March 23, 2023:
Russia’s Kola Brigade was created in 1997 and became one of the best trained infantry units in the Russian military. The brigade has been in Ukraine for over a year and is no longer what it was before the invasion. For a long time, Norway was the only NATO member with a land border with Russia. South of that is a much longer Finnish border with Russia. This Norwegian border has always been well guarded because on the Russia side there is a collection of naval bases and shipyards supporting the Russian Northern Fleet, the largest of the four regional fleets of the Russian Navy. The Norwegian side of the border is largely forests and not many settlements. There are some air and naval bases on coastal areas facing the North Atlantic, rather than the arctic Barents Sea. The Norwegians get to know the Russians on the other side of the border, or at least what these Russians are up to. This is especially true of the Russian army troops assigned to this area.
This brings us to the “Kola Brigade”. This is actually the Russian army 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, which was the first of two Russian Arctic War brigades and is based on the Kola Peninsula, which is the Russian territory sharing a border with Norway. Kola and the Norwegian border are all above the Arctic Circle. There are two other brigades on the Kola Peninsula, the 61st Naval Infantry Brigade and the 80th Arctic Motor Rifle Brigade. These brigades were well-trained but smaller than the 200th. Both were also sent to Ukraine in 2022 but saw much less combat than the 200th. The 61st Brigade was trained for amphibious operations while the 80th was not considered as combat capable as the 200th.
The Kola Brigade consists of about 3,000 troops and the basic combat units are three BTGs (Battalion Task Groups) and a tank battalion. The Kola Brigade BTGs are trained to operate as light infantry in Arctic conditions. That often means using skis or snowshoes to get around. The Russian army maintained such high training levels by minimizing the proportion of conscripts in the brigade. Russian conscripts serve for only one year, which is not long enough to be trained up to Arctic warfare standards. In the decade before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Kola brigade received a disproportionate number of career-minded contract soldiers who were expected to make a career (about a decade) serving in one of the two Arctic Brigades. As specialist brigades, training troops to do the job took time the army wanted to hold onto those with specialist skills as an Arctic soldier.
The Kola Brigade was involved with the Russian effort to take two eastern Ukraine provinces in 2014. Initially, Russia insisted that only local Ukrainian separatists were involved. That force was stopped by rapidly mobilized Ukrainian forces. Some troops from the Kola Brigade were sent to Ukraine to try and break the deadlock. That did not work. The brigade suffered a few casualties and went back to the Norwegian border. Seven years later about half the brigade (the combat elements) were ordered to the Ukrainian border, north of the city of Kharkiv. After about six months in Ukraine the Kola Brigade had lost nearly a thousand dead and wounded. This was despite the brigade getting new troops and sending them to Ukraine. The Kola brigade was only given a few weeks to train the newly conscripted or mobilized recruits before sending them to Ukraine, where many quickly became casualties too. By late 2022 it became known (to the Norwegians) that the 200th had suffered nearly 1,500 dead in Ukraine. Its two BTGs sent there took such heavy personnel and vehicle losses that they must be rebuilt. The combat elements of the Kola Brigade will take years to recover from the losses they suffered in Ukraine. Remnants of the 200th remain in Ukraine, where they do little but take casualties. Most of the 200th is back in its Kola Peninsula bases, trying to rebuild.
Russia pulled some of its elite combat units out of Ukraine before they could be so chewed up. The government insists it is rebuilding the army units lost in Ukraine. This appears to be wishful thinking because not many new Russian troops are undergoing sufficient (a few months) training before being sent into combat.