Russia has sent its elite paratroopers to curb Ukraine's advancing counteroffensive.
Moscow's VDV Airborne Forces were deployed to several locations along the sprawling front line.
War experts say the resulting degradation will hinder efforts to use these troops at a later date.
Ukraine is advancing, and it's forcing Russia to deploy some of its most elite troops to try and curb Kyiv's forward progress in its ongoing counteroffensive. But in doing so, Moscow appears to be throwing away soldiers it may need later.
The VDV Airborne Forces, a branch of Russia's military, has long been considered an elite band of paratroopers, but they've suffered heavy casualties throughout the full-scale war in Ukraine. These troops, which Russia relies on heavily for offensive actions, had recently been called up to fight on defense in several locations where Ukraine was executing its offensive operations, war experts wrote in an analysis this week.
"This lateral redeployment further suggests that Russian forces may be using relatively elite units to reinforce critical sectors of the frontline," experts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in a late Monday assessment.
Russian VDV units have been transferred from the Kherson and Luhansk regions to support Russia's defensive efforts in Zaporizhzhia and Bakhmut, respectively. Zaporizhzhia, an occupied region in the south, and Bakhmut, a war-torn city in the east, are two directions where Ukrainian forces are pressing on with their counteroffensive, which is advancing at a slow but steady pace despite some early setbacks and a stiff Russian defense.
"The Russian military command has consistently relied on VDV formations as both an offensive and a defensive force and they are likely degraded from their high operational tempo," ISW experts wrote in their analysis, arguing that burning the candle at both ends risked exhausting this elite force in a way that could be a detriment for Russia later in the war.
"The degradation of these forces," ISW said, "will likely weaken Russia's ability to sustain complex defensive operations and almost certainly disrupt any Russian intent to resume offensive operations at scale, which have predominantly relied on relatively elite infantry that Russia now lacks."
The VDV is just one of a number of so-called "elite" Russian units that have been battered over the course of the war. Special forces have taken a beating, as have infantry units like the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, which has suffered heavy losses and been backfilled with inexperienced Russian troops.
Misuse of so-called elite soldiers has plagued Russia's war planning since the early days of the 2022 invasion, with some special-operations forces being assigned to missions that they weren't designed to partake in and that perhaps should have gone to more conventional units. One striking example of this happened at the very start of the war when Moscow's Spetsnaz commandos were dispatched to reconnaissance roles with conventional forces instead of being the first soldiers to carry out the assault on Kyiv.
The VDV were part of early operations and were heavily utilized at the start of the war, which Russia largely botched. These paratroopers suffered huge losses during the initial phase of the war and continued to endure steep casualties in the following months.
Col. Gen. Mikhail Teplinsky, the VDV commander, disclosed earlier this month that at least 8,500 of his troops were wounded in the fighting, though that figure purportedly only included troops who returned to the front lines or refused to leave in the first place. Teplinsky did not mention wounded troops who didn't return to combat, nor did he disclose how many soldiers died of their wounds, suggesting the actual casualty figure could be significantly higher.
Teplinsky's comments — delivered via video to a broadcasting platform run by Russia's defense ministry — were a rare admission of the impact of the fighting on Russian forces from Moscow's military leadership, which often avoids disclosing hardship or setbacks to the public. Several hours later, though, the remarks were removed from the website.
Though Teplinsky left out key casualty information from his address, Britain's defense ministry assessed in a defense-intelligence update several days later that at least half of the 30,000 paratroopers who were deployed to Ukraine had been killed or wounded in combat.
A month later, as VDV forces reposition to blunt Kyiv's counteroffensive, it's unclear if that number has grown.
Ukrainian forces continue to make limited gains in the occupied eastern and southern regions, but faster progress has been hindered by Russia's formidable and complex defensive lines, which consist of minefields, trenches, and anti-armor fortifications.
Because clearing these deadly obstacles is a painstaking process, officials in Kyiv and some in the capital cities of its Western military backers have pushed back on bleak assessments and criticism that paint the offensive in a negative light.
"We do not assess that the conflict is a stalemate," the White House national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, told reporters last week amid concerns about slow progress. "As I noted before, we continue to support Ukraine in its effort to take territory as part of its counteroffensive, and we are seeing it continue to take territory on a methodical, systematic basis."
Meanwhile, Ukraine's defense ministry confirmed this week that its forces liberated Robotyne, a small village in the Zaporizhzhia region, and published a video of its soldiers raising the flag on top of a building there.
"Thank you to all your brothers-in-arms," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a Sunday address to the nation. "And to all our other warriors of different ranks, from different units, who are doing everything possible to ensure that our flag is in all its rightful places, throughout the territory of our state."
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