Soldiers from the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, an elite corps of the Russian army, published an open letter on Sunday, denouncing their superiors, accused of using them as cannon fodder in Ukraine. Criticisms which received such a media echo in Russia that they provoked a response – the first since the start of hostilities – from the Ministry of Defense.
Another stone to add to the growing edifice of discontent in Russia with the way the war in Ukraine is unfolding. This time, the criticism comes directly from the front and not from just anyone: elite army soldiers have complained in an open letter published Sunday, November 6. A missive that prompted the Ministry of Defense to intervene on Telegram, for the first time since the start of the war, in the debate on the human cost for Russia of the “special military operation” in Ukraine.
And here is the letter itself from the 155th Marine Brigade that is on everyone’s lips today. The brigade was ordered to advance to Uhledar via Pavlivka. They mention 300 casualties (dead and wounded) in just 4 days, and these are marines. pic.twitter.com/25ivCkRJPI
— Dmitry (@wartranslated) November 6, 2022
The soldiers of the 155e Naval Infantry Brigade came out of silence after a particularly tough battle not far from the city of Donetsk, in the Donbass. “This ‘carefully’ planned offensive by our ‘great generals’ resulted in the loss of 300 of our soldiers and half of our equipment in just four days,” complain the authors of the open letter which has been widely shared on Telegram, the main social network used by Russian military and political commentators.
Ingredients for a massacre
This brigade had been tasked with leading the assault on 2 November against a Ukrainian garrison on the outskirts of the village of Pavlivka, south-west of Donetsk. A position presented by the Russian army as an important node in the Ukrainian military supply network, explains the Moscow Times.
An operation that is part of the current Russian strategy on the front. “Ukraine sends new equipment as a priority to the forces stationed around Kharkiv [au nord du Donbass] and Kherson [au sud de l’Ukraine]and the troops around Donetsk are less well equipped, which Moscow wants to take advantage of,” said Sim Tack, military analyst for Forces Analysis, a conflict monitoring company.
“The capture of this village could have been a significant victory for Moscow as it has been on a contested frontline since 2015. [lorsque les combats sporadiques opposaient les forces séparatistes prorusses du Donbass à l’armée ukrainienne]“, explains Sim Tack.
But the offensive did not go as planned. The survivors of the 155e Brigade denounce orders for a frontal attack without preparation of a position defended by the Ukrainian army and artillery, and in difficult weather conditions. So many ingredients which led, according to the authors of the letter, to more than 300 “dead, injured and missing soldiers”. “For a brigade, these are extremely high losses,” confirms the military analyst.
The Russian Ministry of Defense does not hear it that way. On Telegram he claimed that “The losses amounted to only 1% of the combat personnel and 7% of the wounded, of which a significant part has already been able to return to combat”.
This official version leaves Sim Tack doubtful. “Since the beginning of the war, the advance of the Russians has always been made at the cost of significant human and material sacrifices. If the information from the ministry were accurate, it would be one of the least costly offensives in men and material for Moscow,” he said.
An elite corps transformed into cannon fodder
Beyond the debates on the number of killed, what is also surprising is that the Ministry of Defense intervened directly to contradict its soldiers. This is unprecedented, but “inevitable”, according to Jeff Hawn, specialist in Russian military issues and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American center for geopolitical research.
Indeed, the open letter “very quickly gained media visibility”, confirms Sim Tack. And it was shared on Twitter by pro-Kremlin military analysts and observers. Aleksandr Sladkov, one of the main war correspondents of the Russian official media, even acknowledged the existence of this letter, without mentioning its content.
The Russian power therefore had to deny it as quickly as possible “in order to prevent this affair from taking on too large proportions and to feed even more the growing discontent of the Russian population”, notes Jeff Hawn.
If these observers – for the most part hawks of the war in Ukraine – echoed this letter, it is essentially because it emanates from an elite corps of the Russian army. “The marine brigades are the equivalent of the expeditionary forces in other countries, a bit like the French foreign legion, but without the foreigners”, explains Jeff Hawn.
There are a dozen of these elite troops in the Russian army, and the 155e Brigade was attached to the Pacific Fleet in the Vladivostok area before the war in Ukraine. “It’s a pocket army, which has all the necessary equipment to function without the need for support from other units”, specifies Jeff Hawn. This type of restraint is usually sent to take out crucial targets in well-planned operations.
Russian soldiers against their superiors
Nothing to do with attacking a garrison near a village. “This unit of professional soldiers was clearly used as cannon fodder in the hope of gaining some territory,” said Jeff Hawn.
This is what the survivors of the brigade also deplore in their open letter. They criticize their superiors for having sought to reap the honors without worrying about the human losses. “This is very symptomatic of the pressure Moscow is currently exerting on unit commanders. They are called upon to bring good news from the front as quickly as possible, which may encourage them to launch very risky offensives quickly, rather than to take the time”, explains Sim Tack.
Hence the importance of this letter. “It illustrates the increasingly deep divide between professional soldiers and their hierarchy, accused of not taking their interests into account,” underlines Jeff Hawn. It was this message from the letter that caught the attention of war hawks who relayed it on Telegram.
For them, it is a question of putting the general staff on guard against a dysfunction which risks costing Russia very dearly. The danger is that if the anger of professional soldiers against their leaders persists or grows, “at some point, they will no longer want to carry out orders on the front line”, concludes Jeff Hawn. Not sure, in this respect, that the response of the Ministry of Defense, minimizing the losses, is likely to reassure the soldiers on the front.
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