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ARTICLE: The Ukrainian Mountain Assault Brigade Fighting on the Front Lines

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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 challenging terrain. Finishers earn a grey assault beret displaying the brigade's mountain insignia: an edelweiss flower and crossed axes.

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In reply to UKC/UKH Articles:

I expect to get drowned in downvotes for this, but I'd rather not have people with guns, flags and espirit de corps here. 

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In reply to UKC/UKH Articles:

Excellent article, thank you. We can't just hide in our own little climbing bubble and pretend that the real, current world doesn't exist, and this article does well to tie that to a climbing context.

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In reply to Bobling:

The history of military mountaineering is long and fascinating - from the Italian/Austrian front in the Dolomites in the First World War, to the current activities of the French GHM at the leading edge of mountaineering. Where would you draw the line? Should UKC report cutting-edge first ascents by people whose day job is fighting wars in that same inhospitable terrain? Or on the military units who effect rescues of civilian climbers in the Himalaya?

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In reply to Bobling:

Don't read it then

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 Dominic Green 04 Apr 2022
In reply to Bobling:

> I expect to get drowned in downvotes for this, but I'd rather not have people with guns, flags and espirit de corps here. 

Just as much as the Ukrainians would rather not have Russians with guns, flags etc.. there

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 DD72 04 Apr 2022
In reply to Bobling:

No I agree I think it is a step too far. I have liked the other stories on Ukranian climbers and I support their decision to take up arms and the right to resist of Ukrainians in general. I understand the desire to make connections but I think simply recycling the propaganda of a military unit, no matter how justified the current conflict they are is, is a good idea. Particularly as the history of the unit appears somewhat selective.

https://www.wikiwand.com/en/128th_Mountain_Assault_Brigade_(Ukraine)128th%20Separate%20Mountain%20Assault%20Transcarpathian%20Brigade 

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In reply to DD72:

Don’t read it then

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 Only a Crag 04 Apr 2022
In reply to DD72:

A "step too far"?  a maniacal ex KGB officer controlling the worlds largest arsenal of nuclear weapons has been waging unrelenting war on civilians in Europe ordering genocidal war crimes and this is too much, take a look at yourself 

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 DD72 05 Apr 2022
In reply to Only a Crag:

To my mind, it steps over the line between supporting Ukrainian climbers and supporting the Ukrainian military, unquestioning support for the military is a dangerous thing, as the regime of the aforementioned genocidal ex-KGB officer demonstrates. 

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In reply to DD72:

> unquestioning support for the military is a dangerous thing

Do you think that Natalie is unquestioning in her professional capacity as editor?

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In reply to DD72:

You should take up parkour because that’s one of the biggest leaps I’ve ever seen. Writing an article about some mountaineering troops is the same as supporting a brutal dictator who’s invaded a sovereign nation and murdered thousands of civilians? 
 

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In reply to DD72:

It's hardly unquestioned support given the context? The sooner that the Ukrainians kick the bastards out, the better.

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 DD72 05 Apr 2022
In reply to tehmarks:

As far as I can recall there has never been an article on UKC exclusively about a military unit so it is a departure from the normal content.

It would certainly be nice to know how the article came about.  

My only motivation here is that the first poster pointed out that they didn't really like seeing content like this on UKC. I just wanted to second that point.

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In reply to DD72:

It's a valid viewpoint. I personally don't have an issue with it, but it does read very much as an uncritical reprint of a press release from the 128th.

Having viewed content linked in this article, I can't help wondering what the reaction would have been if UKC had published a puff piece from a British military unit who were proudly putting up pictures of dead Iraqis or Afghanis (or body parts thereof) on social media (with or without a pumping techno soundtrack).

Anyway, good luck to them, (and I'm jealous they get to wear "assault berets").

Post edited at 10:41
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 DD72 05 Apr 2022
In reply to Skiddly1987:

I don't know. You already have posters on this thread baying for blood and trying to shut down dissenting opinions. 

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In reply to Ridge:

> It's a valid viewpoint. I personally don't have an issue with it, but it does read very much as an uncritical reprint of a press release from the 128th.

> Having viewed content linked in this article, I can't help wondering what the reaction would have been if UKC had published a puff piece from a British military unit who were proudly putting up pictures of dead Iraqis or Afghanis (or body parts thereof) on social media (with or without a pumping techno soundtrack).

> Anyway, good luck to them, (and I'm jealous they get to wear "assault berets").

Word. 

Also thanks DD72 for manging to put into words what I felt when I wrote the OP, but have had no time to come back to.

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 felt 05 Apr 2022
In reply to tehmarks:

> Excellent article, thank you. We can't just hide in our own little climbing bubble and pretend that the real, current world doesn't exist, and this article does well to tie that to a climbing context.

That's right. All the Red Bull athletes, climbers among them, are being sponsored by a company that currently maintains an operation in Russia.

https://som.yale.edu/story/2022/over-600-companies-have-withdrawn-russia-some-remain

 DD72 05 Apr 2022
In reply to Bobling:

I think Ridge summed up my feelings pretty well. I was probably pussyfooting about as I didn't want to be too critical of the UKC team for recycling a press release as after all they are not, as far as I know, trained journalists and it probably came from a good place. But it think it is a bit different from recycling a puff piece from LaSportive/Scarpa about how their latest boots will help me send that project.

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In reply to DD72 and others:

Firstly, it's not a recycled press release. I used to climb at the GMHM (Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne) facility in Chamonix, knew some of their members and wondered if Ukraine had a similar mountain military brigade. I've covered mountain conflicts previously on UKC (mountain areas harbour a surprisingly disproportionate share of global violence and conflict): https://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/features/the_war_is_in_the_mountains-10318 and we've been covering the Ukraine invasion and its impact on the Ukrainian climbing community in some depth, so it's hardly a bolt out of the blue. 

Did you think we were sent a press release? I'm not sure the brigade would see much point in emailing press releases to climbing websites. They have bigger priorities and bigger outlets that they could target if they wished. 

After researching the brigade, I sent the Major around 20 questions. We corresponded in Ukrainian over multiple emails using Google Translate to save him time. He was incredibly responsive despite being (literally) otherwise occupied. 

I understand that seeing images of guns and videos of violence might seem shocking to some people, but that's because we are so distanced from conflict in the UK. Ukrainians have lived alongside conflict for most of their lives (the kids I interviewed about fleeing to Prague a couple of weeks back remember guns and soldiers at checkpoints from when they were 3 and 5 years old). If you don't like reading about conflict - on a climbing website or elsewhere - you don't have to click on it. I'm not sure what some posters expected when they clicked on a piece about the military. I chose the images carefully and tried to consider this, but posting about a military brigade without including photos of weapons is harder than it might seem and (in my opinion) overly sanitised. Dom Green's comment explains it well: if the Ukrainians have to put up with these atrocities, I think we can deal with photos of guns from the comfort of our sofas. War is horrific, but the fact is that without the Ukrainian army, civilians would be far worse off.

I think to criticise this piece as being a puff piece is to miss the point: the Major says himself that this is an information war as much as a physical conflict. Russians are pumping out lies by the minute. You only have to look at the way Zelenskiy uses social media as a tool to unite Ukrainians and rally support. When I shared what they're doing on social media, I didn't comment in the piece on it either way, but I wanted to link to the evidence of their claims. Of course their content is one-sided, of course they are bigging themselves up and deriding the Russians, it's psyops (and personally, full disclosure: I don't blame them and I am very much on their side) — their country is being invaded and all evidence points to heinous war crimes, so they're bound to be more than a little angry. But I don't think it would have gone down well to share thoughts from a Russian brigade for 'balance'. They appear to be one of the most 'online' brigades and I think what they are doing in real time with social media is very interesting and innovative — it'll probably be studied by war historians in years to come. 

As for the selective history comment, I had to be else the piece would be too long (the brigade's history, like many others in this region and elsewhere, is complex). I focused mostly on its roots. Yes, they participated in the invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but the current brigade includes ethnic Hungarians and many are descended from members of the historic units. The current soldiers don't seem to be letting the brigade's history influence their participation in the current invasion, although their government is less than supportive currently. It becomes very complicated to judge one brigade by the actions of its past soldiers (as directed by historic leaders and generals, etc.).

I knew this piece would be divisive and I appreciate everyone's opinions, but I don't want anyone thinking I just trot out press releases. This took time to research and put together. I didn't rely solely on what the Major told me. The information about Debaltseve, the Donbas and their homecoming, for example, was never mentioned by the Major, nor were the videos on YouTube and Reddit. I followed the brigade for a few weeks before committing to contact them — none of this was pushed onto me. I knew about their social media presence and all of the helicopter, tank, prisoner of war etc. claims before contacting him.

Anyway, the piece prompted a reader to get in touch asking about host-matching with a refugee, which is something positive to come out of it and perhaps shows why it's important to report on bigger issues and harness the strength of the climbing community, rather than look away. 

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In reply to Natalie Berry - UKC:

Thank you Natalie for taking the time to write that post, it does add a lot of context to how the story came about and the work you put into it.  I'm glad that the piece will hopefully act as a catalyst for a route out of the conflict for a refugee which is a really amazing outcome.

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 DD72 05 Apr 2022
In reply to Natalie Berry - UKC:

Thanks for taking the time to reply.

I did think there is a difference between supporting Ukrainian climbers and supporting a regiment in the Ukrainian army. Obviously, everyone has a different opinion of how important the distinction is but I was mostly objecting to other posters wanting to shout down someone who thought it was important to raise it as a problem.

I personally didn't have a problem with images of soldiers and weapons what I didn't like was that it was too sanitised and told too positive a story. The pictures of dogs, cuddly toys, good looking young men and women as well as the stories of family connections and happy homecomings. I understand they need to present a positive image of themselves but positive propaganda is still propaganda.

I didn't think the piece needed balance but what it did need was a bit of distance and more neutral reporting of the facts. I think it is really risky to wholeheartedly endorse the position put forward by one group engaged in a brutal conflict where the picture is changing all the time in case new evidence comes to light. 

Obviously, the basic facts of Russian aggression and what seems like growing evidence of horrific war crimes are already pretty clear but there is still a lot of detail there for the devil. 

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In reply to DD72:

Yeah, it's certainly not demonstrating the brutality as much as it perhaps should, but there are things they can't talk about and things that I expect wouldn't go down too well on this site, especially if people are sensitive to the subject. It's a balancing act. It would have been interesting to hear from one of the berets, but I suspect they're the most engaged in the hotspots at the moment.

I agree, the puppy and teddy and letters from kids contrast with the brutality, but they give the soldiers some way of coping. The contrast highlights the absurdity of it all, but that's war, I suppose. I considered putting a photo of a burned-out tank, but...it could have upset people. So I went with the 'safer' option. 

Post edited at 20:35
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 wintertree 05 Apr 2022
In reply to DD72:

>  as after all they are not, as far as I know, trained journalists

You say that as if being a trained journalist is worth anything.  

I once had someone tell me they'd done an MA in Journalism.  When my memory replays that, it's something like this: youtube.com/watch?v=Uywo6Eo2CvI&

These days, regardless of subject, all to often being a trained journalist appears to involve making no real effort to understand the subject they're reporting on, and to plumb the depths of extremism and lunacy to find an opposing view which is then presented with equal parity to the mainstream under some delusional and societally toxic interpretation of balance.

FWIW, I thought the article was excellent; and it brings a very human dimension to the troops.  There's no doubt that propaganda is a key weapon in this conflict, however there's a clear dividing line between so-called white propaganda seeking to get the facts out there and to engage individuals in understanding what's going on, and the filth the Russian side is pumping out 

The attitude embodied by some of those quoted in contrast to the extreme mountaineers more commonly reported on on here; the former are leaving their loved ones and risking all for the benefit of others; the mountaineers are leaving their loved ones and risking it all for themselves.  

At the end of the day, this us UKC.  If you're looking for impartial reporting I'd suggest taking CNN and Al Jazeera and splitting the difference in their narrative on each issue.  UKC articles tend to be about perspective, and this one is a perspective.  

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 DD72 07 Apr 2022
In reply to Natalie Berry - UKC:

Thanks again.

The final point I wanted to make (and should have made earlier) was that in making the 128th the subject of the story rather than say, individual climbers within the 128th (although I suspect getting that level of access would have been pretty difficult) seemed to me to depart from the other stories of individual climbers caught up in the conflict and what they are facing, which I have really valued and think have been excellent.

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In reply to DD72:

Yes, I don't think I'd have been able to access individual soldiers for comment, especially not the berets. I can maybe get back in touch after the conflict is over, which seems far off just yet.

I omitted this from the article as it felt a bit weird/uncomfortable to include, but I noticed that one of the kids from the Prague refugee article is wearing a brooch of the edelweiss/axes insignia - the exact same as the one on the berets - on a rucksack in an Instagram photo. It shows how different the attitude towards the military is in Ukraine, and also how people - kids included - look up to these soldiers. I doubt many parents in the UK would want their kids wearing military badges, unless they came from a military family, perhaps. 

Working on more stories from climbers. These photos are from a sports centre in Mariupol. Climbing wall damaged but still standing. Rest of facility burned down and looted. Story of the guy who works there and his return to Mariupol last month: https://twitter.com/natalie_a_berry/status/1511720696120025094

I was speaking to another climber this morning and the call suddenly dropped. I assumed it was a wifi issue, but then he called back and said his friend had just called to tell him that a mutual friend in the army had been killed. Awful. 


2
 ColdWill 16 Apr 2022
In reply to Bobling:

Slighlty ironic how your favourite climbing experience is Comando Ridge then. 

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 Misha 16 Apr 2022
In reply to Natalie Berry - UKC:

You’re probably right about some people getting upset by photos of burned out tanks but that’s pretty moderate in the scheme of things. It’s what’s inside the burned out tanks…

It’s interesting that the imagines in the media here are generally fairly sanitised when it comes to bodies. I guess it’s to protect people’s sensitivities but it does take away from the reality of war (this war and any other war). I’m not saying we need lots of gory images but it’s a war and lots of soldiers and civilians are being killed… 

I think the official FB page of the Ukrainian armed forces strikes a better balance. Lots of burned out equipment and occasional photos of bodies. They do blur out the faces and don’t show any particularly ghastly injuries. Just bodies of people who used to be alive but aren’t any more. It’s easy to look at photos of destroyed equipment and forget about the people.

https://www.facebook.com/GeneralStaff.ua

I don’t feel sorry for my fellow Russians though. They had a choice to surrender or refuse to fight, as some of their comrades have done. To an extent, I’m surprised the Russian army hasn’t yet mutinied en masse. May be it will happen eventually and Putin will end up hiding in a ditch like Gadaffi. 

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 Misha 17 Apr 2022
In reply to UKC/UKH Articles:

Sticking with the mountaineering theme, some footage of rope access work with a difference. The intact light bulb hanging off what’s left of the ceiling is perhaps symbolic of survival. The caption says 41 bodies have been uncovered from the rubble in Borodyanka.

https://fb.watch/cskAbOQUHJ/

The second clip is footage from Kharkiv and the third is a boobytrap (you can just about see the tripwire.

 Šljiva 19 Apr 2022
In reply to Misha:

It’s interesting that the imagines in the media here are generally fairly sanitised when it comes to bodies. I guess it’s to protect people’s sensitivities but it does take away from the reality of war

You're right, the photographers, the agencies take the pictures, and the video, but what gets used depends on cultural norms in the country of publication, and indeed on the publication. Western Europe does not want to see bodies with their breakfast. 

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 JohnW994 27 Apr 2022
In reply to Bobling:> I expect to get drowned in downvotes for this, but I'd rather not have people with guns, flags and espirit de corps here. 

I don’t see this exclusively as about guns and bullets, but certainly as esprit de corps and striving to excel in what we all know can be a hostile mountain environment.  All soldiers bear arms, mountain-trained troops have a strong affinity with their mountain environment. Vive 🇺🇦 Ukraine.

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