- Russia’s airborne elite force, the VDV, has been at the center of Moscow’s offensive against Ukraine.
- VDV has fought in Ukraine, where fighting has claimed many lives and damaged the unit’s reputation.
The fighting of the Russian military in Ukraine has seriously weakened its reputation.
Despite having qualitative and quantitative advantages, the Russians have failed to achieve their primary goals, forcing the Kremlin to withdraw and change its strategic goals in the war.
The Russian military’s airborne elite force, the VDV, was at the center of the invasion, which began on February 24, and its paratroopers have suffered heavy losses in several high-profile failures during the campaign.
A unit within the VDV, 331. Garde’s parachute regiment, is considered elite in itself and has taken heavy losses in Ukraine, including its commander-in-chief, Colonel Sergei Sukharev, who was killed in mid-March.
An airfield too far
The Russian plan focused on acting with speed, surprise and violence. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisers imagined a war that lasted 48 to 72 hours, conquered important Ukrainian city centers, including Kiev, and overthrew the Ukrainian government.
Airborne forces are ideal for such preparedness as they are trained and equipped to fight with speed, surprise and aggression. Russian military leaders, of course, turned to their VDV airborne forces to play a key role in the invasion of Ukraine.
One of the main Russian targets in the first hours of the invasion was Antonov airport near the Ukrainian city of Hostomel, about 20 miles from Kiev. VDV paratroopers carried out an air strike at the airport using about 30 helicopters.
At first, they were able to capture it, but it was a short-lived victory when a Ukrainian counterattack by special operations forces and conventional troops took over the airfield.
The goal of the attacking force in airborne operations, such as airfield seizures, is to expand the perimeter, or “airhead”, so that the defending force cannot hit the airfield with artillery, rockets and other indirect firearms, a former Green Beret officer who served in the 82nd Airborne Division told Insider.
“By doing so, you allow airfield operations to continue and reinforcements to flow in,” said the former officer, who requested anonymity because they are still working with the U.S. government.
“Failure to expand the airhead in the first hours of an aerodrome seizure welcomes a disaster. You can use it as a feint to distract the enemy and take his attention away from another part of the combat space, but it would also mean sacrificing the airborne force, which by the way are some of your more competent devices, “said the former green beret. “Is the risk and loss worth it? It’s up to the boss and the operational situation to decide.”
During the Hostomel attack, it appears that the Russian VDV forces failed to expand the airspace. They were stuck at the airfield and were unable to push out and prevent Ukrainian forces from getting near the runway.
In addition, the Ukrainian defenders foresaw a Russian attempt to capture the airfield and had placed obstacles, such as buses and tractors, on the runways to prevent Russian transport aircraft from amplifying the initial wave of VDV forces.
Russian commanders also failed to reinforce the paratroopers on the ground with additional helicopter-borne forces – a complete failure of the doctrine.
VDV forces, which are characterized by the “V” marks on their vehicles, have been involved in several other faults and have suffered heavy losses throughout the invasion.
In one case in early March an entire VDV-mechanized patrol was assaulted and destroyed of Ukrainian specialist operators in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin.
The 331st Guard Parachute Regiment was involved in fighting around Kiev, and estimates of its losses range from 39 soldiers, as told by the BBC, to about 100, according to residents of the community where the unit is based.
Russian vs. U.S. Airborne Forces
Distinguished by its troops’ white-and-blue striped shirts, called telnyashkas, and their blue berets, the VDV is an elite organization within the Russian armed forces.
It is a separate branch of the Russian military and is considered Moscow’s strategic reserve. When an emergency arises, VDV is there. During the recent upheaval in Kazakhstan, the VDV was one of the first Russian forces to be sent in and served as what Moscow called peacekeeping forces.
The size and doctrinal role of the VDV sets it apart from airborne units in the United States and other Western military.
In 2015, the commander of Russia’s airborne troops, Colonel-General, arrived. Vladimir Shamanov said the force would grow to 60,000 paratroopers in the coming years. These forces are divided into several divisions and brigades.
By comparison, the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division has less than 20,000 paratroopers. The 82nd Airborne is the U.S. military’s only dedicated paratrooper unit, though other units, such as the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, perform airborne operations.
The doctrinal role of Russian airborne forces is also different from that of their American counterparts. Both formations are fast response forces designed to attack quickly and capture key targets, but VDV forces are far more mechanized than U.S. airborne units.
Russian VDV units sport tanks, infantry tanks and armored personnel carriers, and they use them frequently. During fighting in Ukraine, VDV has lost T-72B tanks and BMD-2 infantry tanks, among other vehicles.
U.S. paratroopers have some mechanized capabilities – like the LAV-25, an all-terrain armored infantry vehicle – but nowhere near what their Russian counterparts have.
VDV units are also designed to be more independent than their western counterparts.
For example, in a conventional near-peer conflict, after seizing a target, the 82nd Airborne Division would rely on mechanized ground reinforcements to relieve them. Since VDV has an organically mechanized capacity, it would not rely on other devices to relieve them after grasping their targets.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (National Service with 575th Marine Battalion and Army Headquarters) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.