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Ukraine says Russia lost half of its 45,000 elite troops since summer

By Ben Marquis
|
March 3, 2023

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been ongoing for a year now, and by most accounts, it has not entirely gone according to plan as Ukrainian forces, equipped and supported by the West, have mounted a stiffer-than-expected defense and inflicted heavy casualties on the invading forces.

In fact, recent reports indicated that the Russian military's most elite unit, the airborne paratroopers, also known as the VDV, lost upwards of half of its 45,000-strong force in just the first six months of the war, according to the Daily Mail.

To be sure, there is ample reason to be skeptical of any numbers admitted or reported by either side of the current conflict. Still, there is also plenty of circumstantial evidence and confirmed accounts of what has occurred thus far to bolster the claimed casualty losses of Russia's elite paratroopers unit.

Elite paratrooper unit allegedly suffered 50 percent casualties

Newsweek reported in January that a former Kremlin military official who now hosts a state-run TV show in Russia, Mikhail Zvinchuk, acknowledged the severe losses suffered by the paratroopers during a recent program.

In addressing public concerns that the elite unit was no longer being seen in videos from the frontlines of the battles in eastern Ukraine, Zvinchuk admitted, according to a translated video clip shared on social media, "Unfortunately, this is the objective reality: by the start of mobilization, our airborne forces lost 40-50 percent of staff."

He added, "As of now, out of the old and tested formations with designated equipment, not that many are remaining."

The "mobilization" to which Zvinchuk referred was the conscription order that Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered in September to bolster the rapidly depleted Russian military with around 300,000 new recruits, ostensibly limited to just those who were reservists, had prior military experience, or had specialized skills that were useful to the military.

How did this happen?

If what the former Kremlin official acknowledged is true, and the Russian VDV paratrooper unit lost around half of its fighting force in the first six months of the war, the question then becomes, how did that happen? Daily Mail foreign correspondent Chris Pleasance investigated the situation and came up with several compelling reasons why the claim might be accurate.

Pleasance first pointed to a major operation at the start of the conflict when the helicopter-borne VDV attacked the Hostomel airport near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and briefly seized the facility only to be ousted from the area by fierce Ukrainian counterattacks before reinforcements could be landed.

The VDV were then shifted to lead the ground assault on Kyiv from the north but the column was ambushed by Ukrainian defenders in the suburbs north of the city and turned back after suffering heavy losses to equipment and personnel.

Russia's elite paratroopers were then sent east to the disputed Donbas region at the center of the conflict and were tasked with leading a secret crossing of a major river, but the secret operation was discovered before it was completed and heavy artillery shelling destroyed the pontoon bridges and trapped a sizeable portion of the VDV on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the river, where they were picked apart and unable to be rescued.

Finally, Pleasance noted that the VDV was in the midst of the Russian defense of the captured city of Kherson that was besieged and nearly surrounded by a concerted Ukrainian counterattack that ultimately led to a bloody retreat in which even more casualties were suffered.

Russian military expert calls for reassessment of VDV capabilities

Relatedly, Business Insider reported last month that a top Russian military expert, Alexander Timokhin, somewhat surprisingly spoke out publicly about how the elite and highly-trained VDV paratroopers had been misused and how the Russian military needed to rethink the role the unit played and how it should be deployed.

The main problem with how the VDV was being used was the fact that the unit is rather lightly armored and lacked the heavy weaponry necessary for sustained combat operations against modern mechanized forces, nor does Russia have sufficient air transport available to move the troops and their equipment in adequate enough numbers to seize and hold strategic locations until reinforcements arrive.

To be sure, similar complaints have been made about the airborne forces of other nations, including the U.S., since such units first began to be used in World War II, and there are plenty of examples since then of airborne units running into the same problems as the VDV and suffering heavy casualties.

That said, Timokhin stopped short of suggesting that the VDV or use of paratroopers more generally should be abolished, but instead urged the Russian military leadership to reassess the unit's actual capabilities and make smarter decisions about where and how they should be deployed to maximize their effect on a given operation within the broader conflict.