Three months after it got wrecked trying and failing to punch through Ukrainian defenses, the Russian navy’s unhappiest marine brigade is back in action. And apparently getting beaten, again.
The bewildering and tragic plight of the 155th Marine Brigade is a reminder of one of the fundamental flaws in Russia’s war effort, nearly a year into the wider invasion of Ukraine.
Russian planners and commanders seem to be incapable of learning even the simplest battlefield lessons. For example: support your infantry with artillery. Don’t attack uphill. Try flanking the enemy.
The 155th Marine Brigade back in November suffered devastating losses in sloppy, frontal attacks against entrenched Ukrainians around Pavlivka, in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Last week, the brigade tried the same dumb tactics against an even more fortified foe in nearby Vuhledar—and seemingly suffered yet another horrific defeat.
“Another—there have been several dozen of them in 11 months—attempt to ram the long-term defense of the armed forces of Ukraine on the Donetsk front with frontal strikes resulted only in local tactical successes with very serious losses,” Igor Strelkov, a former colonel in Russia’s FSB intelligence agency and a prominent Russian ultranationalist, lamented on his Telegram channel.
The Russian Pacific Fleet’s 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade—a.k.a., the 155th Marine Brigade—has been one of the main Russian formations around Russian-occupied Pavlivka, 28 miles southwest of Donetsk, since last summer.
The Vladivostok-based unit, with its 3,000 troops and hundreds of T-80 tanks, BMP-3 and BTR-82 fighting vehicles, has been in Ukraine since Russia widened its eight-year war on Ukraine back in late February.
The 155th Marine Brigade reportedly lost 63 troops in a doomed, two-day frontal assault on Ukrainian positions around Pavlivka on or before Nov. 4. It apparently was one of the worst single-operation losses for the small Russian marine corps since before the Chechen wars in the 1990s.
A local artillery mismatch helps to explain the marines’ heavy casualties. Without enough 122-millimeter shells of its own, the 155th Marine Brigade couldn’t suppress Ukraine’s big guns. Its troopers were defenseless against Ukrainian barrages.
“Either the country will mass-produce 122-millimeter shells, or it will mass-produce coffins,” a Russian officer told one blogger in reference to the earlier Pavlivka fight.
The Ukrainian army’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade—one of Kyiv’s better heavy units—inflicted most of the casualties in that November bloodbath. The same Ukrainian brigade then spent the next three months digging in even deeper around Pavlivka and surrounding settlements, including Vuhledar.
Strelkov described Vuhledar, which straddles the local high ground, as a “fortress.”
The 72nd Mechanized Brigade, along with the Ukrainian 68th Jaeger Brigade, was ready when the 155th Marine Brigade and supporting paratroopers attacked uphill on or around Thursday.
The assault was in trouble from the start. Having apparently failed, once again, to source adequate supplies of 122- and 152-millimeter artillery shells, the brigade deployed its T-80 tanks to fire their 125-millimeter main guns at high angles—effectively functioning as artillery, albeit inaccurate, short-range artillery.
Both the Ukrainian and Russian armies train their tankers, in an emergency, to function as artillery crews. But indirect tank-fire is no replacement for dedicated artillery. Thus the 155th Marine Brigade’s doomed troopers advanced on Vuhledar at a dangerous disadvantage against the 72nd Mechanized Brigade with its ex-Norwegian M-109 mobile howitzers.
“After initial successes and breaking through the front lines of the enemy’s defenses, the offensive stuck due to heavy losses in the infantry assault units, lack of artillery ammunition and—in general—poor technical support for the attacking units and their low staffing,” Strelkov wrote.
Ukrainian missile teams lay in wait for the Russian marines who managed to get through the artillery fire. One video from the 72nd Mechanized Brigade depicts Javelin missile strikes on two T-80 tanks and a BMP-3 fighting vehicle from the 155th Marine Brigade. A photo that appeared on Telegram purports to depict a trench filled with dead Russian marines.
Several days later the fog of war still is thick around Vuhledar, but it appears the Ukrainians have held on. Whether and when the 155th Marine Brigade attempts a third, unsupported frontal assault around Pavlivka depends on whether its leaders can learn anything from past defeat.