892 soldiers and officers still “present” and two battalions attached to the task force that deployed from Pechenga in the days before the war. European Security Service officials who closely monitor the 200th Brigade said those two task forces started with a total of 1,400 to 1,600 troops.
a western official told how “destructive” The damage such losses inflicted on the effectiveness and morale of the Russian elite unit.
Among the rest, the table lists 21 hospitalised, six missing and nine “refuseniks”, soldiers who refused to fight. It also indicates that the 200th Brigade was expected to have 138 reinforcements, although this does not indicate their training or previous experience.
By Greg Miller, Mary Ilyushina, Kathryn Belton, Isabel Khorshudian and Paul Soane
Translation by Jaime Arrambide