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A Russian Assault Through NATO Eyes

Updated: May 22, 2022

A recent video surfaced of a Russian paratrooper, a member of their famous VDV Airborne forces, discussing his predicament to his Ukrainian captors. His experiences during the battle at the airport in Hostomel outside Kyiv paint an interesting tactical picture. When compared with the methods NATO forces have used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations during the Global War on Terror (GWOT), this seems foolhardy at best.

While it's certainly true that the captured soldier is inclined to change the story of events in the presence of his captors, there still lies within a marble of truth. The soldier, referred to herein as Nikita, describes the operation as more of a training operation that turned wrong. While many have called this to be a foul, there is some credibility to this claim. Sporadic claims of Russian soldiers protesting their service in Ukraine have surfaced.

However, according to Nikita’s testimony, his air assault operation was doomed from the start. Much of the planning for the operation may have led to the individual soldier and fire teams (2-4 man infantry elements) to be confused and disoriented when they landed on the ground. Despite being an elite airborne light infantry unit, their fate could have been sealed before they even engaged the enemy. In discussing this with many NATO soldiers and veterans, many of which have conducted similar air assault operations, the cracks seem obvious.

One former NATO soldier who had served with the British Army as an infantryman stated that the captured soldier seems wholly confused about the operation. The soldier seemed he had not been briefed on the mission and had little to no confidence in his platoon-level leadership. He attributes this to a relic of the Soviet view of warfare.

“I think the Soviet military imagination has been their biggest failing here,” the Brit continues. He sees similarities to the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. “The most surprising aspect of this war has been their apparent inability to learn the lessons of the 2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” he explains, “which is very ironic considering that was a war that Russia helped to end.” Armenia, being largely trained and supported by Russia, is a perhaps a microcosm of the larger problem with Russia in Ukraine despite new equipment.

The infantryman explains that this soldier is an example of this failure to modernize the warfare ideology, and not just new gear. In his opinion, he says that many in the West, Ukraine included, “seemed to take note of the effectiveness of drones in conventional war, and the fact that conscription-based systems will fail when confronted with trained, briefed, and determined professionals.” He closes by stating succinctly, “Russia's tactics - like Armenia's - are demonstrably outdated.”

Many have written critiques about Russian tactics and their usefulness in modern warfare. However, it is particularly interesting to see this from a participant from the Russian side. While it is true that a soldier's statements in captivity should be taken carefully, there seems to be little reason to doubt the veracity of his statements. This is largely due to the outpouring of after-action reports that came to surface in the wake of the fighting around Kyiv.

Analysis shows that the operation was largely an overambitious attempt at airfield seizure, already a delicate task for any military unit. In addition to the unpredicted Ukrainian defense strength, it was reported that the CIA alerted Ukraine prior to the invasion of the deep strike Russia was planning. This allowed those defenses to construct barriers and establish fighting positions. This caused the initial air assault to falter, and only when Russian forces could bring armored support from their staging bases in Belarus could the airport be seized.

However, the airfield had been so heavily damaged that it could not be used for its desired purpose of a forward support base. The Atlantic council, an American think tank, stated that the defense of the airport and its denied use as a forward supply and operations base caused the mission to take Kyiv to fail. Others have gone on to state that this battle, along with many of the other actions in other parts of the country has shattered the old image of a modern and deadly fighting force.

The Russian airborne forces have historically been a highly prestigious component of the armed forces. Being a paratrooper, even in the Soviet Red Army, was a unique career-elevating credential for those members. Their alleged high training standards, specialized equipment, and selective recruitment process all painted this image. During the fighting in Ukraine now, particularly the VDV action in and around Hostomel, defense experts and analysts are beginning to question their prowess as simple propaganda.

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