One of Russia’s elite fighting forces, the 331st Guards Parachute Regiment, known for its heroic combat in the Soviet-Afghanistan War, has been decimated by the Ukrainian military in the ongoing conflict in less than a year.
The 331st Guards Airborne Regiment is a formation of Russian airborne troops. The elite Russian paramilitary force, a part of the 98th Guards Airborne Division, has been under the scanner for a year due to its enormous losses at the hands of Kyiv’s forces.
A BBC Newsnight investigation has focused on the 331st Guards Parachute Regiment since the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to the latest status of the ongoing investigation, the number of verified deaths stands at 94 as of April 2023, up from 62 in June last year.
Much of the work in compiling the list involved combing through social media accounts on Vkontakte (Russia’s version of Facebook) and local media reports. Later, it was cross-referenced with satellite imagery and Google Street View imagery.
A video on Vkontakte shows soldiers’ graves in a cemetery northeast of Kostroma. The graves shown in the video match the names of the soldiers collated by BBC.
These numbers are predominantly based on the evidence derived from local media and social media reports, suggesting that the actual number of losses could be much higher. Further, it states that many soldiers fighting as part of the regiment came from outside Kostroma, making putting together the exact figure even more arduous.
Meanwhile, in Kostroma's graveyard there is plenty of evidence of the price of failure in Russia's invasion. Buried too is the 331st Guards Parachute Regiment's reputation as "the best of the best", and its dreams of easy victory.? pic.twitter.com/35M3VJFJ6C
— ajit4g (@ajit4g1) April 7, 2023
Since the Kostroma Regiment has been known for its heroism and campaigns in Moscow’s neighborhood, its losses have sparked a huge discussion in the small city of Kostroma, which comprises just 25,000 people. The “best of the best” status enjoyed by the regiment seems to be in jeopardy.
A local website wrote last spring that the total number of soldiers from the Kostroma Regiment killed in the Soviet-Afghan war that lasted nine long years cost the city just 56 soldiers.
The Soviet-Afghan War, often known as Afghan in post-Soviet republics, was a protracted war fought in the locally installed Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. It started with a Soviet invasion in 1979 and saw combat involving Soviet military and paramilitary troops against Afghanistan’s Mujahideen, foreign fighters, and small Anti-Soviet groups.
However, the losses incurred by the Kostroma regiment over nine long years and in a foreign land were far less than those already incurred in a year-long war in Moscow’s neighborhood.
This indicates that one of Russia’s most elite forces, which took part in the Chechen war and fought in Kosovo in its recent combat history, was almost mauled by the Ukrainian troops, which were earlier considered to be much inferior. This uncanny battlefield loss by an elite Russian force has catapulted it into the limelight but for all the wrong reasons.
According to the BBC assessment, the call-up of paratroopers, which is a part of Russia’s broader mobilization, highlights how worn out the professional army of the nation has become due to the protracted Ukrainian war. One of the major defeats suffered by the regiment was its failure to capture Kyiv, which was part of the Russian blitzkrieg plan.
A rough estimate of the 331st regiment’s size is 1,500–1,700 soldiers. It sent two battalion groups into Ukraine in February 2022, giving a total of 1,000–1,200 men. The regiment was withdrawn and rebuilt in Belgorod’s southern Russian garrison town last summer after suffering significant losses during the failed attempt to reach Kyiv.
The regiment has moved around all the important flashpoints in subsequent combat, from Izyum in the early summer to Kherson later and now back to Donbas, where intense combat is raging. If the investigative reports are anything to go by, it has suffered significant losses in every battle it has fought – turning around the narrative of heroism that it had enjoyed until now.
A Ukrainian Revenge?
According to some reports, this elite Russian parachute regiment was also reportedly instrumental in slaying Ukrainian soldiers in 2014. Military analysts believe Ukraine has finally exacted its long-awaited revenge by dealing such a massive blow to the Kostroma Regiment.
The 331st Guards Parachute Regiment was one of the troops the Kremlin sent to eastern Ukraine in 2014 to support the separatist militants backed by Russia in the conflict against the Ukrainians. Although the 2014 fighting was low-level, some battles saw intense combat, resulting in several hundred casualties. Among these was the battle of Ilovaisk, in which the 331st regiment is known to have massacred Ukrainian soldiers.
In Ilovaisk, Ukrainian troops were besieged by Russian and rebel forces. At the time, Commanders on both sides agreed to a truce to allow the Ukrainian soldiers stranded in Ilovaisk to escape through a supposedly “humanitarian corridor.”
However, the truce turned out to be a Russian trap, wrote Forbes in a detailed article published in April last year.
In what is known as one of the bloodiest days for the post-Soviet Ukrainian army, the Russians opened fire on the advancing Ukrainians, killing about 400 of them. The 331st regiment’s participation in the massacre was confirmed by the Ukrainian army’s seizure of ten members of the regiment in Ilovaisk.
It was the 331st regiment that mauled the Ukrainians in Ilovaisk more than eight years ago. In a drastic turn of events, the regiment’s fortunes changed in the ongoing conflict. Some reports suggest that this elite Russian fighting force is known for its atrocities and was one of the forces involved in the Bucha fighting, which according to Ukraine, saw widespread genocide and war crimes.
Many military experts have observed that the lightweight, thin-skinned BMD and BTR-D airborne fighting vehicles used by the regiment did not provide any defense against the artillery and missiles of the Ukrainians.
The BBC assessment says the loss of equipment and troops for the 331st can also be quantified, particularly the airborne infantry combat vehicles, or BMDs in Russian, that have been exhausted in numerous engagements.
The investigation, as well as reports on social media, have painted a grim picture of the equipment and manpower losses. Incidentally, they have also led to resentment within the town of Kostroma for the mounting deaths of their soldiers.