- Written by Mark Urban
- Diplomatic and Defense Editor, Newsnight
Kostroma is not a bad place to research the effects of Ukraine’s war on Russia. This city is home to a famous regiment that bears his name and was at the forefront of all the major battles of the Kremlin’s campaign against its neighbours.
The 331st Guards Parachute Regiment, often called the Kostroma Airborne Regiment, has been the subject of investigations by the BBC’s Newsnight program since shortly after the invasion last February. These revealed the price paid by the regiment and its native community. We confirmed 39 deaths by April last year, 62 by late July, and now the death toll is up to 94.
Much of the work that compiled this list involved combing through social media accounts on V’Kontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, and local media reports. We can then refer to this with satellite imagery and Google Street View.
One of the videos discovered on VKontakte showed the graves of soldiers at the Northeast Kostroma Cemetery. The graves shown in the videos match the names of the soldiers we collected.
The actual death toll of 331 is probably much higher. Some of the soldiers are from towns outside Kostroma, which makes tracing information about them more difficult. Many soldiers were reported missing – some of them may be counted among the dead.
When one thinks of the seriously wounded or captured, it is logical to assume that the Ukraine war cost the regiment several hundred soldiers.
The loss of life prompted much comment in Kostroma, which lies about 300 kilometers northeast of Moscow and has a population of around a quarter of a million. A local website pointed out last spring that the entire Soviet-Afghan war, which lasted nine years, had cost the city 56 soldiers. Huge losses in Ukraine gave the local authorities a difficult task for the political administration.
Sergei Sitnikov, the Kremlin-appointed Kostroma governor, has been at the forefront of trying to convince people that the city’s soldiers are being properly supported. Guf Sitnikov’s visits to hospitals, barracks, and even the front were covered on local television.
On a visit to the front in December, Guf Sitnikov told viewers, “We need help [the] men until they have decent conditions.” He has brought with him publicly funded care packages and sold commercial drones.
Guf Sitnikov is Vladimir Putin’s propagandist in his home region, so he’s hardly a rebel or a spunky teller of inconvenient truths. But his willingness to visit the front and admit his shortcomings, even in a coded way, presents an interesting contrast to his boss.
When local television showed paratroopers mobilized on the 331st parade ground six months ago, it also carried Guf Sitnikov’s rather candid remarks: “I wish you good health, success, completion of all tasks … and that you come home alive.”
The call-up of the paratroopers, part of Russia’s broader mobilization, underscores how much the Ukrainian campaign has depleted the country’s professional army, of which the 331st was a masterpiece. In footage from the November parade, 150 recruits are shown before they are sent to the front.
The total size of the 331st Cohort can be estimated at 1,500-1,700. When it was first dispatched to Ukraine in February 2022, it deployed two battalion groups, totaling 1,000 to 1,200 soldiers. After suffering heavy losses in the failed attempt to reach Kiev, the regiment was withdrawn and rebuilt in the southern Russian town of Belgorod last summer.
Subsequent actions saw the regiment move around all the major flashpoints – Izyum in early summer, Kherson later, and now back to Donbass. By observing the dates in death announcements on Kostroma social media, it is possible to see when (and often where) the unit was used to lead the attacks, and the lulls when removed from the line licking its wounds. For example, a cluster of deaths in February indicates elements of the 331st were involved at Kreminna.
Mark Urban talks about how Russia’s 331st Regiment and their families dealt with Vladimir Putin’s long war
Every time casualty replacements—including the recruits who appeared on television in November—are brought in to replace the losses, the original cadre of soldiers decreases, and the overall size of the unit decreases. It may now number no more than 300-400 at the front.
The losses, and even the return of seriously wounded men, resonated with the local community. A few weeks after the war, a VKontakte user said: “Pictures of the Kostroma boys are posted almost every day. It sends chills down my spine. What’s going on? When will this end?”
The local media commemorated the fallen Kostroma soldiers. In December, a television station unveiled a painting of Eduard Ryunov, a paratrooper in the 331st killed in Ukraine. The style of this memorial and the language used in the report can be seen as an attempt to channel the Great Patriotic War (as the Russians call their war against the Nazis from 1941-45), implying that today’s soldiers are engaged in an equally important cause. .
But on social media, we’ve found more recent manifestations of remembrance, and even people looking for revenge. Soldiers are shown carrying shells with messages written on them from Ryunov’s former colleagues, and presumably his family.
There is a trend in a few Russian garrison towns of wives and mothers posting pictures of themselves in the uniform of an absent soldier. One mother of a dead paratrooper from the 331st Division tearfully recalls the Great Patriotic War, and adds, “I hope there are stories written about our men.”
Those who question sacrifice tend to care less. Recently someone wrote on Kostroma’s V’Kontakte page: “Ukraine is not my motherland, our boys are dying for nothing.” Another quickly responded, “That’s a stupid opinion. There’s no point writing that stuff here.”
It is clear from the coverage of Guf Sitnikov’s activities that the authorities are trying to calm down those worried about the dead and injured. It’s not clear how much support the war has from the broader Russian public, but the video we’ve seen suggests there is a great deal of solidarity among military families in Kostroma.
The 331st’s decline can also be measured in the losses of machinery as well as personnel—particularly airborne combat vehicles, known by the Russian initials BMD—that were used in successive battles.
At first, when the 331st was part of an Airborne Forces task force heading toward Kiev, we had difficulty identifying its vehicles in video of the fighting. A dyed “V” was used to identify units from all the different units in that task force, and the inverted triangle symbol with a “3” in the center was also used by another regiment apart from the 331st.
As the fighting continued, soldiers in the 331st added another custom sign to the V on the sides of their chariots—an exclamation mark drawn next to the V. They may have done this specifically so that their commanders could distinguish their armor from the other regiments.
As a result, we were able to identify individual BMDs from the 331 that were loaded onto rail cars in March 2022, after their withdrawal from Ukraine. Then they reappeared in the Donbass during the fighting last summer.
Open source analysts have also located at least 25 destroyed anti-tank missiles tagged in this way, by combing Ukrainian military social media accounts. As with the dead soldiers, this visible loss does not account for the total, as it is likely that many of the Kostroma Regiment’s other anti-tank guns were lost out of sight of the Ukrainian forces.
A report broadcast by Russia’s NTV network in February 2023 showed an “armored group” of the 331st division operating in Luhansk. but it only tends to confirm the impression we have from other sources that the regiment survives as small detachments capable of leading certain tasks. From the call signs on the camera, this element consists of three BMD armored vehicles.
Therefore, the long regimental war continues. Of the wider effects of the war on the Ukrainian population, you won’t get much in the Russian media, nor is there any overt coverage of allegations of war crimes.
The 331st has been accused of killing hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers during the fighting in 2014. For many Ukrainians, the latest Russian casualties may seem like nothing more than paratroopers getting their hands on sweets.
Meanwhile, in the Kostroma cemetery there is plenty of evidence of the price of failure in the Russian conquest. Also buried was the regiment’s reputation as “the best of all”, and its dreams of an easy victory.
Additional research by Maria Gevstagieva and Louis Harris White
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