Dec 9, 2022
As a wider war with Russia loomed last winter, the Ukrainian government scrambled to expand its army.
It was a messy process. One obscure territorial formation, the 6th Separate Rifle Battalion, experienced all the lows and highs. Five months ago, former battalion members publicly accused Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky of neglecting the territorials.
Today the battalion appears more confident. In part, it seems, because it now has Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Growing the active army is a painstaking process for Kyiv. A single mechanized brigade with 3,000 or so troops and hundreds of vehicles might need months to get organized, assuming the heavy weaponry already is on hand.
That’s not a safe assumption. In general, the Ukrainian army has added new active brigades only as fast as it can acquire secondhand armored vehicles from its Western allies.
Territorial forces are another matter. A January law created a framework for the Ukrainian defense ministry to establish 25 new territorial brigades, at least one for each of the country’s major population centers.
The lightly-armed territorial brigades would recruit local men and women and fight in their home oblasts. They’d perform constabulary roles, patrolling and defending their own neighborhoods, rather than joining some mechanized offensive or mobile defense.
That was the plan. In practice, in the chaos of the war, territorial units found themselves in some of the most intensive fighting. They weren’t always trained or equipped for it.
The 6th Separate Rifle Battalion is one of a handful of smaller territorial units. A territorial brigade might have thousands of personnel in several battalions. A separate territorial battalion has no more than 600 men and women in several companies.
The 6th SRB formed in May in eastern Ukraine. As early as July, the battalion was in combat in Avdiivka, a settlement in Donetsk Oblast that anchors Ukrainian positions opposite the pro-Russian separatists based in Donetsk city.
The Russians and their separatist allies since February have been trying to capture Avdiivka. The 6th SRB’s territorials joined the battle with only light weaponry—and got slaughtered.
In mid-July, former members of the battalion recorded a video blaming Zelensky for their losses. “We as fighters of the territorial defense were illegally sent to the front lines,” their spokesman said.
“We lost 70 percent of the personnel,” the spokesman continued. “Then we expressed our distrust of the battalion command about the fact that there was an oral order to occupy and hold unequipped positions without heavy equipment and artillery.”
The defense ministry in Kyiv apparently internalized this criticism. When the 6th SRB reappeared along the front line around Avdiivka, it was a much more powerful formation. Videos the battalion began posting online in November depict several successful strikes on Russian armored vehicles by 6th SRB troopers firing the American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles.
There’s no evidence the 6th SRB possesses any weaponry heavier than a 50-pound Javelin, or any vehicles heavier than a truck. The 6th SRB does however operate the usual bomb-dropping quadcopter drones. As long as the battalion doesn’t try to advance long distances while under fire—and so far, it hasn’t—the Javelins and drones might suffice.
Notably, there haven’t been any other public protests from the battalion like occured in July. The 6th Separate Rifle Battalion still is in the thick of the fighting. But its territorials apparently are confident they can beat the more heavily-armed Russians.
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