The Russian military has some of the world’s most capable and elite units. Reforming their army from the end of 2008 into 2009, Moscow emphasized special operations-,capable forces with an emphasis on rivaling U.S. elite operators.
Russia’s elite units moved swiftly in Crimea in 2014 under Igor Girkin, who quickly forced a mass surrender of Ukraine’s military garrison. When Bashar al-Assad came under pressure from various rebel groups and Islamist military organizations, Russian Special Forces pinpointed key targets to support the Syrian regime.
Now boasting respectable special operations-capable units, Russia looked to use them to hinder Ukraine’s military apparatus from 2022 to today. However, for reasons such as incompetent leadership, poor planning, and a lack of structural command, Moscow’s elite units have suffered catastrophic casualties that could severely hinder their top-tier operations for quite some time
The War in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin, known to choose escalation at any sight of weakness by his foes, decided to ignite a full-scale war in Ukraine. Expecting a quick capitulation to replace the Ukrainian government with a proxy and turn the nation landlocked, Russia instead stepped into a quagmire.
Disastrous attempts to secure critical locations in Hostomel, insufficient troops to encircle Kyiv, and prolonged resistance in Mariupol cost Russian forces valuable equipment and led to tens of thousands of casualties. Russia’s elite units would feel the brunt of their command’s failures. They repeatedly found themselves in roles unsuited to their capabilities.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense has prioritized naval infantry, also known as Marines, to lead critical assaults on cities. Elite troops such as the 40th and 155th Naval Infantry Brigades, are considered among Moscow’s prized units and were expected to perform well in Ukraine.
To the shock of the Kremlin and the international community, the Naval Infantry Brigades have been stymied numerous times over the past year and a half. The most disastrous operation by the Marines occurred in Vuhledar, where the naval infantry was led into a perplexed assault with little organized leadership.
Under General Muradov, the 155th, with over 5,000 Marines and 130 pieces of tanks and APCs, was nearly destroyed in less than a week as it attacked Vuhledar. Along with dense minefields laid by Ukraine’s military near the city, the Marines had no NCOs. Supplemented with conscripts, they had little room to make decisions on the small-unit leadership level.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, the 155th has been reconstituted eight times throughout the war in Ukraine. Belonging to the Pacific Fleet, Russia’s elite naval infantry units are becoming combat-inoperable, rendering them unable to respond if a conflict emerges on Russia’s eastern borders in Asia.
The Spetsnaz, which fall under the foreign intelligence directorate (GRU), are Russia’s most elite special forces. Compared initially to American Navy SEALs, the Spetsnaz can conduct covert and black operations that most countries’ special forces cannot. However, the war in Ukraine has left gaps in Russia’s infantry fed the vulnerability of the GRU.
According to leaked Pentagon documents earlier this year, Spetsnaz units have been decimated and have sustained heavy losses in Ukraine. Due to the heavy casualties by regular Russian troops, elite operators have been ordered to conduct infantry tactics.
Being more familiarized with scouting, targeting, and deep reconnaissance raids, the Spetsnaz are not as familiar with infantry tactics, and the Russian MOD’s decision-making has rendered them near combat-inefficient. According to the leaked documents, out of 900 Spetsnaz deployed at the beginning of the full-fledged invasion, only 125 remained operational. With heavy fighting in the Donbas region and southern Ukraine, the Spetsnaz might have suffered even more catastrophic losses.
Russian Paratroopers, also known as the VDV, are the heart and soul of the Russian military. The paratroopers are used extensively in Russia’s propaganda and recruitment videos. They were expected to capture key forward positions to incapacitate Kyiv’s leadership. To the horror of the Kremlin, the VDV’s impregnable aura was exposed in Ukraine, and the unit has taken cataclysmic losses.
The first disaster to hit the VDV occurred at Hostomel airport at the beginning of the war. Attempting to secure a landing field at the airport to begin the siege of Kyiv, Russian paratroopers quickly found themselves in the fog of war, and the impasse resulted in heavy VDV casualties.
In the month-long battle at Hostomel, hundreds of logistical platforms, such as tanks, BMPs, and helicopters, were lost. VDV commander Col. Sergei Sukharev of the 331st Parachute Regiment would be one of the first high-level field commanders killed in Ukraine. Russian forces were ultimately humiliated in the Kyiv Oblast and forced to withdraw in early April 2022.
Along with sustaining fierce resistance early in the Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine’s military also inflicted heavy casualties on the paratroopers in the Donetsk Oblast and on the right bank of Kherson before the city was liberated. According to a report by British Intelligence and a deleted recording by Russian Col. Mikhail Tiplinksy, the 30,000-strong VDV has sustained a 50% casualty rate.
Effects of the Degradation of Elite Forces
The loss of thousands of specialized troops has a battlefield effect in Ukraine and will degrade Russian military activities for several decades. Professional units’ exceptional operations require a great amount of training and warfighting capabilities. With the VDV, naval infantry, and Spetsnaz taking heavy casualties, the Russian MOD must rush future recruits to supplement those roles.
Conscripts, particularly those mobilized by Russia last year, need more time for training, and reconstituting them into the more capable combat billets, will lead to further battlefield failures. One example emerged out of Vuhledar this past winter, as the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade had already been reconstituted with mobilized conscripts. The prized brigade suffered catastrophic casualties due to poor unit cohesion and a lack of small-unit maneuvering training.
The lack of non-commissioned officers among special operations capable forces in the Russian military also degraded troops. Micromanagement from the top of the Kremlin’s military hierarchy leaves junior officers and field commanders with little room to make critical decisions due to fears of being relieved of duty or even jailed.
Micromanagement has often led to senseless frontal assaults by crucial units such as the VDV and naval infantry in battles along the Donbas front. In the long term, if Russia continues an increasingly unpopular war, what remains of their professional special operators could become casualties, and a new turnover of VDV, Spetsnaz, and naval infantry could take up to a decade or two.
According to the Killed in Ukraine blog, which verifies Russian officer deaths, more than 2,643 have been killed as of the time of writing this article, and many of them were specialized. As the war continues, the loss of crucial officers among operators leaves their top-tier units vulnerable and lacking capable leadership.
The decimation of Russia’s elite units gives the United States and its allies key avenues to study. Putting specialized units in unfamiliar roles can lead to disastrous consequences, and ignoring an emphasis on NCOs can break unit cohesion. The lessons of a poorly planned invasion will be critical for the West.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”