Russian Paratroopers in Ukraine



Article by Vlad Besedovskyy

I devoted a lot of time to researching the background and organizational structure of the Soviet Airborne Forces, and though I couldn’t ignore the current situation. Since February 24th, 2022, when Russia has been waging aggression against Ukraine, Russian VDV performance has been generally subpar. Particularly when contrasted with the aspirations of the VDV fanboys before the conflict.

I’d like to start by discussing the Russian paratroopers’ organizational structure. This is essential for additional research. The analysis can proceed with the most recent official data I could find on the Russian airborne forces, which is from 2018, as it doesn’t appear that there have been any significant changes since then. Three distinct assault brigades and four airborne divisions make up the Russian airborne forces. Six air assault regiments and four parachute airborne regiments make up the 10 regiments that make up these four divisions. The distinction between the two is not clear but is not significant.

During the Soviet era, the difference was significant and mainly related to the type of vehicles that the troops used. Later, however, all of these regiments received essentially the same organizational structure, with only minor and situational variations in personnel and weaponry.

The 45th Special Air Assault Brigade, which describes itself as a spetsnaz unit within airborne forces, is another. It is “great and terrible.” This regiment will not be included in further analysis due to the smaller number of personnel and significant losses sustained by the unit in the very early stages of the invasion.

In addition, there are numerous other support and technical organizations, educational facilities, airborne schools, etc. Most of the time, they fight solely as individuals rather than as units.

Typical airborne regiment organization

Airborne units are made up of battalions, which are made up of companies, just like any other regiment. The maximum number of passengers that can fit into a BMD vehicle, however, determines how many people can be accommodated in each section. For BMD-4M, this is 3 crew members and 5 infantrymen, and for BMD-2, it is 2+5.

The second is much more typical among the forces. The support units are outfitted with BTR-D and MDM personnel carriers, which are essentially BMDs without the turret. These units include artillery crews, communications, and medical personnel. 100 BMDs of either type, 40 BTR-Ds, and a few wheeled vehicles would make up a regiment. Rarely will a given unit contain more than 1700 people. However, the number of actual combatants, or those who carry out battle-related tasks on the ground, is just a fraction of this. The size of a good platoon rather than a company, each platoon has 15 members when mounted, and the entire company has only 47 members with the company commander included. But it’s important to keep in mind that this unit will appear on some general’s map as a company. I advise watching a video from the Battle Order to learn more details. The distinction between airborne and assault regiments is discussed in greater detail, as well as all of the support units.

It is crucial to keep in mind that even a fully functional airborne regiment only has 100 fighting vehicles, which means 200–300 crew members and just 500 actual foot soldiers. The support role is filled by everyone else in the regiment. In contrast, a BMP-2 or BTR-82-equipped infantry regiment would consist of at least 700 foot soldiers.

However, the Russian airborne’s structure design is not the only issue contributing to its subpar performance in the ongoing conflict. The historical growth and doctrine of the Soviet airborne can be linked to more serious causes.


Both the Crete landing and the D-day paradrop in Normandy were strategically successful operations. However, the airborne units in both instances sustained terrible losses. Nearly a quarter of the initial German paratrooper strength was lost. Even at the time, this was significant. Hitler was extremely unhappy with the high number of casualties; and as a result, there were no more significant German parachuting operations. However, the Germans’ speedy conquest of Crete impressed Allied military leaders. In both the US and the UK, significant amounts of force were devoted to the development of airborne forces. However, all allied operations were only partially successful, and both resulted in unintended losses, despite the professionalism and bravery of the paratroopers on the ground. Most major nations continued to develop airborne forces after the Second World War; some of these forces are now deployed with helicopters.

But the strategies remained the same: while waiting for the main land forces to breach the enemy defenses, paratroopers were to be dropped far behind the enemy lines to sabotage as much of their support and logistics as they could. For the benefit of many, this lethal tactic was never tested, at least not on a large scale. The use of paratroopers as a highly mobile ground force on more specialized battlefields, where the requirement for heavy weaponry is present, proved to be successful. The Rhodesian Army, specifically the Rhodesian Light Infantry battalion, is of course the most notable example. The use of helicopters or paradropping was simply another method of getting troops into battle in the eyes of the Rhodesians. And it was a huge success for them!

They would be dispatched to the conflict area, engaged in combat, and then picked up and returned to base. On certain days, a trooper would complete three combat jumps in a 24-hour period. However, it is important to remember that the enemies of the Rhodeians had very weak anti-air capabilities and were unable to shoot down incoming aircraft and helicopters. When fighting a developed country, the situation would be entirely different.

Soviet paratroopers

But let’s get back to the Soviet paratroopers, the Russian airborne’s immediate forebears. They were seen as just another branch of the military in the early postwar years. However, things started to quickly change in the early 1970s. It was simply insane how much marketing was done to promote airborne troops. A typical Soviet schoolboy could have dreamed of being drafted into VDV by watching movies, listening to music, seeing posters, and reading both true and made-up stories. Airborne troops were provided with blue shoulder boards, slightly different uniforms, and most importantly, different headgear, the blue beret, which is the sacred emblem for Soviet paratroopers. There was only one last minor issue.

Although the USSR was among the first nations to perfect the para dropping method, paratroopers were incredibly underutilized during World War 2. Thus, unlike infantry, tankers, or pilots, Soviet paratroopers did not achieve any noteworthy victories on the battlefield for which they could have been proud. It appears that the war with Ukraine was intended to alter this in retrospect. But once more, the desire to be the first has pulled a cruel prank.

The evil misuse of paratroopers

It is an indisputable fact that paratroopers are the top soldiers in any army. Physical fitness is a requirement for airborne, and military and morale prowess are requirements for continued service. It is only natural, paratroopers need to have the highest morale among the troops because one of their possible tasks is to jump from an airplane into hostile territory while utilizing only a few tin-foiled vehicles with weak armament. Someone special is needed for this. Paratroopers have proven to be excellent fighters in every military conflict since the end of the Cold War. Soviet and Russian paratroopers were among the first units to “switch on,” adapt, and prevail in both Afghanistan and Chechnya. Keep in mind that the only exercises they had before these battles were some World War III-style battles with heavy para drops, hundreds of tanks in every direction, and so on. The Soviet army did not employ small-unit tactics, as we previously discussed. Similar to 2013, Ukrainian airborne brigades entered battle first in 2014. Despite the Ukrainian army’s decline since the early 2000s, paratroopers were still able to fight and produced the best results. But if one does not have the right equipment, training, and plan, even the most physically fit, patriotic soldier with a hundred jumps behind his shoulders is actually just a glorified athlete.

And as a result, unnecessary deaths occur. However, these casualties were predetermined in the event of a major war according to Soviet and, more recently, Russian doctrine. If the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Chechnya taught us anything, it’s that paratroopers can and should drive heavier vehicles than the ones that the doctrine called for.

BMDs and BTR-Ds, the majority of which were destroyed in the first year of fighting were replaced with BTR-70, BMP-2, and tanks, which were way more useful in Afghan conditions. After this rearmament, paratroopers were more effective in combat and suffered fewer casualties. But in the best Soviet tradition, all paratroopers were immediately rearmed and returned to their original vehicles—aluminum BMDs, after the withdrawal of armed forces from Afghanistan. On the contrary, Ukrainians had their epiphany in 2014. BTR-3, BMP-2 IFVs, and T-80 tanks were used to resupply airborne regiments after the majority of their airborne-specific vehicles were destroyed during combat. And the light aluminum BMDs have never got back into service since then.

The attack in Gostomel

So what precisely happened during this war’s early stages? In an effort to hold onto airports, they had captured until infantry and tank battalions will arrive, the Russians attempted to drop a number of paratroopers deep inside Ukrainian territory. We all know how poorly this turned out. The number of strategical and tactical mistakes was just excessive. The Russians were unable to defend the area against hostile anti-air capabilities due to their subpar air capabilities. Due to a lack of transport helicopters, only a very small airborne force was actually deployed in the designated zones. The Ukrainian Quick Reaction Force quickly outnumbered and outgunned these troops.

Ironically, the man who is often referred to as the “father of all paratroopers” himself rejected the strategy: “… V. F. Margelov realized that in modern operations, they will only be able to operate in the enemy’s deep rear if they are highly mobile and capable of wide maneuver landings.”

In this scenario, the landing force would be quickly wiped out, so he categorically rejected the installation of on retention of the area captured by the landing before the approach of the troops advancing from the front by the method of hard defense as disastrous.

After this initial setback, the Russian higher command persisted in its plan to swiftly seize the Ukrainian capital and dispatched all of its airborne battalion tactical groups into combat.

We all know that Aluminum BMD-4 has no chance against 30mm or 50 cal. automatic cannon.

Not to mention that the Ukrainian forces possessed an almost limitless number of effective anti-tank weapons, including NLAWs, Javelins, RPGs, and Stugna-P.

Therefore, crews of BMD or BTR-D vehicles had no chance against enemy fire, whereas a tank or BMP-3 would offer some defense.

And even now, eight months into the conflict, the Russians continue to employ airborne-specific vehicles, albeit in much smaller numbers than at first (mainly, due to lossses).


We are unable to determine the exact number of paratroopers lost by the Russian side because there are no official statistics and only about 8000 Russian servicemen who were identified as KIA through public sources.

However, because of Oryx’s work in cataloging and identifying every piece of machinery lost in this conflict, we can make a very close approximation. Only VDV-specific vehicles will be tallied.

On November 1, 2022, it will look like this:

162 BMD-2 units.

56 BMD-4M pieces

63 BTR-D pieces

12 pieces of MDM

Totaling 293 vehicles

An airborne regiment should have about 140 tracked vehicles on its balance, as I already mentioned at the beginning of the article. Thus, at the very least, two airborne regiments were successfully cleared.

That is 20% of all pre-war Russian airborne troops. And this is the most optimistic calculation, for Russians.

In truth, Oryx is unable to account for every loss, and not every regiment would have a full stock of vehicles. The Russians are using battalion tactical groups to fight this war, and we are well aware of what these are because information about them was leaked from the captured documents.

Interesting to note, that out of 538 people registered in the BTG only 403 were present on that day (12.02.2022)

Two battallion tactical groups could theoretically be produced by an airborne regiment.

There were 40 tracked vehicles per one.

Therefore, losses of 7-8 BTGs or 3-4 regiments are more realistic.


 After 9 months of intense fighting, it will be fair to conclude, that Russian airborne forces failed to achieve any meaningful results during their invasion to Ukraine. Mainly due to an outdated doctrine, faulty tactics, and inadequate armament. However, this doesn’t mean that any other country would show better performance in a similar scenario.  A large-scale airborne operation is therefore at best suicidal in the modern world due to the high density of anti-air capabilities. Such an operation would only be effective when fighting an enemy with little to no air defense, but in that case, transporting troops by landing is much easier and safer. It would make more sense to use trained, highly motivated paratroopers as professional infantry. The only remaining technical challenge is to design weapons and vehicles that can be transported by air and offer adequate protection.

Vlad is a  a military historian/enthusiast and Author of Also the 
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