Southern Ukraine is a flat, open expanse of farms criss-crossed by rivers. There are no mountains there. But two mountain brigades – one Russian, one Ukrainian – found themselves on the southern battlefield, far from the slopes and peaks on which they trained to fight.
The Ukrainian 128th Mountain Brigade and the Russian 34th Mountain Motorized Rifle Brigade may not be in their element. But they are still among the strongest formations in southern Ukraine. And they could be heading for a showdown.
The 128th Mountain Brigade is one of several Ukrainian brigades leading the counter-offensive south of Kyiv, which began in late August after months of preparatory bombardment. The 34th Mountain Motorized Rifle Brigade is one of the most intact brigades of the Russian 49th Combined Arms Army, the main field army occupying Kherson Oblast on the Black Sea coast.
Photos and videos circulating online point to the 128th MB recently released the village of Chervone, 80 km northeast of Kherson. The 34th MMRB meanwhile was spotted around Sadok, 15 miles west of Chervone. The 128th MB rolls south, aiming to push the Russian forces across the Dnipro River and out of the oblast. The 34th MMRB attempts to slow the Ukrainian advance.
The 128th MB and 34th MMRB are not the only brigades in the south. And it is not inevitable that they clash directly. But it’s worth comparing their strengths and weaknesses as the Ukrainian counteroffensive grows and winter approaches. The coming weeks are expected to be wet and cold, which could slow operations on both sides of Russia’s broader eight-month war against Ukraine.
What happens in the next few days, especially with the two mountain brigades, could set the conditions for the second year of the war from early next year, when forecasters expect mud winter freezes, allowing tanks and combat vehicles to travel safely.
The 34th MMRB with its three frontline battalions and approximately 1,000 troops is a specialist formation. Trainees practice climbing mountains, driving their MT-LB and BTR-80 vehicles up rocky slopes and, in the roughest terrain, replacing mules with tracked vehicles.
But in Ukraine, the 34th MMRB is fighting on flat, open ground. Worse, the brigade now includes a contingent of disgruntled Ukrainian separatists. Brigade morale reportedly hit a low following a Ukrainian artillery strike in late July that destroyed the unit’s command post. The 34th MMRB temporarily refused to go into combat, according to the Ukrainian Army‘s Southern Operational Command.
Today, the 34th MMRB is back in action in Kherson Oblast. When the Ukrainians attacked in late August, the roller coaster brigade retreated, leaving behind at least some of its vehicles. Last week, the 34th MMRB took up position near Sadok. A recent photo shows brigade soldiers stacked on top of an MT-LB.
At the same time that the 34th MMRB was fighting in Sadok, the 128th MB blew up at least one Russian Ural truck, a BTR combat vehicle and a T-62 tank in Chervone… and liberated the village.
The 128th MB, like its Russian counterpart, trains normally for mountain operations. After undergoing grueling training on the cold high peaks of southwestern Ukraine, the soldiers of the 128th MB earn a unique gray beret. Like the 34th MMRB, the 128th MB with its four front line battalions, each numbering hundreds of soldiers, is far from its natural environment.
Still, the brigade’s tenacity served it well in the open terrain of Kherson Oblast. In addition to liberating a series of villages on the right bank of the Dnipro, the brigade has also shot down at least one Russian attack helicopter in recent weeks.
But if the two mountain brigades do battle in mountainless southern Ukraine before winter mud glues them in place, logistics — not the vigor of individual soldiers — could determine the winner.
On October 7, Ukrainian forces severely damaged the Kerch Bridge, the main railway span connecting the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula with Russia proper. This strike and others on bridges in southern Ukraine stifled the Kremlin’s ability to resupply the 49th CAA and its brigades around Kherson.
That is, the 34th MMRB may soon begin to starve. Which, even more than unfavorable terrain or any soldier-to-soldier mismatch, could put him at a disadvantage in direct combat with the better supplied 128th MB.