Ukraine’s star brigade in dire state due to lack of weapons and its own mistakes

The 47th Brigade has had four commanders in one year. Soldiers and officers talk to EL PAÍS about the force’s weaknesses, which is key to understanding Russia’s advance on the front

Ukrainian soldiers from the 47th Mechanized Brigade drive an M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle in the direction of Avdiivka on February 23, 2024 in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers from the 47th Mechanized Brigade drive an M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle in the direction of Avdiivka on February 23, 2024 in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.italii Nosach (Global Images Ukraine/Getty)
Cristian Segura

In the Ukrainian army company where Sgt. Magura serves, only three of the 11 armored personnel carriers they had in 2023 are left. And of the three, one is being repaired because the starting system stopped working. The vehicles they use in their unit are the U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle, one of the additions that NATO allies brought to Ukraine for the 2023 summer counteroffensive. “But they are old vehicles that have arrived used and here they last only a few months,” says this officer of the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade, the most comprehensive unit Ukraine has ever had, with Western armament and NATO training.

Magura is serving on the Avdiivka front in Donetsk province. Her third Bradley may take many weeks to return to the battlefield, adds a spokeswoman for the brigade: the parts it needs have to arrive from Europe. The 47th Brigade is in a dire state, according to the military personnel interviewed by EL PAÍS, because it is the mirror of the weakness of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the face of Russia’s domination on the front.

On Saturday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved $60 billion in military aid for Ukraine. This assistance will strengthen the brigade in the coming months, but the current situation is grim. Magura — the code name of the 28-year-old sergeant, an architect by profession — shares two devastating facts: for every armored infantry vehicle that the Ukrainian army has, the enemy has 10; for every Ukrainian soldier defending the Avdiivka front, there are 30 Russians attacking them.

Bradley infantry vehicle, of the 47th Brigade, on April 16.
Bradley infantry vehicle, of the 47th Brigade, on April 16.Cristian Segura

The 47th Brigade is the product of former commander in chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi’s commitment to create a flagship unit to lead the counteroffensive in June 2023. A mechanized infantry brigade is a unit that uses armored personnel carriers. It was founded in the fall of 2022 and in the last year alone, it has had four commanders, an unprecedented turnover. The first commander of the brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Oleksandr Sak, was relieved in September 2023 after the catastrophic offensive on the Zaporizhia front. The 47th Brigade lost 30% of its soldiers in three months, according to military sources consulted by this newspaper that summer. Ukraine needed urgent results on the front, as it came under pressure from both the country’s political leaders and its international allies. Amid this pressure, the army launched an almost suicidal mission without air support and against very strong Russian defenses.

Sak was accused of persisting in the futile tactic of sending in armored columns that were blocked in minefields and annihilated by Russia’s drones and artillery. “Our commanders had too many expectations and bad predictions about our potential when the counteroffensive began,” Magura explains. “Then they were changed and there were smarter orders, but we lost a lot of resources and were left without many experienced people.”

Sak was replaced by Colonel Oleksandr Pavliuk. He held the position until last January. Military members of the brigade publicly accused him of not understanding the internal workings of a structure based on NATO models and of replacing infantry casualties with soldiers who were not prepared for front-line combat operations, according to the Military Land war analysis center.

Rise in casualties

EL PAÍS interviewed Alexander, a former artillery officer from the 47th Brigade, on April 17. He confirms that he himself was required to stop operating with the two howitzers for which he had been trained and to join an assault platoon. The howitzers, donated by the United States, were no longer precise enough due to overuse and, more importantly, they no longer needed as many personnel due to the lack of ammunition. Alexander, who had served in the Donbas war in 2015, decided to leave the army under the rule that allows a soldier to return to civilian life if he has lost an immediate family member in the war: his brother died in combat in 2023. “If I didn’t leave the army, I was facing certain death,” he says.

“If we focus so much on the 47th Brigade it is because it is famous, but its problems are seen in the rest of the army,” says Alexander. Common problems are a depleted arsenal and a shortage of recruits. The mobilization law approved by Ukraine in April should provide nearly 400,000 civilians to the army. But the new additions, according to the sources who spoke to EL PAÍS, will arrive with no experience at a time when Russian troops have acquired knowledge and weapons, and learned how to adapt to this war.

Drones to stop Russian advance

Those interviewed for this article agree that only the Ukrainian fleet of drones is slowing down the Russian advance. But as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned at the end of March, these drones cannot make up for the shortage of long-range weapons, anti-aircraft defenses and artillery. The invading troops have between six and 10 times more ammunition than Ukraine (depending on the sector of the front) and Zelenskiy said that Ukraine is firing 2,000 projectiles a day — a figure that’s between four and five times lower than what it was in the summer of 2023.

This newspaper interviewed two other soldiers from the 47th Brigade in November 2023. Both have been discharged from the army. One of them, Ivan, captained an infantry squad in the northern sector of Avdiivka, where his soldiers were holed up on the railway tracks. He lost his entire unit, the 17 soldiers were either killed or captured by the enemy. Russia took Avdiivka in February. Since then, it has advanced six miles in the direction of Pokrovsk, the rear base on the Donetsk southern front. Fear is growing in the farms of the region, which are progressively closing their facilities and moving their machinery to other provinces.

“I know of a company with 80 soldiers that suffered 65 casualties in one week. Before, for every Ukrainian casualty, there were three Russian casualties. Now we are almost on par.” That’s according to Phoenix, who uses a pseudonym to hide his identity. He’s a civilian who works for the high command on the Pokrovsk front and for the Ukrainian intelligence services. According to Phoenix, in the northern sector of Avdiivka, the Russians took advantage of the coordination problems between the 47th Brigade and the 25th Airborne Brigade. Magura confirms that in this northern sector, where they are now resisting in the village of Ocheretyne, “there are errors in coordination between brigades, but this is because the situation changes very quickly.”

Sergeant Magura, of the 47th Ukrainian Brigade, on March 16.
Sergeant Magura, of the 47th Ukrainian Brigade, on March 16.Cristian Segura

The scenario is worsening fast for Ukraine, and adapting takes time. Phoenix gives two examples of changes in brigades with NATO armament such as the 47th, changes resulting from Russia’s dominance of airspace thanks to its fleet of reconnaissance drones and bombers: “The usefulness of the Leopard [German tanks] on the front line is now nil, they don’t last.” In an article published on Saturday, military officers consulted by The New York Times said that the 47th Brigade lost several U.S. Abrams tanks in Avdiivka because they do not have sufficient short-range anti-aircraft defenses against drones.

It’s not just the threat of attacks from Russian drones, like the Lancet, or smaller aerial vehicles that can destroy a tank’s turret; Magura adds that the enemy has installed anti-tank missile systems in Avdiivka that are difficult to avoid. “Russian tanks are also dropping like flies, but they have hundreds; if we destroy 10, there are three others that accomplish their mission,” says Phoenix. The U.S. M-777 howitzer, which in 2022 were key to successful Ukrainian offensives in Kharkov and Kherson, have today taken a back seat, says Phoenix, because they are not self-propelled weapons and operations with them take too long given the Russian air threat.

“I have spoken with a thousand soldiers on this front and my conclusion is that NATO’s military theory is useless if you do not combine it with the Soviet one, which is the Russian one,” says Phoenix. “No NATO base in Europe has our combat experience, which is why we rely more and more on our own instructors,” explains a spokeswoman for the 47th Brigade.

Dmitro Riumshin, Pavlii’s replacement, lasted only two months as commander of the 47th Brigade, from January to March. Several sources consulted say that he was dismissed first due to the high number of casualties in Avdiivka and the second, because he was not close to the new commander in chief of the Armed Forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi. “From our new commander [Colonel Yan Yatsishen] we expect intelligent decisions, not suicidal orders, clear and at the same time thoughtful orders,” says Magura.

Phoenix is anticipating a very difficult outlook for Ukraine. Russia is training 200,000 new recruits for the summer offensive, says this veteran fighter of the Donbas war (100,000 more than estimated last March by the head of the Ukrainian army). “They are getting better and better every day, their weapons too. And we lack everything,” he says.

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