Elements of the Russian army’s 34th Independent Mountain Motor Rifle Brigade reportedly were on the rail bridge across the Dnipro River on the southern edge of Kherson, in southern Ukraine, when Ukrainian artillery struck the bridge on or around Thursday.
It’s hard to confirm the report. Regardless, the 34th Mountain MRB, part of the 49th Combined Arms Army, has had a rough war. And it could get a lot rougher if the Ukrainian army puts more weight behind its slow counteroffensive aimed at liberating Kherson and its strategic port facilities.
The 34th Mountain MRB is a new unit. It formed in 2007 in Storozhevaya, 200 miles south of Moscow. The brigade with its three front-line battalions and roughly 1,000 soldiers is a specialist formation, with a primary mission of conducting operations in—you guessed it—the mountains. Trainees practice climbing peaks, driving their MT-LB and BTR-80 vehicles on steep slopes and substituting mules for tracked vehicles on the roughest terrain.
But in Ukraine, the 34th Mountain MRB is fighting on the flat, open terrain of southern Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast. Worse, the brigade now includes a contingent of unhappy Ukrainian separatists.
The brigade’s morale reportedly bottomed out following a Ukrainian artillery strike on or before July 21. The 34th Mountain MRB mutinied, according to the Ukrainian military’s Southern Operational Command. “After the losses incurred, the personnel of the 34th Independent Mountain Motor Rifle Brigade of the occupation forces refuses to go into battle,” the command claimed.
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The 34th Mountain MRB mobilized for Russia’s wider war in Ukraine back in the winter. As early as November, social-media users spotted trains hauling the brigade’s 2S1 howitzers and other hardware to Russian-occupied Crimea. Three months later, the 34th Mountain MRB joined the rest of the 49th CAA attacking from Crimea, north into southern Ukraine.
Kherson with its pre-war population of 300,000 quickly fell to Russia’s southern offensive. Ukrainian forces stiffened their defenses and halted the Russians on the outskirts of Mykolaiv, 40 miles north of Kherson. Obituaries confirmed a spate of casualties in the brigade in March.
A month later, pro-Russian Ukrainians from the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, attached to the 34th Mountain MRB, hopped on social media to complain about a lack of food, ammunition and medical supplies.
Six weeks later, the artillery strike reportedly sparked the mutiny. Two weeks after that, a bridge reportedly blew up underneath the brigade.
All that misfortune in a single brigade—perhaps now reduced to a fraction of its pre-war strength—belies the overall balance of power in southern Ukraine. The 49th CAA that occupies Kherson oversees 10 or more battalion tactical groups from several brigades in addition to the 34th Mountain MRB. And more forces are en route to Kherson to reinforce the 49th CAA as the Ukrainians escalate their strikes across the region.
The 34th Mountain MRB’s misfortunes are a small part of a wider struggle as the Ukrainians aim to liberate Kherson—and the Russians aim to keep it.