A once-feared Russian brigade has been wiped out in the war in Ukraine.
“In the Murmansk region we now have our borders bare,” the wounded soldier said.
Submarines armed with nuclear weapons patrol the icy waters along the Russian Kola Peninsula’s northern border, a region now home to a growing number of military installations. Missiles armed with warheads capable of destroying cities are stockpiled in bunkers buried in the hills.
An Arctic arsenal has been safeguarded by one of Russia’s most formidable combat units, the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, since the Cold War. This year, its finest fighters and weapons were sent to Ukraine, effectively destroying it.
On Feb. 24, the 200th Brigade was one of the first to enter Kharkiv as part of a ferocious counterattack. In May, the Brigade was retreating across the Russian border in desperate need of regrouping, according to brigade records obtained by The Washington Post and information supplied by Ukrainian and Western military and intelligence officials.
According to Western officials, the two battalion tactical groups of the Brigade remaining in late May had fewer than 900 soldiers, down from 1,400 in late May. Major wounds to the brigade commander were reported. Furthermore, some soldiers were listed as being hospitalized, missing, or “refuseniks” unwilling to fight, according to a cache of Russian military documents obtained by Ukraine’s security services and provided to The Post.
The 200th Brigade’s demise is a reflection of both the arduousness of its mission in the conflict and the valiant performance of Ukraine’s military. However, the same factors that derailed Vladimir Putin’s invasion plans—systemic corruption, strategic misjudgments, and a Kremlin misunderstanding of the true abilities of its own military and those of its adversary—also contributed to the Brigade’s demise.
Putin is attempting to salvage his grandiose objectives by mobilizing a badly depleted force, severely demoralized, and filled with inexperienced conscripts, after ceding territory and losing thousands of troops for months.
The 200th Mechanized Brigade’s decimation is reconstructed based on the trove of documents, interviews with unit members and their families, and accounts from Ukrainian military units that faced the Brigade. Those who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence or, in the case of Russian troops, maintain their own security are among the sources. The Russian Defence Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
In an interview, Pekka Toveri, a former director of Finland’s defense intelligence service, said that the Russians are barely at 60 percent strength and reliant on reinforcements that are not close enough. He believes the war has gone terribly wrong for Russia because of guys who are unwilling to fight, those who are missing, and other signs.
According to brigade records, the unit’s commander suffered severe head wounds in a strike, becoming nauseous, disoriented, unable to recollect battlefield events, and would soon be hospitalized. In addition to mobile rocket launchers and tanks being either destroyed or captured, many of the unit’s most potent weapons were destroyed or captured.
Since May, the Brigade has suffered additional casualties in engagements, including a July firefight in the northeastern village of Hrakove, and a September offensive by Ukrainian forces to recapture large portions of the Kharkiv region.
The T-80BVM tanks that were state-of-the-art when the war began have been replaced with poorly trained conscripts operating paltry or outdated equipment. All the while, the Brigade was being degraded from within.
According to a soldier serving in the 200th Infantry Regiment after being mobilized under Putin’s September mobilization orders, the unit is in a state of decay. He and others were given ‘painted helmets from 1941 and vests without plates’ at the outset, he said in an interview with The Post this month. ‘They are not even educating us,’ he said. ‘They just inform us, ‘You are a gunman now, so here is a machine gun.” They don’t even train us.’
The 200th Division is one of the units that has suffered the most from Russia’s disastrous war in Syria. It was better trained, had newer equipment, and had prior combat experience in Ukraine, among other things. Because of the losses, according to one European military official, the 200th Division “cannot be considered a fighting force.”
The 200th’s spartan bases inside the Arctic Circle, less than 10 miles from Russia’s border with Norway, are garrisoned in peacetime. Its position in the municipality of Pechenga, northwest of Murmansk, underscores its mission: to act as a barrier between the NATO powers to the West and Russia’s Northern Fleet Barents Sea bases.
Ports in the Russian Arctic that were depicted as a departure point for a fictional submarine in the novel “The Hunt for Red October” are crucial to Russian strategic doctrine. The Northern Fleet is the backbone of Russia’s “second strike” nuclear strategy, meaning that its submarines will launch a devastating final attack in the Atlantic if the United States can destroy Russia’s land-based missile silos.
The 200th is one of several layers of defense protecting the fleet and its bases, all located far from population centers and have extensive perimeter security.
Despite the high-risk nature of this Arctic mission, the 200th has been repeatedly requested for Kremlin priority operations. Officers were sent to Syria to assist President Bashar al-Assad in maintaining his grip on power. According to Ukrainian officials and a report by the investigative outlet Bellingcat, the unit was secretly involved in Russia’s 2014 effort to seize territory in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
In January, images on the internet showed tanks being transported on flatbed rail cars across a snow-covered terrain and soldiers playing cards in a crowded passenger cabin. Two heavily armed battalion tactical groups from the 200th began boarding trains for the Ukraine border.
According to Ukrainian officials, the 200th regiment troops, like the others in the invading force, were led to believe that they were deployed to participate in drills. Only at 3 a.m. on Feb. 24 did they discover that “there would be shooting,” an official said.
Civilians photographed one of the Brigade’s tanks being used to set up a roadblock on the northern outskirts of Kharkiv that morning as a convoy of about 100 brigade vehicles crossed the border. However, the attempt to impose a charge soon proved futile because of the lack of order.
According to Ukrainian and Western sources, by day’s end, the 200th had suffered ambushes or attacks, with dozens of soldiers killed or wounded and tanks and “Grad” mobile rocket launchers being lost or abandoned on roadside.
Senior European intelligence officials say the 200th drew one of the most challenging tasks of the invasion, contributing to the devastation. However, they say that the front they were assigned was well-defended with very motivated Ukrainians.
The Ukrainian war plan was organized around protecting Kyiv, the country’s capital, but it also called for multiple armored units, including the 92nd Mechanised Brigade, to focus their firepower on defending Ukraine’s second-largest city – Kharkiv.
Senior Ukrainian officers still take pride in the punishment inflicted on the 200th battalion in those early battles and the dozens that followed. “What is there to learn about them?” Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky, who later led the Kharkiv offensive, said jokingly in an interview about the 200th battalion, which ran away very well.
Officials said the Brigade was hobbled by the same issues that affected other Russian units. Because commanders had consumed or sold all their critical stores in the weeks leading up to the invasion, they had little time to prepare troops or coordinate attack plans with other units. In addition, Putin kept senior advisers in the dark, leaving commanders even less time to train troops.
Officials said that Kharkiv is situated in Ukraine, and the 200th Battalion of the Ukrainian Army was stunned by its resistance during the subsequent weeks. According to Western officials, Colonel Denis Kurilo of the 200th Battalion of the Ukrainian Army was severely injured when his vehicle was obliterated as the battalion dug in on defensive positions north of Kharkiv. Ukrainian officials initially said that Kurilo had been killed in the late March strike. However, brigade records indicate that on Apr. 22, he was hospitalized with a ‘combat injury.’
At the 200th Infantry Brigade headquarters, only fragments of the devastation were released. In mid-March, the governor of the Murmansk region, which encompasses the Brigade’s garrison, posted online that three soldiers and one officer had been killed in Ukraine, referring to them as “true heroes.”
Western security officials have verified the documents’ authenticity, which gives an accurate picture of surviving personnel in May after they retreated across the Russian border into the Belgorod region.
According to the one-page listing of 892 servicemen still “present” and attached to the two battalion tactical groups deployed from Pechenga in the war, those two groups began with 1,400 to 1,600 troopers. However, European security services closely tracking the 200th believe those two units had 1,400 to 1,600 soldiers.
A “catastrophic” blow to the unit’s effectiveness and morale is said to have been avoided thanks to the quick action.
The listing of 21 people as hospitalized, six as missing, and nine as refuseniks are among those who remained. However, the status of 138 reinforcements waiting is unknown, as is their training and background.
Despite having suffered a craniocerebral injury, Kurilo’s signature at the top of the document suggests that he remained with the unit on May 28. On the other hand, the medical records indicate that he was experiencing severe symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, memory loss, and short-term disorientation. He was treated at Burdenko military hospital in Moscow in late August and released in late September after leaving the unit. His duties were temporarily reassigned to another officer as a result.
Kurilo’s passport and military résumé are also listed in the leak, but he cannot be reached for comment. On Wednesday, a woman who identified as his wife answered a phone number associated with him. She said he was not part of the 200th for about half a year, coinciding with his hospitalization. She said he has since been transferred to another military unit and is now inaccessible.
Kurilo’s WhatsApp account avatar is a “Z” sign used by Russian forces in Ukraine, with Russian words meaning “for victory.”
Despite its seeming precision, specific categories need to be added to the Brigade’s roll call record. For example, the document does not state how many soldiers were part of the two battalion tactical groups or how many had been wounded or killed up to that point in combat.
The record was created to ascertain the army’s condition without considering the number of casualties.
A Russian military culture that is less sensitive to casualties than Western militaries, as Toveri put it, is what makes accounting updates look less damning if they match a pattern seen since the invasion of Crimea. “They had been at war for three months and didn’t mention any killed in action,” Toveri said. “Let bygones be bygones” is how he interpreted the situation.
The 200th Brigade was facing a double predicament: It had to find more troops in Murmansk to replace the ones lost in Belgorod, while at the same time, those battalions were being sent back to Ukraine.
According to Western officials, the Brigade in June began forming a “mixed volunteer battalion” comprising sailors pulled off Northern Fleet ships, logistics specialists from depots, and others who were often forced into action despite having little or no experience or training in ground combat.
In late spring, the battalion remnants in Belgorod tentatively crossed back into Ukraine and took positions hugging the Russia border.
According to military officials, the returning 200th force, though degraded, was more professional than the Russian-backed separatists they had previously faced outside Kharkiv.
Taras Shevchenko, commander of an artillery and reconnaissance unit in Ukraine’s 127th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, says the 200th soldiers were less likely to talk on open lines, brought far greater firepower, and were effective at targeting.
Shevchenko said a Ukrainian unit was ambushed by the 200th in Velyki Prokhody north of Kharkiv in early June. A series of strikes knocked down the third story of a structure serving as a command post, leaving him with a concussion.
Shevchenko said that after a series of inconclusive exchanges, he convinced Ukrainian artillery units to hold their fire for several days, hoping to create the impression that they were low on ammunition by using quadcopter drones to get a more precise fix on Russian positions.
“They were able to sunbathe without being attacked,” Shevchenko said. “They took outdoor showers and ran around without body armor or helmets.”
The 200th’s Terror Attacks
An unidentified senior US defense official told reporters that Ukrainian forces had capitalized on the Russian distraction by unleashing a 40-minute mortar, tank, and Soviet-era artillery fire barrage followed up with a follow-on attack after nightfall.
According to Shevchenko, about 100 Russian troops died after the village was liberated over two days because the soldiers couldn’t figure out where to go. He said the strikes disabled the vehicles that could have rescued the wounded. Shevchenko noted that many people died during the night because those who were hurt couldn’t be saved.
Western security officials describe the 200th Brigade as one of Russia’s higher-performing units but one that is nonetheless beset by rot and dysfunction. In that one sequence, the 200th was both lethally effective and fatally undisciplined.
The 200th Guards Arctic Brigade is part of the elite Northern Fleet and receives special equipment, training for Arctic conditions, and Russia’s most cutting-edge hardware. For example, the Brigade received new T-80BVM tanks in 2017, the first year Russia’s armed forces received them.
Westerners who ventured to Pechenga before Russia restricted travel describe the base as a grim garrison where officers neglected troops’ morale and soldiers seemed clueless about the Brigade’s identity and mission.
In an interview several years ago with the Barents Observer, a Norwegian news site that covers the 200th closely, Thomas Nilsen described his encounter with soldiers at a bar near the base who were oblivious to their proximity to NATO until he pulled up a map on his phone to show them.
An investigation by the Russian news outlet Sever.Realii found that three servicemen had died, including one who committed suicide, another who choked on his own vomit, and several others who were injured. In addition, training with a miniature drone armed with high-power explosives blinded one soldier and severed a hand from another.
An officer of the 200th posted videos on social media that year, accusing superiors of neglect and corruption. The images depicted squalor in officers’ apartments, including rusted appliances, mold growing on walls, and piles of trash in unoccupied rooms.
Warrant Officer Mikhail Balenko described the compound in an expletive-laced video as the way ensigns and officers of the Russian army live. He said the brigade commander did not consider seeing how his subordinates lived.
“This is how ensigns and officers of the Russian army live!” the warrant officer, Mikhail Balenko, said on the video, describing the compound with an expletive. “The brigade commander does not even come here. He doesn’t care how his subordinates live.”
Balenko also accused brigade commanders of stealing supplies, bribing military inspectors, and selling brigade vehicles’ fuel, in another video. Balenko was not reachable for comment.
“Should I show you how to kill Ukrainians? I’ll get in the tank myself,” the commander shouted.
Officials from Western security services said that dozens of soldiers in Pechenga refused to deploy during the invasion’s initial months. However, it is unclear what happened to them.
The Demise of the Russian Elite
During the summer of 2014, Ukrainian commanders reported incidents in which 200th Division troops either refused to fight or defied orders. A Ukrainian reconnaissance squad recorded a Russian tank commander in Hrakove yelling at his men mid-July.
A Ukrainian reconnaissance scout with the 92nd Mechanized Brigade, who identified himself as Oleksandr but requested that his last name not be published to maintain his security, said that a tank commander had propositioned him to show him how to kill Ukrainians. The tank was then struck by a Javelin missile.
Aleksandr said that more than a dozen Russians were killed or wounded during that battle, and 12 tanks were destroyed, noting that further intercepts indicated that numerous soldiers refused to employ their weapons at one point or another.
The documents from the brigade hint at inner turmoil by listing criminal referrals made to Russian military prosecutors regarding four 200th soldiers—a senior lieutenant, two corporals, and a private—with a date range of August to December 2013.
Prosecutors dropped charges of “illegal sale of explosives” and “unauthorized abandonment of military unit” against two other soldiers in connection with the incident. No reasons are given for why the documents don’t mention the soldiers’ names. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.
Precise casualty counts for the 200th remain unknown. Only a few soldier deaths have been mentioned in Murmansk government statements, and the Brigade has not released any figures.
Despite this, there have been other signs that the conflict has been detrimental to Murmansk’s military families. In late August, the regional parliament reported that 1,274 students received free meals as a result of the law providing them to schoolchildren whose parents were fighting in Ukraine or had been injured or killed, indicating that 1,274 students received free meals as a result of the law providing them to schoolchildren whose parents were fighting in Ukraine or had been killed or wounded.
Colonel Pavlo Fedosenko, commander of the 92nd Mechanized Brigade of Ukraine, which was responsible for eliminating the 200th Regiment near Kupiansk in September, said he has battled the regiment more than any other.
A jumbled mess of foot soldiers was all that was left of a single battalion at the end of the seven-month-long campaign, Fedosenko said.
About 70% of the unit’s equipment—32 tanks and 100 vehicles, among other things—was destroyed or captured, Fedosenko said, citing information from rebels who were part of the unit.
A senior European intelligence official said it would take years to rebuild the 200th because so many contract soldiers and senior officer cadre were killed. Western security officials provided similar assessments.
According to an order from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu dated Sept. 17, Kurilo was removed from command of the Brigade and reassigned to another motor rifle division.
According to an intercepted communication provided to The Post by a Ukrainian military official, Russian officers were enraged about insubordination in the Luhansk region, where remnants of the 200th are said to have surfaced. A regimental commander, for example, reprimanded a subordinate when soldiers abandoned their positions.
The commander was seen feeling exasperated after dealing with the same people for over one and a half months. He describes platoons melting away and his efforts to pull soldiers back into battle. He says that 30 people left their positions, and now there are 60, 75, or even the entire platoon, all of whom have left their positions. He goes on to list other units experiencing similar problems and asks, “What the hell are you doing? Are you gathering the battalion or not?”
A Ukrainian intelligence official said at least 20 of the 200th battalion’s troops were wounded in recent fights in Luhansk. The fact sheet lists the wounded soldiers’ names, birth dates, and ages, which range from early 20s to early 50s.
A Post reporter contacted one of the soldiers, who said that he was home recovering but would not discuss his deployment or injuries in detail. He described himself as a “civilian person.”
“I have a family, kids. I never even had a thought about needing to go fight” before being swept up by Putin’s mobilization.
“When I was in the hospital, there were guys from Moscow, just simple guys, some worked in car repairs or some other places,” he said. “They were just pulled out of their civilian lives and sent to ‘take villages.'” Many were reassured that “we are going to be in the rear, not on the front line,” he said. “But it turned out to be the opposite.”
According to West, these men from Moscow who worked at car repairs or other locations were just pulled from their civilian lives and sent to ‘take villages.’ Many were assured that ‘we will be in the back, not on the front line,’ he said. However, he said, ‘it turned out to be the opposite.’
Western security officials say that about 500 conscripts who were sent to Ukraine in October in another attempt to bolster the 200th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade are in danger of being imprisoned if they speak about the war. The departure of the conscripts from the Kola Peninsula completed a dramatic thinning out of a unit that is supposed to defend Russia’s border with Norway and Finland, both of which want to join NATO.
Satellite photographs and an Israeli report in August and September revealed that Russia had stationed a squadron of nuclear-capable bombers at an air base near Finland. But, Western officials said this signaled that Russia would rely on nuclear deterrence on the Kola Peninsula, where the 200th and other units have declined due to their diminished state.
“No one is left there now,” the soldier said.