Vladimir Putin’s airborne forces have suffered heavy casualties after being thrown into battles better suited to heavier armoured infantry units, British defence chiefs said on Thursday.
They included being forced to retreat after seizing a key airport near Kyiv as the Russian president sought to seize the Ukrainian capital within days of launching his invasion on February 24.
The UK defence chiefs said that the VDV’s underwhelming performance highlighted that Mr Putin’s military was an “unbalanced overall force”.
They also claimed that “complacency” among Russian commanders was partly to blame for heavy losses in many of their elite units.
In its latest intelligence briefing, the Ministry of Defence in London said: “Russia’s airborne forces – the VDV – have been heavily involved in several notable tactical failures since the start of Russia’s invasion.
“This includes the attempted advance on Kyiv via Hostomel Airfield in March, the stalled progress on the Izium axis since April, and the recent failed and costly crossings of the Siverskyi Donets River.”
It added: “Russian doctrine anticipates assigning the VDV to some of the most demanding operations. The 45,000-strong VDV is mostly comprised of professional contract soldiers. Its members enjoy elite status and attract additional pay.
“The VDV has been employed on missions better suited to heavier armoured infantry and has sustained heavy casualties during the campaign. Its mixed performance likely reflects a strategic mismanagement of this capability and Russia’s failure to secure air superiority.”
The military intelligence chiefs also stressed: “The misemployment of the VDV in Ukraine highlights how Putin’s significant investment in the armed forces over the last 15 years has resulted in an unbalanced overall force.
“The failure to anticipate Ukrainian resistance and the subsequent complacency of Russian commanders has led to significant losses across many of Russia’s more elite units.”
Britain and other countries in the West are fighting an information war against Russia on what is happening in Ukraine.
Russian forces are reported to be seizing territory in the eastern region of Donbas, at least in localised attacks, after Mr Putin’s generals sent an “insane” number of troops and equipment into battles, according to Ukrainian officials.
Russian forces have shelled more than 40 towns in the Donbas, Ukraine’s military said, and are now threatening to shut off the last main escape route for civilians trapped in the path of their offensive in one area.
After failing to seize Kyiv or its second city Kharkiv, Russia is trying to take full control of the eastern region, comprised of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces which include areas held by Moscow-backed separatists.
Russia has poured thousands of troops into the region, attacking from three sides in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces holding out in the city of Sievierodonetsk and its twin Lysychansk. Their fall would leave the whole of Luhansk province under Russian control, a key Kremlin war aim.
“The occupiers shelled more than 40 towns in Donetsk and Luhansk region, destroying or damaging 47 civilian sites, including 38 homes and a school. As a result of this shelling five civilians died and 12 were wounded,” the Joint Task Force of Ukraine’s armed forces said on Facebook.
The statement said ten enemy attacks were repelled, four tanks and four drones destroyed, and 62 “enemy soldiers” were killed.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian troops “heavily outnumber us” in some parts of the east where Mr Putin has refocused his military campaign after the failure of his lightning invasion plan.
As Moscow seeks to solidify its grip on the territory it has seized, Mr Putin signed a decree simplifying the process for residents of newly captured districts to acquire Russian citizenship and passports.
The Russian parliament scrapped the upper age limit for contractual service in the military on Wednesday, so people over 40 can be called up, highlighting the need to replace lost troops.
In a late night video address, Mr Zelensky, commenting on the new Russian enlistment rules, said: “(They) no longer have enough young men, but they still have the will to fight. It will still take time to crush this will.”
Britain estimates that more than 20,000 Russian military personnel have already been killed in Mr Putin’s invasion, with tens of thousands of civilians feared to have also died in often indiscriminate Russian bombardments of towns, cities and villages.
Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are also believed to have been killed.
Mr Zelensky said this week the conflict could only be ended with direct talks between him and Mr Putin.