The Russian Marine Corps

Dmitry Boltenkov

In 1991 the Soviet Navy’s Marine Corps was 15,000-strong and consisted of five major units: the 55th Division assigned to the Pacific Fleet, the 61st and 175th Divisions of the Northern Fleet, the 810th Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet, and the 336th Brigade of the Baltic Fleet.

The Soviet Marine Corps won glory during World War II, and was regarded as the elite of the Soviet armed forces. In the late 1980s the MoD initiated a reorganization of the marine units to bolster their fighting ability. The size of the marine brigades was to increase from four battalions to six, but those reorganizations remained incomplete when the Soviet Union broke up.

After the break-up, the Russian MoD initiated drastic cuts that also affected the Marine Corps. The marine units were left substantially weakened after losing some of their artillery and tanks, and the remaining marine battalions were severely downsized. Additionally, those units were manned well below their nominal strength. In 1994 the MoD disbanded the Northern Fleet’s only marine brigade, the 175th. The sole marine unit to escape drastic cuts was the 336th Brigade of the Baltic Fleet, stationed in Kaliningrad. It was somewhat reinforced in the 1990s by taking over some of the sub-units of the disbanded 77th Costal Defense Division. But in 2009 the 336th Brigade also underwent cuts: like all the other marine brigades, it lost all of its remaining tanks.

In 1991-1993 the Baltic Fleet’s marines supported the pullout of the Soviet/Russian forces from the Baltic states. In 1992-1993 the Black Sea Fleet’s marines took part in peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia and Georgia. In 1994, when the first Chechen War broke out, some of the paratrooper assault battalions, which made up the main fighting strength of the Marine Corps, were manned to just 20 per cent of their nominal strength. Nevertheless, the marine units of the Baltic, Northern, and Pacific fleets were rapidly brought up to their full strength and deployed to Chechnya after a short period of organizational/coordination training. It was the Russian marines who took the Presidential Palace in Grozny on January 19, 1995.

The marine units of the Black Sea Fleet were not involved in the first Chechen campaign because the status of the fleet itself had yet to be resolved between Russia and Ukraine. It must be said that the Black Sea Fleet’s command went to great lengths to shield its 810th Marine Brigade in Sebastopol from Ukrainian influence, rightly believing that the unit would have to do the brunt of the fighting in the event of a crisis in Crimea. As a result, the Ukrainian Navy had to create its own Marine Corps from scratch.

In September 1995 the Russian MoD established the 382nd Marine Battalion of the Black Sea Fleet in Temryuk, Krasnodar Territory. After the 1998 deal with Ukraine on the division of the Black Sea Fleet’s assets, the 810th Marine Brigade was downsized and became the 264th Marine Regiment – but the regiment was soon given its old numerical designation, 810.

In the mid-1990s, amid the war in Chechnya and mounting tensions in the wider North Caucasus, the MoD began to create new marine units in the Caspian Flotilla (which did not have any marines during the Soviet period). In March 1994 it formed the 332nd Battalion in Astrakhan; in 1998 the unit was renamed the 600th Guard Marine Battalion. In May 1999 the MoD set up the 414th Battalion in Kaspiysk (Dagestan). In September 2000 those two units were merged to create the 77th Guard Independent Red Banner Marine Brigade specifically for the purpose of fighting in the second Chechen campaign. The 77th packed a lot of punch; it included three marine battalions, a tank battalion, and two self-propelled howitzer battalions. In 2000-2005 the brigade was involved in numerous combat missions in the North Caucasus.

The Russian Navy’s marine units had become better trained, manned, and equipped by the time the second Chechen campaign began. The main marine unit involved in that campaign was the battalion tactical group formed by the Northern Fleet’s 876th Paratrooper Assault Battalion. That group also included a reconnaissance marine company of the Black Sea Fleet, an artillery battery of the Caspian Flotilla, a self-propelled artillery battery, a company of engineers and sappers, and several supply and logistics units. In terms of its fighting ability the battalion group equaled a paratrooper regiment. None of the Baltic Fleet’s or Pacific Fleet’s marine units fought in the second campaign in Chechnya.

In the 2000s the MoD bolstered the Marine Corps manpower, training, and equipment. In 2007 the 22nd Independent Motor Rifle Brigade of the Pacific Fleet’s Coastal Troops (stationed in Kamchatka) was renamed the 40th Marine Brigade, re-trained, and restructured to conform to the Marine Corps personnel ranking and training programs. In 2008 the 810th Marine Regiment of the Black Sea Fleet was upgraded to the 810th Brigade.

In 2008 the Black Sea Fleet’s marine units were involved in the operation against Georgia; to that end, they were deployed to Abkhazia.

As part of the radical restructuring of the Russian Armed Forces under the so-called “New Look” reform, in 2009-2010 the MoD launched another round of cuts in the Marine Corps. The Pacific Fleet’s 40th Marine Brigade and the Northern Fleet’s 61st Marine Brigade were downsized to become the 3rd Regiment and the 61st Regiment, respectively. The Caspian Flotilla’s 77th Marine Brigade was disbanded because it was deemed to have served its purpose – but two of its battalions were kept as independent units stationed in Astrakhan and Kaspiysk. The Pacific Fleet’s 55th Marine Division, which was maintained at skeleton strength, became the 155th Marine Brigade (but the new brigade actually had more manpower than the old division). Before the New Look reforms, the marine brigades had only a single paratrooper assault battalion apiece fully deployed during peacetime, plus several supply and logistics units. Their remaining units were maintained at reduced-strength levels. After the reform, all the remaining battalions and brigades became fully manned and always ready for deployment, although the nominal numerical strength of the battalions was reduced.

After the appointment of Sergey Shoygu as defense minister, in 2013-2014 the 3rd and the 61st regiments reverted to their former status as the 40th and the 61st Marine Brigades.

In February and March 2014, units of the Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Marine Brigade were involved in blockading Ukrainian military bases in Crimea to prevent them from putting up any resistance during the operation to restore Russian control of the peninsula. That brigade and the marine battalions of the Caspian Flotilla have been guarding the new Russian-Ukrainian border to the north of Crimea since 2014. Marine battalions of the Baltic and Northern fleets were deployed on the Russian-Ukrainian border in Voronezh and Rostov regions in 2014-2015.

The Ukrainian marines who came over to the Russian side during the 2014 crisis were initially used to create the 501st Independent Marine Battalion of the Black Sea Fleet – but the unit was later reorganized to become a motor rifle battalion and incorporated into the fleet’s 126th Independent Coastal Defense Brigade.

Units of the Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Marine Brigade have been involved in protecting the Russian airbase in Khmeimim, Syria, since September 2015. In March 2016 the brigade was decorated with the Zhukov Award for its excellent service during the operations in Crimea and Syria.

As of late 2016, the Marine Corps is part of the Russian Navy’s Coastal Troops service. The commander of the Coastal Troops is Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Kolpachenko. The Marine Corps consists of the following units:

40th Independent Marine Brigade of the Pacific Fleet, stationed in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in Kamchatka Territory
61st Independent Marine Brigade of the Northern Fleet, stationed in Sputnik, Kola peninsula
155th Independent Marine Brigade of the Pacific Fleet, stationed in Vladivostok
336th Guard Independent Marine Brigade of the Baltic Fleet, stationed in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad Region
810th Independent Marine Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet, stationed in Sebastopol
414th Independent Marine Battalion of the Caspian Flotilla in Kaspiysk and the 727th Independent Marine Battalion in Astrakhan

The MoD is currently making efforts to bolster the marine brigades’ capability. As part of these efforts, independent reconnaissance and paratrooper companies of these brigades are being upgraded to reconnaissance battalions. The brigades are being equipped with MLR systems (BM-21 Grad 122mm). They may also get their tanks back; right now the Russian Marine Corps does not have any tanks of its own.

The structure of a typical Russian marine brigade in 2016 can be illustrated by the Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Brigade, which consists of: the brigade command, two marine battalions, a paratrooper assault marine battalion, a reconnaissance battalion, a self-propelled howitzer battalion, an AA missile and artillery battalion, a supply battalion, a missile battery, a company of snipers, a flamethrower company, a company of paratrooper engineers, a communications company, a company of medics, a paratrooper and landing hardware company, an NBC company, a guided anti-tank missile battery, and several other units.

The most powerful fighting unit of the marine brigades is the paratrooper assault battalion, which consists of three paratrooper assault companies and a mortar battery. The paratrooper assault and reconnaissance units’ personnel are given paratrooper training. The marine battalions consist of a paratrooper assault company and two marine companies, a self-propelled artillery company, an anti-tank platoon, an RPG platoon, and several other units. The combined numerical strength of a Russian marine battalion is up to 500 men.

The Russian Marine Corps is armed with BTR-80 and BTR-82A wheeled APCs, MTLB tracked APCs, BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, 2S1 Gvozdika 122mm self-propelled artillery, 2S3 Akatsiya 152mm self-propelled artillery, 2S9 Nona 120mm self-propelled artillery, and other weaponry. In recent years it has acquired UAVs, electronic warfare systems, and new communication systems. The marines have also received the new Korsar-MP floatation armored vests and the Ratnik individual gear.

At the same time, the Russian Marine Corps does not have any specialized landing vehicles or special amphibious APCs, although such technology is now being developed. Neither has it received any customized versions of the BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle, such as the BMMP, BMP-3F, or BT-3F. On the whole, most of the Russian marines’ hardware and weaponry can safely be described as obsolete.

The Marine Corps is currently phasing out conscripts and aims to rely only on professional soldiers. Its officers are trained at the Far Eastern Combined Services School in Blagoveshchensk and at the Ryazan Paratrooper School. The marine privates corps receive their training at the marine units. Specialists and sergeants are trained at the Marine Training Center in Leningrad Region, which is part of the Russian Navy’s 907th Joint Training Center. Entire marine battalions and brigades undergo additional training at the recently established 333rd MoD Training Center in Mulino, Nizhny Novgorod Region.

The main role in which the Russian marines are now used is amphibious landing operations, in which they serve as the first echelon of troops. In essence, the marines lead the assault during the initial landings. To that end, they are constantly trained for embarkation and landing operations with amphibious landing ships and boats. Training scenarios include parachute drops and abseiling from helicopters. Russia’s annual Navy drills, as well as the West, East, Caucasus, and Center command staff exercises, also involve landing operations using ships, boats, planes, and helicopters. As part of the Caucasus 2016 drill, marines landed from five large amphibious assault ships simultaneously. In recent years, they have drilled in the Arctic, including Chukotka, Wrangel Island, and other islands in the Arctic Ocean.
In the 2000s the Russian Navy resumed missions to far-off parts of the globe, with a special emphasis on rotating anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia. The warships and support vessels involved in these patrols always carry marines who have been given special counterterrorism training. When Somali pirates hijacked the Moscow University, a Russian civilian tanker, on May 5-6, 2010, Russian marines launched a storming operation and rescued the vessel. Since then, Somali militants have not risked attacking ships flying the Russian flag or crewed by Russian sailors.

At the same time, the Russian Navy has yet to resume the old Soviet practice of deploying entire marine companies or battalions on a single mission. There were plans to that effect after the expected arrival of the two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships which Russia ordered in France in 2011. Each ship was supposed to carry a specially created expeditionary marine battalion – but the Russian Navy never received those ships for well-known political reasons. Russia is now planning to build large new amphibious assault ships at its own shipyards, so deployments of large marine units to far-off waters may resume at some point in the future.
The Armiya series of annual drills include the Baltic Derby competition to determine the best marine squad or crew. Russian marines also take part in the Naval Assault and the Caspian Derby international drills as part of the International Army Games.

More than 7,000 marines have received awards and medals of distinction for combat missions in the post-Soviet period. Twenty-two of them have been given the country’s highest Hero of Russia award, including nine marines awarded posthumously. Two Project 775 amphibious assault ships, RNS Evgeny Kocheshkov and RNS Aleksandr Otrakovskiy, are named after marine generals.

The Russian Navy’s Marine Corps is a mobile, well-trained, well-equipped, and highly motivated force, capable of waging warfare in a variety of climates and environments. Marine units are regarded as some of the most elite in the Russian armed forces. In terms of their training and morale, they are on par with the Paratroopers (Airborne Assault Troops) and Spetsnaz forces. Nevertheless, the Marine Corps is clearly facing some major challenges in terms of further improving their deployment tactics, resuming expeditionary missions, and refreshing their technology.
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