Russia's elite airborne troops lured into Bakhmut trap

Moscow's 'irrational fixation' with besieged town led to Kremlin sending paratroopers to its defence, helping Ukraine's counter-offensive

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Elite Russian airborne troops have been lured into fighting around the town of Bakhmut, allowing Ukraine to break through the front line elsewhere, a leading military think tank has reported.

Moscow’s “irrational fixation” with the north-eastern Ukrainian town it seized at immense cost in May has led to its best troops being concentrated and killed around Bakhmut, the Institute for the Study of War report said.

This has allowed Ukrainians to break through the southern front, most notably around the settlement of Robotyne, with Russia’s VDV airborne troops belatedly rushed in to hold the line last month.

VDV commanders are also becoming increasingly frustrated by Moscow’s decision to use their paratroopers as standard infantry in trenches around Robotyne to hold up the advance, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said.

“The current situation is likely to be seen as highly unsatisfactory by the VDV hierarchy,” it wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

“Throughout the war Russian commanders have attempted to regenerate the airborne forces as a highly mobile, striking force for offensive operations. Once again, they are being used as line infantry to augment overstretched ground forces.”

It also reported that at least five VDV regiments had now been sent to Robotyne. But while this would normally number “10,000 elite paratroopers”, given their losses in nearly 19 months of fighting, “all units are highly likely dramatically under strength”.

Irrational fixation

The ISW special report commended Kyiv’s decision to focus on Bakhmut, saying that it had been subjected to “much unwarranted criticism” and opposition from some western advisers.

Instead the decision had “fixed a large portion” of Russia’s airborne forces and thus “increased Ukraine’s chances of operational success”, it said.

“The Ukrainians took advantage of Russia’s irrational fixation with the operationally insignificant town of Bakhmut to draw the highest-quality mobile Russian reserves there,” the Washington think tank stated.

The Bakhmut decision had held down a large amount of Russian combat power that could have been used in the Robotyne area and reflected “sound campaign design principles”.

“This significant Ukrainian achievement has helped prevent Russia from creating a large mobile VDV [airborne] operational reserve that could have been used to stop the main Ukrainian counter-offensive effort in Zaporizhzhia Oblast,” the report said.

Airborne casualties

Bakhmut was finally taken by the Wagner group of mercenaries following months of attritional fighting with the loss of 20,000 of its troops, many of them convicts.

But once the town was taken Wagner precipitately pulled out and were replaced by VDV members, who were forced to hold the line against Kyiv’s counter-offensive.

There is now a suggestion that Russia is “running out” of elite paratroopers killed in action around Bakhmut after reinforcement of the southern sector by the 41st Combined Arms Army that was “notably not a VDV formation”.

“This lateral redeployment of regular motorised rifle units likely reflects the fact that Russian forces are running out of VDV units to move,” ISW said.

The decision to defend Bakhmut last year and then counter-attack its flanks since the June counter-offensive had tied down two of Russia’s four VDV divisions.

“This is a significant achievement,” the ISW said. “The VDV is Russia’s principal expeditionary force and Russia’s highest mobility combat force.”

Ukraine’s aggressive tactics had caused significant airborne casualties and deprived them of the opportunity not only to regroup and refit but also to be a “high mobility operational” reserve to defend the southern front.

Southern breakthrough

The concentration of any significant proportion of these VDV units in the Robotyne area would likely have made Ukrainian penetration of the lines extremely difficult.

Kyiv’s troops are still battling to get beyond the second and third lines of defence that could get them close enough to cut off Russia’s main line of communication with annexed Crimea.

The lack of any decent reserve has “likely given Ukraine its chance to make significant gains in the south”, the report said.

Russia’s limited mobile combat reserve being committed to Bakhmut meant “more favourable conditions” for Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the south.

But Ukraine will have to continue to “press hard” on Bakhmut to keep the VDV forces pinned down there to prevent them stopping “the decisive Ukrainian effort” around Robotyne.

Pro-Kyiv military bloggers have suggested that Ukraine’s 3rd Storm Brigade encircled and routed the VDV 72nd Brigade, killing three battalion commanders and an intelligence officer when it retook the village of Andriivka, near Bakhmut, at the weekend.

On Monday it was reported that the Ukrainians had also taken Klishchiivka, a village 4km to the north of Andriivka.

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Updated: September 20, 2023, 6:03 AM