Russia's using its elite paratroopers in an unusual way to hold the line, leaving the force 'airborne in name only,' war analysts say

  • Russia is relying on its elite paratroopers, the VDV, to defend against Ukraine's counteroffensive.

  • But these repurposed soldiers have been bruised in combat, and their future is uncertain.

  • "These Russian formations have become 'airborne' in name only," war experts wrote in a new analysis.

Russia has turned to its elite paratroopers, the VDV Airborne Forces, to help defend against Ukraine's battlefield advances. War analysts say these troops — repurposed as a kind of regular infantry, reeling from past setbacks and failures, and battered and bruised from combat — might now be "airborne in name only."

The VDV, the airborne forces of the Russian military, is one of several bands of so-called elite troops who have been misused or re-tasked to irregular purposes throughout Moscow's 19-month-long war in Ukraine. These paratroopers have suffered heavy casualties during combat and were recently called up to defend as Kyiv's forces continue making territorial gains in their counteroffensive.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said this week that there are several actions being taken to increase the combat potential of the VDV, such as the creation of new airborne assault units. Additionally, Moscow is adding support, repair, recovery, and artillery capabilities to all divisions of the VDV, as well as new weapons and equipment, Shoigu told a session of Russia's defense ministry board. He claimed these initiatives will ultimately boost the paratroopers' fighting and firepower potential.

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, said in response to Shoigu's announcement that these efforts will bring the VDV "into closer alignment with the force composition" of a standard Russian motorized rifle division, or infantry units that are supported by armored combat vehicles.

Russian paratroopers during the rehearsals for the Victory Day Military Parade at the polygon, on April 18, 2022 in Alabino, outside of Moscow, Russia
Russian paratroopers during the rehearsals for the Victory Day Military Parade at the polygon, on April 18, 2022 in Alabino, outside of Moscow, Russia. Russian airborne forces have taken a heavy beating in Ukraine.Contributor/Getty Images

"These additional units will likely allow the Russian military to use Russian VDV divisions almost interchangeably with motorized rifle divisions in the future, and VDV elements in Ukraine have been increasingly operating as combat infantry similar to motorized rifle divisions," the ISW analysts wrote in a Tuesday assessment of the ongoing war.

"The Russian MoD's provision of additional elements to Russian VDV units and formations serving in Ukraine is a recognition of the role Russian VDV forces are currently playing in Ukraine and highlights the non-standard way in which the Russian military is using these forces," the analysts wrote. "These Russian formations have become 'airborne' in name only, and it is not clear when the Russian MoD intends for them to take to the skies again."

VDV forces were heavily utilized during operations at the start of the war but not always properly, at times leading the paratroopers to endure steep casualties, which only continued in the following months.

ukraine war
Ukrainian soldiers fire D-30 artillery on the frontline in the direction of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on August 14, 2023.Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Col. Gen. Mikhail Teplinsky, commander of the VDV, revealed earlier in August that at least 8,500 paratroopers had been wounded in combat. That figure, however, only referred to troops who were injured and refused to leave the battlefield or those who left and returned to the front lines; he did not share the number of soldiers who never returned to the fight or how many died after succumbing to their injuries.

Several days later, Britain's defense ministry wrote in an intelligence update that at least half of the 30,000 paratroopers who were sent to Ukraine had been injured or killed. As so-called "elite" Russian forces have taken losses, they have at times been backfilled with poorly-trained replacements, degrading the overall capability of the unit.

Since those figures were released, VDV units have been transferred to support Moscow's defensive efforts in the face of Ukraine's pressing counteroffensive.

Paratroopers were deployed from the Kherson and Luhansk regions to the Zaporizhzhia region in the south and the war-torn city of Bakhmut in the east — two directions where Kyiv's forces have been advancing. ISW experts said at the time that Russia's dependence on the VDV in both an offensive and defensive role has likely been detrimental to the paratroopers, though it is unclear how many casualties the VDV has suffered in its new role.

The VDV is one of several elite units to suffer severe casualties during the war as Moscow has relied heavily on them. Such was the case with the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade and the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, both of which have been battered in combat. The paratroopers are also an example of Russia's misuse of "elite" soldiers — sent on missions they weren't designed for. Other misused forces include the Spetsnaz commandos, who, for example, were assigned reconnaissance roles with conventional forces instead of partaking in the early assaults on Kyiv.

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