Russia is deploying some of its most elite troops in an effort to push back Ukraine’s advancing counteroffensive. While this might benefit its frontline troops, this strategic move may come at a cost. Moscow’s elite Airborne Forces, known for their paratrooping prowess, were recently summoned to defend against Ukraine’s offensive actions, marking a significant shift in their role.

Russian Paratroopers Losses

The VDV (romanized: Vozdushno-desantnye “parachuting/skydiving” voyska Rossii), a renowned branch of Russia’s military, has reportedly already suffered significant casualties in the ongoing full-scale war in Ukraine. Despite being historically utilized for offensive maneuvers, these troops are now being redirected to reinforce critical defensive sectors along the frontline. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, points out that this lateral redeployment implies that Russia is employing its elite units to shore up vulnerable parts of the front.

According to the ISW analysis published Monday, Russian VDV units have been relocated from the Kherson and Luhansk regions to support defensive efforts in Zaporizhzhia and Bakhmut. While the Ukrainian counteroffensive has been making steady progress, Russian forces are facing challenges defending areas like Zaporizhzhia in the south and Bakhmut in the east, which they managed to claim and occupy earlier in the war.

Experts at ISW highlight the potential drawbacks of using elite units for both offense and defense. The high operational tempo has likely taken a toll on these forces, which could lead to their degradation over time. This depletion may weaken Russia’s capacity to sustain complex defensive operations and hinder any plans for large-scale offensive actions that rely on elite infantry.

Russian Casualties in Ukraine
More than 30,000 Russian casualties in Ukraine as of August 24, 2023, according to Mediazona count. (Screengrab)

Meanwhile, according to a monitoring report maintained by independent Russian media Mediazona, in collaboration with BBC News Russia, the number of VDV deaths is about 6.2 percent of the overall Russian military casualties in Ukraine. The tracker, which collected data from the onset of the invasion to August 24, 2023, also revealed that of the Airborne Forces casualties figures, about 17.5 percent were officers.

Broader Impact: Strain on Elite Units

The VDV is not the only elite unit affected by the ongoing war. Other specialized Russian units, including special forces and infantry brigades, have also experienced substantial losses. This misuse of elite soldiers has been evident since the early stages of the conflict, with instances of special operations forces being assigned roles that deviate from their intended purpose. A prime example occurred right at the beginning of the invasion, wherein Moscow’s Spetsnaz commandos were assigned to reconnaissance duties alongside conventional forces rather than being deployed as the vanguard for the assault on Kyiv.

During the initial phase of the war, the VDV was heavily involved and suffered significant losses. Col. Gen. Mikhail Teplinsky, the VDV commander, recently disclosed that over 8,500 of his troops were wounded in combat. However, this number may not encompass all wounded soldiers, leaving the actual casualty count potentially much higher. These revelations are rare, as Moscow’s military leadership typically avoids acknowledging setbacks or hardships publicly. To no surprise, Teplinsky omitted crucial casualty details from his statement. His remarks were also removed hours later. Nonetheless, in a defense intelligence update issued shortly after, the British defense ministry evaluated that at least fifty percent of the 30,000 paratroopers deployed to Ukraine had either suffered injuries or lost their lives in combat.