Russian paratroopers to be unleashed on eastern Ukraine

Despite being "chewed up" around Kyiv, airborne forces are being prepared for offensive in Donbas

A Ukrainian soldier hangs what appears to be a Russian paratrooper's beret from the end of his rifle, after fighting at Antonov Airport, north-west of Kyiv. AP Photo

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Russia is ready to unleash its paratroopers on eastern Ukraine, despite low morale after they were “chewed up” in the battle for Kyiv, western security sources have said.

Losses among elite VDV airborne troops have been so high that regiments formerly composed of three battalions have been shrunk to two battalions and in some cases one, after bloody battles north of the Ukraine capital.

Following Russia's withdrawal from around Kyiv, Russia's President Vladimir Putin has now appointed a commander who led Russian troops in Syria in 2015 to command the key Donbas region offensive in the east.

Gen Alexandr Dvornikov, 60, who was decorated by Moscow for his Syrian campaign, will be under pressure to deliver results for Mr Putin before Russia’s Second World War celebration of Victory Day on May 9.

But the desire to achieve quick results is leading Moscow’s commanders to commit the same mistakes while failing to change tactics, leaving their armoured vehicles vulnerable to attack by Ukrainians armed with anti-tank weapons, say experts.

Before the invasion, the VDV paratroopers — known as the “blue berets” — were feared as a well-honed force, equivalent to western counterparts such as Britain’s Parachute Regiment and US airborne forces.

But paratroopers were sent into the fight underprepared and without the necessary armour to tackle the onslaught of the Ukraine military, a senior western official said.

“The airborne forces were really badly cut up, driven by Putin's belief that they were going to be welcomed as liberators,” the official said. “Those relatively lightly armoured airborne forces got really quite badly chewed up so they've had to internally reconstitute the force, which means its overall mass is reduced.”

Russian general Aleksandr Dvornikov, who will lead the attack in eastern Ukraine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The high casualty rate had had a significant “psychological impact” on the men, the official said.

“These are meant to be elite Russian fighting troops, who have been defeated … and are now being put back into the fight. There has to be a question mark over their morale and confidence in their leadership.”

After more than 40 days of near-constant combat around Kyiv, the VDV troops are being put back into battle but this time under the command of the Syrian veteran.

Gen Dvornikov will inherit a Russian army that has shrunk from 125 battalion tactical groups to 100, with significant amounts of brand-new equipment left behind as they withdrew from Kyiv — including tanks, artillery and armoured infantry vehicles.

“There’s a lot of Russian equipment which has been abandoned in that hasty withdrawal and that's only going to exacerbate the challenge they have in terms of the refurbishment and reconstitution of their forces,” the western official said.

Fighting in Donbas region, where about 30,000 of Ukraine's best troops are deployed, will bring more casualties and have a greater “psychological effect”, said the official.

Gen Dvornikov also cannot afford to wait to build up strength and morale to try to take Donbas, because of the “political imperative” of May 9 and because Ukrainian reinforcements are be moving from Kyiv.

“Unless Russia is able to change its tactics and be far more effective at using all the tools to its advantage, then it's very difficult to see how they succeed in even these limited objectives,” the western official said.

“There is a risk as far as the Russians are concerned that Ukrainian forces will redeploy and start to have an impact on Russian freedom of manoeuvre to execute operations around the Donbas.”

However, in early operations in Donbas in recent days “we've not seen significant adjustments from the tactics which they've used previously”, he added.

Updated: April 08, 2022, 7:11 PM