One of Ukraine's New US-Equipped 'Storm' Brigades Spotted in the East

Ukrainian soldiers fire a cannon near Bakhmut, Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a cannon near Bakhmut, Ukraine, May 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Libkos, File)

This column was written by reporter Adrian Bonenberger, who trained Ukrainian units for the counteroffensive from March to May.

The video is grainy. It cuts from shot to shot of distant armor driving in single file across a field, hitting mines and getting struck by artillery. Watching it, my stomach twisted into a knot. As I understood it, the video had been recorded by Russian drones. It claimed to prove that the Ukrainian counteroffensive for which so many had such high hopes was foundering.

A failed counteroffensive was bad enough. But there was another reason I viewed the video with trepidation. The accompanying description claimed that one of the units involved in the fighting was Ukraine's 31st Separate Mechanized Brigade -- that dozens of vehicles had been destroyed. Russia had claimed as many as 1,500 Ukrainian troops were killed in the early part of the counteroffensive.

For two weeks at the end of April and beginning of May, I helped train elements of the 31st's reconnaissance battalion. They expected to be at the front of the counteroffensive.

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The brigade, fitted out with a variety of U.S.-supplied equipment including MaxxPro mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, was created this year. Its purpose was to take part in Ukraine's counteroffensive. My portion was a company that was itself part of a reconnaissance battalion. The soldiers were to be among the first on the attack in its sector.

When they arrived in the training area where I was living with and training elements of another Ukrainian unit at the end of April, the soldiers of the 31st had already received individual training with weapons and equipment. Some had been soldiers years before. Many were in their 40s, or older. About a dozen appeared to be in their late 50s.

As a unit, the 31st was not prepared to fight when we started training.

Placed on the back foot by Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, Ukraine has been locked in a bitter struggle with Russia's military ever since. The initiative has swung back and forth between Ukraine and Russia, with Russia seizing large swaths of territory at the outset, and Ukraine returning a good portion of the land to its control over the course of the summer and autumn of 2022. Most recently, Ukraine pulled back from the city of Bakhmut, a strategically inconsequential but symbolically significant battle in which tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians lost their lives.

Long awaited and hoped-for, a major operation by Ukraine's Ministry of Defence, involving at least a dozen units and tens of thousands of soldiers, is currently unfolding in the country's north, east and southeast. Hopes are high that the military can liberate more territory. But that depends on how effective the brigades are in taking and holding territory.

Ukraine's MoD has issued cryptic and contradictory messages on social media, with some saying that the counteroffensive is happening, others that it began a week or more earlier, and others still that it has yet to begin in earnest.

That early video of the fighting that showed the battlefield -- and potentially attacks on the 31st -- was shared on June 5 via Telegram by Russians, and subsequently shared on Twitter. It showed Ukrainian armored vehicles driving across a field targeted by what appeared to be artillery and mines. Russia claimed to have destroyed a number of vehicles, and that the remainder had been driven back.

Wondering whether the units were from the 31st, or could have been, I reached out to sources in Ukraine. One of them confirmed that the unit engaged was, in fact, the unit that I had trained, reconnaissance soldiers with the 31st Separate Mechanized Brigade. On June 6, the source claimed that the unit had lost one MRAP in the engagement and that fighting was ongoing.

In war, both sides tend to claim that the enemy is exaggerating its casualties. I was relieved to hear that the unit had suffered less than I feared at first. But more heavy fighting was still ahead for them, and the other brigades taking part in the counteroffensive.

When I was training them, I was not sure where the 31st would go. In late April or early May, Bakhmut still seemed as though it could be a possible destination. I had some indication that the recon elements might be used for more than finding the enemy in maneuver war. I wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or not. It's always better to use soldiers according to the tasks they're trained for. Training units at the squad and platoon level in urban movement, and close-quarters battle, or CQB, I had the impression some of them might be used to assault, instead of to reconnoiter.

CQB is a very difficult skill to master -- perhaps the most difficult, alongside those dealing with trench lines or bunkers. A week of training is not sufficient to do anything more than familiarization with the principles. Elite units in the U.S. dedicate much of their time and energy to training for specific CQB scenarios, constructing replicas of buildings they expect to encounter, and training on them with live-fire rounds for weeks.

This unit, elements of a reconnaissance battalion, expected to be entering villages and possibly larger urban areas, and wanted to know how to clear buildings safely if necessary. They were also not thrilled about using MRAPs in reconnaissance, and had concerns about the vehicle's survivability and tall profile.

By the time we finished training together -- I left on May 11 -- the battalion was capable of carrying out missions at the squad level, and had some experience as platoons. It was learning company- and battalion-level logistics and coordination, things that are not simple to perform for seasoned groups, and challenging under the best circumstances. In the ensuing two weeks, before they moved forward to their positions and began the counteroffensive, they continued to make progress.

When I left, it was with a sense of worry for the Ukrainians who would soon be at the front of Russian guns, mixed with admiration for their commitment to victory and stoic attitude. There was no question that the unit had come much closer to being capable of offensive operations than when it started.

The offensive is finally underway, and it looks as though the new units that were mustered mere months ago are making progress against Russia's defensive lines.

-- Adrian Bonenberger, an Army veteran and graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, reports for You can reach him at

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