Kostroma, a city located 300km northeast of Moscow, is home to the 331st Guards Parachute Regiment, often referred to as the Kostroma Airborne Regiment. This elite Russian regiment has been in the forefront of the Kremlin’s campaign against its neighbours since the invasion of Ukraine last February. BBC’s Newsnight has been investigating the regiment since then, and have found that the war has cost the regiment 94 fatalities, with many more wounded or taken prisoner.
The heavy losses have caused much distress in Kostroma, which has a population of around a quarter of a million. The Soviet-Afghan war, which lasted nine years, only cost the city 56 soldiers. To manage the political fallout of the war, Vladimir Putin’s placeman in the region, Sergey Sitnikov, has been visiting hospitals, barracks and the front to show support for the soldiers. He has brought with him crowd-funded care packages and commercially sold drones.
The Ukraine campaign has exhausted the country’s professional army, including the 331st regiment. In November, 150 conscripts were shown on TV before their dispatch to the front. The total size of the regiment could be estimated at 1,500-1,700 when it first sent into Ukraine in February 2022. After taking heavy casualties in the failed attempt to reach Kyiv, the regiment was withdrawn and rebuilt in Belgorod last summer. It has since moved around all major flashpoints – Izyum in the early summer, Kherson later on, and now back to Donbas.
The losses have resonated in the home community. Local media has been featuring commemorations of fallen Kostroma soldiers, and on social media there are modern manifestations of remembrance and even calls for revenge. Soldiers are shown holding shells with messages from former classmates and family members of dead paratroopers. There is also a trend for wives and mothers to post pictures of themselves with an absent soldier’s uniform.
The 331st regiment has also suffered losses in machinery as well as personnel – particularly airborne infantry combat vehicles (BMDs) that have been used up in successive battles. Open source analysts have identified at least 25 destroyed BMDs marked with an exclamation mark next to a V painted on their sides. A report by NTV shows an “armoured group” of the 331st in action in Luhansk consisting of just three BMD armoured vehicles.
The war has had a devastating effect on the 331st regiment and its home community. The heavy losses have caused much distress and have led to a difficult task of political management for local authorities. Gov Sitnikov has been trying to mollify those who are anxious about the killed and wounded by visiting hospitals and barracks, and bringing care packages and drones. On social media there is much solidarity among military families in Kostroma, but it is uncertain how much support the war has from the wider Russian public. The 331st’s long war goes on, with no end in sight.