The 128th Separate Mountain Assault Transcarpathian Brigade is one of the most powerful units in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Following years of deployment in east Ukraine, they're now fighting on the front lines against invading Russian forces and making headlines for their efforts.
To become an elite mountain soldier in the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Transcarpathian Brigade, candidates must complete a gruelling obstacle course in full combat gear within a set time. In the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, troops cross rivers and ascend cliffs while shooting at targets and carrying "wounded" comrades over this challenging terrain. Finishers earn a grey assault beret displaying the brigade's mountain insignia: an edelweiss flower and crossed axes.
"Many soldiers dream of owning such a beret," said 128th Major, Yaroslav Galas.
In late December 2021, soldiers of the 128th had marched with rifles in a homecoming ceremony in Uzhhorod, western Ukraine, hugging relatives and celebrating their return from the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) in the east of the country, where they had defended the occupied Donbas region since 2014.
Barely two months later in February 2022, the brigade was redeployed across Ukraine, fighting on some of the fiercest front lines to defend their country against Russia's invading forces.
"We were ready for the Russian invasion," said Major Galas. "The ongoing war since 2014 has shown that mountain assault fighters are also very effective on the plains of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions."
The 128th is one of just 20 active combat brigades in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In 2014 and 2015, its members fought in key battles of the Donbas War. Six soldiers earned 'Hero of Ukraine' titles - three of which were posthumous - for heroic acts during this period of fighting, and the unit suffered signicant losses in the battle of Debaltseve in 2015. In 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the brigade on the front lines of the JFO.
The majority of the brigade's soldiers who were deployed in the Donbas War continue to serve today. "Officers repeatedly say that senior comrades who went through the height of the war seven years ago are telling young soldiers how to behave during artillery shelling, how to choose a firing position, how to help a wounded comrade, and so on," Major Galas said.
Many recruits are the sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who have served throughout the 128th's history.
Certain units of the 128th Brigade are housed in barracks that were built in the late 19th century during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when their army fought against the Russian tsarist army led by Brusilov and Kornilov in 1914-1918, and in the Alps on the Isonzo front on the Austro-Italian border.
During the Soviet era, some founding units of the current brigade were part of the 128th Turkestan Mountain Infantry Division of the Red Army. The brigade has since evolved from a post-Soviet mechanised division to one of the most powerful units in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The 128th's current formation as a 'Mountain Assault Brigade' was established in 2004. Several battalions undergo specialist training for combat in mountainous areas, learning climbing, abseiling, ropework and survival skills. These battalions earn the brigade its general 'Mountain Assault' classification.
Only one other brigade bears this status in the Armed Forces of Ukraine: the 10th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, the youngest brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, formed in 2015 and based in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.
Today, the 128th in its entirety consists of around 6,000 multinational personnel from across the Transcarpathian region, including Hungarians, Slovaks and Romanians. Soldiers are often mistaken for foreign mercenaries when civilians hear the mix of languages and dialects spoken in the brigade. Due to its cultural and linguistic diversity, the 128th is unofficially called the "Transcarpathian Legion".
In addition to defending Ukraine, soldiers have been deployed abroad on peacekeeping missions in Iraq, Lebanon, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia.
Time spent training in the Carpathians - and in the Crimean Mountains, prior to the Russian annexation - makes the elite beret-bearing 128th members especially resilient.
Mountain soldiers are capable of enduring harsh weather conditions and navigating in unfamiliar terrain. But fighting in winter in the muddy plains and streets of eastern and central Ukraine - as in the current invasion - is nonetheless challenging for these elite troops.
"The greatest advantages gained from their mountain training are good physical and psychological capabilities," Major Galas said. "Urban warfare, however, has its own specific characteristics. That's a different conversation altogether."
Major Galas is currently fighting alongside his comrades in a combat zone in a Russian-speaking area of Ukraine. He enlisted at the military registration office on 25 February, the second day of the war, and did not wait to be summoned.
"128th Brigade units are currently scattered at different conflict zones across Ukraine," Major Galas said. "I can say that they are even in the hottest zones."
The 128th interact closely with other units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, who live and fight alongside them, reinforced by volunteer-filled local Territorial Defence Units in villages, towns and cities.
Major Galas has noticed a marked difference in civilians' perception of Ukrainian soldiers since his time spent in the separatist-controlled Luhansk region, where he was engaged in reparations and reconstruction work in 2014 and 2015, when many locals living in eastern pro-Russian areas were angered by the Ukrainian military presence.
"They did not love us, did not trust us, they told the militants about our positions," Major Galas said. "Many men fought against Ukraine in the ranks of the so-called LPR and DPR militants. People really believed that we were Nazis and fascists, as Russian propaganda put it, and it was very difficult to change this opinion."
He is astonished at how attitudes toward the Armed Forces have shifted during the current invasion. "People are very friendly, try to help, allow you to pay by card, and switch to speaking Ukrainian," the Major said. "When you thank them, they answer "We thank you!""
The 128th appears to have lived up to its formidable reputation so far in the ongoing Russian invasion, claiming to have shot down a KA-52 helicopter worth over $16 million, destroyed tanks and caused saboteur groups to flee.
Last month, the brigade captured a Russian lieutenant colonel who was involved in direct daily communications with a commander and is now giving testimony to Ukrainian counterintelligence — just one of many prisoners of war who have surrendered to the defending army. As widely reported in the media, the captives often claim that they were duped into fighting and told that the invasion was a military exercise, and that Ukrainians would welcome them as "liberators".
"The prisoners all say so, both soldiers and officers," Major Galas said. "But we understand that this is just a course of action. Probably, some conscripts who were taken prisoner genuinely did not know that they were going to fight in Ukraine. But contractors and officers knew, for sure."
Whether destroyed or in working order, an impressive collection of "trophy equipment" - as Major Galas describes it - has been claimed by the brigade, the majority of which is proudly shared on their social media accounts.
"Not everything can be displayed online," Major Galas says. "But we have gained several tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles and other armored vehicles, military trucks, the very latest Russian weapons and some old "Soviet trophies" — artillery guns and mortars."
Alongside their Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and YouTube accounts, the brigade recently launched a website for disseminating information to civilians, family members and raising awareness of the war for people abroad. Sharing the reality of war in so-called "aftermath content" - often with a booming techno soundtrack, or patriotic anthem - serves to boost the morale of soldiers and citizens, while compelling foreigners to assist. A musician in Uzhhorod dedicated a song to the brigade.
When he's not fighting, Major Galas doubles as the unit's press officer. "This is a hybrid war," he said. "There is a confrontation not only in combat, but also via information. Sharing information online is very important for the fighters, and for their relatives behind them, and for ordinary citizens who are literally living through war just now."
So powerful is the 128th's use of social media that Russian intelligence recently used bot farms to mass-report posts as "hate-speech" on their Facebook page, leading Facebook's censoring system to delete posts and warn of account closure. Some content has been restored after contacting Facebook, but their new website aims to be a more resilient platform, despite the continual risk of DDoS cyber attacks.
Among the daily updates is a series of profiles of the brigade's soldiers, titled 'Faces of the 128th'. Natalka is a young soldier from Odessa, whose military family are serving in different units of Ukraine's Armed Forces.
"Is it hard for me to serve? Nope, I'm used to it," she told Major Galas. "Is it scary? We've been shot at several times but nope, there is no fear at all! But I want the war to end as soon as possible and everything to be OK."
Natalka's four-month-old puppy, Alma, moves with the brigade and provides moral support. "With her, it's easier on the front lines," Natalka said. "She reminds us of life in peace and is a true friend of the soldiers!"
Although the majority of brigade members are full-time serving soldiers like Natalka, some signed-up to the army as the invasion began, opting to bypass Territorial Defence and enlist in the military proper.
"The fighting spirit is very high," Major Galas said. "Vasyl Shtefko, who went to war against the Russians without legs and deceived the military enlistment office, is the best proof of that."
55-year-old Vasyl Shtefko from Kushnytsia is a double amputee who lost both legs while working in Russia in 2004. "I could not sleep for two nights when I saw what was happening", Vasyl said. "I just could not stay at home, I gathered my belongings and went to the military enlistment office. I confess now: I lied to the commander. I told him I only have one prosthesis and applied to the 128th Brigade. I served in the army once before — I can shoot and drive well.
"My wife and 11-year-old daughter are waiting for me at home. They are worried, but also proud that I am defending the country."
In the fog of war, communicating and accessing accurate information from the front lines is difficult. Major Galas "can't name a number" of losses from the brigade to date, but at least four memorial posts have been formally announced and shared on the 128th's Facebook page since the outbreak of war in February.
"I will just say that the fighting is very fierce now, much tougher than in 2014-2015," he said. "The Russians have much greater losses. This is explained not only by the professionalism of the 128th Brigade or the Armed Forces — the fact is that advancing military units always suffer 5-7 times greater losses than the defence."
To prevent further Ukrainian military losses - and protect civilians - Major Galas is appealing for help from abroad. The brigade has received protective and surveillance equipment, including drones. "This is a serious help, it allows for better air reconnaissance and can save the lives of many fighters," he said. "Support from foreign countries is very important for Ukraine, as we don't have enough of the latest weapons, such as anti-tank missile systems like NLAWs or Javelins for air defence, and diplomatic action including sanctions against Russia is crucial, too."
While not all countries are unanimous in their support due to a combination of geopolitics and propanganda, the brigade's soldiers and the citizens they interact with sense that the vast majority of countries in Europe and across the world are in solidarity with Ukraine. "They understand what is really happening here," Major Galas said.
In a war zone, help comes in many forms. "When children send pictures, when children write letters to soldiers they do not know, or when local women bring homemade cakes, this is very motivating," he added.
"Героям Слава!"; "Glory to the heroes!" the Major signed off.
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