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‘They’re expendable — it’s just a fact’

A member of Russia’s 155th Naval Infantry Brigade talks major losses, situation on frontlines and the soldiers’ morale

Valeriya Fedorenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta. Europe

Photo: Russia’s Ministry of Defence

Last week, letters addressed to the governor of Russia’s Primorsky region, presumably sent by the marines of the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, sparked a great deal of controversy in the media. Were they fake or real? Was it true that the Pacific Fleet 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade had been suffering big losses in Ukraine’s Pavlivka (a village in the Donetsk region), due to the incompetence of their commanders? The Ministry of Defence, of course, refuted all of these claims. The Primorsky regional governor Oleg Kozhemyako ended up in an awkward position, but he managed to come out of it unscathed by redirecting the issue towards “competent authorities and the military prosecutor’s office for clarification” of what was going on.

Novaya-Europe’s correspondent dives into what is notable about this brigade, why the fighters decided to write to Kozhemyako and not someone else instead, as well as what ordinary servicemen think about the letter and the situation on the front line.

Background

The letter was reposted by many war correspondents and bloggers. On behalf of the Pacific Fleet 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade marines, it is written that the unit suffered big losses during the Pavlivka offensive: “We have lost around 300 people in the last 4 days, counting the killed, the injured, and the missing.” The authors of the letter hold general Rustam Muradov, appointed commander of the Eastern Military District on 7 October, and Sukhrab Akhmedov, commander of the Coastal Troops, responsible for the situation: they claim that the two conceal the real number of losses, plan military operations just for their reports and awards, and refer to people as “meat”. The authors also claim that Muradov has the patronage of chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. “How were they planning to capture the settlement while jumping through the positions in which the enemy was still present, the enemy which is now eliminating our [fighters] along the paths used for evacuation of the injured and shipment of ammunition. Besides, Pavlivka is below Vuhledar, from which we are being fired at,” the letter states (the quote is unedited).

The letter is addressed directly to the Primorsky region governor Oleg Kozhemyako and to the residents of the region. The governor is asked to make Vladimir Putin aware of the situation so that an independent commission is sent to the front line instead of employees of the Defence Ministry.

Governor of Primorsky region Oleg Kozhemyako. Photo: Maksim Konstantinov / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

The governor commented on the letter by saying that he redirected the message towards “competent authorities and the military prosecutor’s office for clarification of the situation. We can’t rule out that this is a fake from the enemy — Ukrainian intelligence.” Later, Kozhemyako posted a video from a training ground, in which he said to have contacted the commanders of the brigade, and that they had confirmed that there were indeed losses, but not as big as claimed. He also promised to help the families of the killed soldiers.

Immediately after the letter had appeared, it was posted and commented on by many war correspondents and bloggers. Most of them, including the ones actually present in the combat zone, have no doubts that what is written is the truth, and that the situation at the front is extremely difficult.

“The situation in Pavlivka has been discussed at the higher levels for a couple of days now, while the blood keeps being spilled,” Alexander Sladkov, war correspondent for Russian state TV, said.

The Ministry of Defence declared that the Pacific Fleet 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade had been “engaging in effective offensive actions” for more than ten days in Vuhledar (city in the Donetsk region — translator’s note) direction and had moved “into the depth of Ukrainian positions” up to five kilometres. “Due to competent actions of divisions’ commanders, the losses among marines at this stage do not exceed 1% of the personnel killed; while 7% were injured, a major part of them has already returned to service,” the Defence Ministry stated.

Alexey Sukonkin, war correspondent from the Primorsky region who is currently present in the combat zone, confirms that the fighting has been bloody, the commanders are incompetent, and the losses are as claimed, even judging by the Defence Ministry’s statement.

We quote: “According to the ‘official statement’ by the Defence Ministry, the 155th Brigade has lost 1% of its personnel in killed soldiers, and 7% were wounded. Nothing is stated about the missing persons, but there are people missing. The brigade has around 3,500 servicemen — this isn’t a secret; this information is available in public sources. 1% is 35 people. 7% is 245 people. In total: 280 people. Add to that the missing persons not accounted for in the ‘official statement’ by the Ministry of Defence (I will note that the Defence Ministry has never counted missing persons in any of their statements about suffered losses). These are the 300 people mentioned in the letter. Where’s the fake news? Furthermore, there’s no mention of the 40th Brigade in the ‘official message’. Although it’s involved in the fighting just as much as the 155th Brigade…”

In confirmation of everything being well with the brigade, Kozhemyanko posted three videos on his Telegram channel, in which alleged marines and members of the Primorsky region volunteer fighter unit Tigr talk about the situation in Pavlivka. However, they do not seem to be refuting any of the previous claims. Some men say: “Yes, the situation is difficult in Pavlivka, the fighting is heavy. There are losses, killed, injured…” Others confirm: “The unit is holding on; the brigade is fighting. Unfortunately, there are losses, we [try to] minimise them. But this is war, it’s not boys we’re fighting against but soldiers, just like us.”

What’s the deal with the 155th Brigade?

The 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade (military unit 30926) is an exemplary, elite military unit, one of the best in Russia. The unit is based in the city of Vladivostok and in the town of Slavyanka, Primorsky region. Visitor days are constantly held at the unit, the brigade servicemen participate in the celebrations held in honour of the Navy Day, the fleet athletes win competitions, even international ones.

The 155th Brigade is the successor of the Pacific Fleet 55th Marine Division, created on 1 December 1968 (back then, there was an escalation in relations between the USSR and China; a year later, the Sino-Soviet border conflict occurred) with participation of chief of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, admiral Sergey Gorshkov.

The servicemen of the brigade took part in over 50 wars and local conflicts all over the world.

During the First Chechen War, over 2,500 Primorsky region marines received medals and decorations, 63 soldiers from the region were killed, five were named Heroes of Russia posthumously.

In 2009, the division was reorganised into the 155th Brigade. On 28 March 2022, Vladimir Putin assigned it the honorary title of the “guards” brigade.

Marines have been fighting in Ukraine since the start of the so-called “special operation”. The Primorsky regional governor has never officially stated that any natives of the region had been killed in the “special military operation”. However, soldiers’ farewell ceremonies are often held in Vladivostok’s local House of Fleet Officers (term used to describe a recreation facility formerly used by servicemen and their families for leisure — translator’s note), while new graves have been dug at the Vladivostok Naval Cemetery.

Members of the volunteer fighter unit Tigr are trained at the 155th Brigade base. Several Tigr fighter groups have already been deployed to the “special operation” locations.

Why address the letter to Kozhemyako?

The Primorsky regional governor Oleg Kozhemyako has been showing his involvement in the lives of marines and volunteer fighters since the first months, even days, of the war. He was one of the first Russian governors to visit Mariupol with aid at the end of April (pro-government Telegram channels call the aid “humanitarian”), he went to the front line in May (soon, there was video shared on social media showing Kozhemyako, wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest and holding a rifle, sitting in one car with the fighters, while they thank him for the aid and the support) and several more times after.

Kozhemyako constantly demonstrates his wholehearted support of the “special military operation” on his socials, he personally curates all the related social programmes, up to the benefits afforded to the draftees when it comes to admission to universities and the pay-outs allocated to servicemen and their families. The governor recently announced that UAVs would start being produced at the region’s factories and that “our university students are already making such vehicles. By the end of the month, they will have built 100 of them” (the regional government failed to provide any concrete information on the topic). The local authorities have organised fundraisers for the mobilised men and regular servicemen, officials have been transferring part of their monthly pay checks to the army, the entire region’s population as one has been knitting socks for the draftees. The governor visits the local training ground almost weekly, puts on the military gear himself, and shoots guns there.

It is known that the governor’s son Nikita is currently undergoing compulsory military service in a naval brigade. As of now, he is not listed as a contract serviceman, a draftee, or a volunteer fighter.

Marines’ lives in exchange for generals’ medals

Novaya-Europe’s correspondent talked to a serviceman from the air assault battalion of the 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade. He is a foot soldier; he took part in this war and got injured there. His name and rank are at disposal of Novaya-Europe. We are publishing his answers to our questions with minimal edits, one of the reasons for them being safety of the speaker, and swear words cut out.

Our interlocutor thinks that the marines’ letter is not fake and notes that all the soldiers he knows consider the document to be authentic.

“I can’t say for certain who wrote it out of the ones who are in the special military operation combat zone. Someone from the rank and file. Why is it addressed to the governor? Because if you address it, as is done in the army, according to the ladder system (to the commander of the platoon, company, brigade, etc.) — nothing will be sent in the end. From the original members of my company, out of the people who went to the drills in Belarus, not more than 7 people are still alive. I left due to my injury.

“If [the letter] was read by Putin directly, everything would be much easier. [Chief of the General Staff] Gerasimov is named in the letter, so there’s no point in sending it to the Defence Ministry; seeing as the brigade [base] is located the Primorsky region, the guys hope for the governor’s help, as he seemingly took us under his wing.

“The fact is: the price of generals’ medals and decorations is marines’ lives. Every person that had decided to leave the army due to breach of their contract cited their commanders [for the decision]. No one wanted to go into battle with commanders like that. A commander has to be an example for a soldier, a father figure. The existing commanders are nothing of the kind. Here’s my mate as an example <...>. When he arrived [to serve] in the special military operation for the second time, he received an unfavourable response full of swearing from the commander of the brigade: basically, you’re not needed here.

“And about Pavlivka. Unsuitable weather conditions, the method of warfare is outdated, commanders don’t trust the personnel <...>. During the entire special military operation, only one armoured personnel carrier burnt down in my company; now, bad thoughts are entering my mind. Anyway, war correspondents have also written detailed breakdowns of the Pavlivka offensive.”

Living conditions and gear

“I’ll tell you what it was like in February-April. We lived either in vehicles or in the trenches. According to the people who recently came back, the situation is the same now.

“There were a lot of wounded in the first days. At the beginning of March, we suffered big losses in the [Kyiv region village] Moshchun. Equipment and personnel both. Three people from my squad got out alive after the fighting in Moshchun. There were about three days of waiting before the guys started [returning] from the village, they crawled out of there wet and exhausted, dragging the injured on themselves. The command didn’t believe the recon and accused us of being cowards and liars.”

“At the very beginning, there were problems with the hardware. My armoured personnel carrier lacked the motor controller for the turret. Now, there’s a lot of humanitarian aid, there are many non-statutory things [available]. They’re received directly at the location. Meanwhile, I’ve seen mobilised men dressed in old bulletproof vests and carrying old Kalashnikov rifles. Although, this weapon is good as well, I think.”

“People have been buying comfortable non-statutory body armour and load bearing vests. Comfortable shoes that fit and that one won’t be cold in. Additional pairs of thermal underwear, socks. Sleeping bags. Personal hygiene items, obviously. A lot of the time, there’s no mobile connection, it’s a regular occurrence now to find Ukrainian SIM-cards at the locations and use them to share the Internet.

“I remember, I used a special phone for calls, it was installed in the assembly area. There were only five phones, and only one of them was at the guys’ disposal. I don’t know if such phones are used now.”

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How commanders and the governor treat personnel

“Commanders don’t trust the personnel. ‘Meat, expendables’ — this is just a fact. ‘We’re the naval infantry, we’re superhuman, we can do anything’ — these are just words. I’m not the only one who thinks that. Back in the beginning, we realised that the documents submitted to the higher ups [made it seem] that everything was going well. That we captured everything, and the losses are minimal, but in fact, it was not so.”

“The governor helps, that’s all true. There’s enough humanitarian aid. Everything is fine with the military pay-outs, the ones that come from Moscow. But when it comes to the salaries, the ones that come from Vladivostok, — that’s a big individual problem that existed before the special military operation.

“I can’t receive the governor pay-out for my injury due to the lack of the injury severity assessment (this was the decision made in the Vladivostok hospital) and the difficulty in receiving some documents in the brigade headquarters.

“I won’t say the exact number, but a lot of soldiers terminated their contract early. They put stamps saying ‘deserter’ and ‘inclined to betrayal’ in the military cards of those who did. Some left law enforcement entirely, some went to work for other agencies. I’ll try to give an estimate: over half of the soldiers from the howitzer self-propelled artillery battalion, about half of the members of my battalion [left the army]. Soldiers were leaving directly from the front line, trying to hand in a refusal to serve.

“I’ve heard stories about the commanders: my mate went to serve in the operation for the second time, he arrived at the brigade dislocation point. The commander of the brigade, colonel [Mikhail] Gudkov, without mulling his words at all, said that they weren’t needed there and were, all in all, ‘the worst people’. Back then, there was the opportunity to do so, so my mate went back to Vladivostok.”

“The father of my platoon commander sent radio stations and parcels from soldiers’ relatives [to the front]. Initially, it all arrived to the brigade commander, colonel Gudkov. Let’s take a second: the command post is 40 kilometres away from the front line, while the boys are being killed under enemy artillery fire. But [the soldiers] only collected the parcels, radio stations were taken by Gudkov and Akhmedov, commander of the Coastal Troops. Father of my platoon commander had to handle the situation somehow. As far as I know, he’s also a prominent figure in the Defence Ministry.”

“A small episode with the commander of the Coastal Troops, colonel Akhmedov. The guys are in position during a lull. The commander decided to come to them with an inspection (I have no idea what he wanted to check on), but shelling started upon his arrival, so he just jumped into his [infantry mobility vehicle] Tigr and left. I don’t think that a commander of this kind deserves a Hero of Russia star <...>.”

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Want a leave of absence? Think again!

According to the soldier, the question of personnel’s leaves has been an acute problem in the brigade lately. Our interlocutor himself has not been home since he underwent compulsory military service — and he did not get leave even after being wounded, even though there were discussions of sending him to the “special military operation” for the second time.

“For many marines, their contracts have long expired, or there’s less than a month left. Nothing is being done. Mobilisation has ended, but everyone cites the lack of a [presidential] decree on its end. So, everyone gets notified: either the special military operation or criminal liability.”

“Yes, Putin has announced the end of mobilisation. The fourth and fifth paragraphs of the decree clearly state: ‘during the period of partial mobilisation’. It means that we should be given the green light to take our leave and get discharged at the end of the contract. But the commanders say that there has been no decree on the end of mobilisation, thus, we have to continue serving. <...> It’s as if there has been no announcement by Putin on the end of mobilisation.”

“The situation when it comes to leaves and discharges is currently as follows: in practice, there is no talk of any leave and, even more so, any dismissal. Since the start of the special military operation, the 2021 leaves have allegedly been allocated, but only through the command. Later on, soldiers were only allowed to go on leave with the condition that after the leave you’d go straight to the special military operation. You write a report asking for leave and another on agreement to go to the front line, that was back in June-July. But even here they managed to lie, the leave was denied, but the agreement documents were used.”

“Many, and me personally, have reached out to the Presidential Administration and the military prosecutor’s office. <…> The administration readdressed the messages to the Defence Ministry, then they were directed to the district, then to the unit, and eventually, we received articles of the military charter in response. A soldier is required to, has to, etc. Everyone has suddenly forgotten about a soldier’s rights. The military prosecutor’s office never replied. That was before mobilisation was announced.”

“Then suddenly, they greenlit the discharge upon the end of the contract. Some people managed to write their reports in time, they were signed, and they went home. But mine didn’t get signed in time, because a report has to go through many rooms, stamps, and climb up to the commander of the brigade, and it’s not a given that he will sign it. Mobilisation gets announced, and those who succeeded in going on leave are called back to serve via a phone call; upon their return, they get given a ‘document’ with a signature from the brigade commander, without the official stamp. Despite the fact that only the commander can ask a soldier on leave to come back, and only through a draft office. As of now, mobilisation is over. But there’s no decree. And there won’t be one, as the Federation Council has informed us. What are the contract servicemen whose contracts expired four months ago supposed to do? No one cares. No decree, which means continue serving, go to the special military operation, there have been no telegrams from the fleet/district.”

“People come back wounded, undergo treatment, and are sent to rehabilitation to a sanatorium. But to be honest, no one has any need for this sanatorium. The best rehabilitation is to be with one’s family, to experience the coveted emotion, to think ‘I’m home.’ Especially if you have had no leave for three years, which is the reality for most people in my battalion. The lucky ones are the local guys, whose families are here. And what if you’re from the Urals? From Siberia? No one wants to go on another mission. Many refer to their commanders, many want to retire, seeing as their contract has expired, or there’s just a month or two weeks left on it. Those who managed to quit in time went to work in other law enforcement agencies (the Federal Penitentiary Service, Special Purpose Mobile Unit), in Rostec, or in other military units. I have a mate who lost an eye. He won’t be sent back there, but they also can’t put him in the reserve, as he’s been given the second [fitness for military service] category. Although they found him a job in the headquarters. Cool. Furthermore, there’s a lot of 20-year-old boys who managed to see more in a couple of months than staff officers have seen in their entire lives.”

“There was a convo. The question is obvious: who’s ready to go to the special military operation? Of course, everyone agreed, no one wants to go to jail. Except for the ones with health issues.”

“Some will say that we’re servicemen and have to ‘firmly and bravely endure all burdens and hardships of the service’ — I have nothing against that. I am in fact a soldier, I swore an oath, and I have to follow orders. But aside from responsibilities, we have rights too, which the command has been straight up ignoring. Leave? Never heard of it. Discharge? Doesn’t exist. I haven’t seen my family in over two years. I only asked for a leave before I would go back to the special military operation! Why do I even have to ask for something that everyone should be allowed to do? One simply does not want to serve here when treated like this.”

“Those who managed to quit before mobilisation simply went to work for the ‘orchestra’ (‘orchestra’, or ‘musicians’, is how private military companies are referred to, after the most prominent one — PMC Wagner — editor’s note). And what about us? ‘Until the end of the special military operation’? Well, when will it end? <...> This situation doesn’t evoke anything but anger and endless swear words in me.”

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