A massive loss for Russia? An attempted Russian air landing operation targeting an airbase southwest of Kyiv appears to have ended in a costly fiasco for Russia, with possibly hundreds of casualties—at least, if claims that two transport planes full of paratroopers were shot down can be verified.
The night-time attack occurred in the context of unsuccessful Russian efforts to take Kyiv rapidly by storm using special operations forces infiltrated within the city as well as airborne and mechanized forces approaching from the northwest.
On the first day of the war, Russia used paratroopers landed by helicopter to seize Antonov Airport (also known as Hostomel airport), but the attack encountered enough anti-aircraft fire that transport jets reportedly dispatched to land reinforcements there could not do so.
A Ukrainian ground and air attack drove the Russian paratroopers out that evening, but Russian forces—including Spetsnaz and additional airborne—mostly regained control the following day.
As Russia launched a new push against Kyiv on the evening of February 25, it reportedly attempted a second, night-time air-landing operation intended to open an airhead to help encircle the Ukrainian capital from the southwest.
Leading the attack on the ground were infiltrated Russian Spetsnaz special operations forces disguised as Ukrainian police and driving a police car who reportedly gunned down soldiers at a checkpoint near Vasylkiv airbase, the home base of the agile MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters of Ukraine’s 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade, located just 11 miles southwest of Kyiv. (Many sources claim the distance is 25 miles, but Google map data suggests otherwise.)
Russia had earlier attempted to soften up the airbase with strikes. The attack by the disguised Spetsnaz apparently kicked off an attempt to seize the aerodrome in a coup-de-main.
Reports (seems confirmed by both sides): Russian Special Forces have attacked and neutralized the guards at the Vasylkiv Air Base. Notable, if confirmed, this would indicate Russia is on the way to encircle Kiev, as Vasylkiv is to the south, south-west of the capital. pic.twitter.com/gnCKdW5uvN
— Bashkarma (@Karmabash) February 26, 2022
— Prolific News (@ProlificGlobal) February 25, 2022
Meanwhile, several hulking Il-76MD transport jets approached the base, reportedly laden with paratroopers. Possibly the air-landing operation had a dual contingency: if the Spetsnaz could secure Vasylkiv, then the transports might directly land at the base. But if resistance proved too intense, then they could parachute into the fray instead. A similar flexible contingency was prepared for during the U.S. air landing operation in Grenada in 1983.
But Vasylkiv proved anything but secure if Ukrainian accounts of what ensued are accurate. Most transport planes are highly vulnerable to enemy fighters and surface-to-air defenses. And Ukraine claims it successfully used both to contest the skies over Vasylkiv.
Another was apparently engaged by one of Ukraine’s S-300P long-range surface-to-air missile systems and shot down at 3:20 AM, coming crashing down near Bila Tservka, 25 miles southwest of Vasylkiv.
If these transports were destroyed before they could drop their paratroopers, that may imply a staggering loss of life.
A single Il-76 ordinarily is rated to carry up to 126 fully-equipped paratroopers, roughly a company-sized unit. Thus their destruction could have led to the loss of around 250 personnel, or two full paratrooper companies, if packed to capacity.
That said, some of the paratroopers may have been able to bail out of the transports after they were hit. Furthermore, the downed Il-76s might also have been carrying parachutable BMD armored vehicles or heavy weapons, and thus a smaller complement of personnel.
There remains a major caveat to these reports: visual confirmation of the Il-76 losses has yet to be produced. That mirrors numerous other claims of aerial shoot downs in the conflict which have not been confirmed.
That said, the Associated Press claimed two American officials “familiar with the situation on the ground” confirm the loss of the transports.
Given how indiscrete the crash of such large aircraft would be, one would think confirmation should not be long in coming if accurate. However, warzone-related chaos can delay such verification too.
Ukrainian officials allege a Russian Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack jet was also downed by a Ukrainian Su-27 fighter approaching Vinnitsya to the west. There are additional unconfirmed claims of two Russian helicopters downed near Vasylkiv.
As with most aerial shoot downs claimed in the war so far, evidence in the form of wreckage has not been produced yet to the author’s knowledge.
Battle in Vasylkiv: A Loss for Russia?
Whatever the case, some Russian paratroopers did reportedly land in scattered fashion around Vasylkiv. These may have been from Il-76s that evaded air defenses and/or survivors parachuted from the two allegedly downed aircraft.
Furious fighting reportedly erupted in Vasylkiv’s streets as the paratroopers engaged a quick-reaction battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine. Vasylkiv’s Mayor Natalia Balasynovich reportedly told the Ukrainian government “[Vasylkiv] is completely occupied with fighting…There are many casualties. Unfortunately, they are in the 200s.”
Finally, at 7:30 AM the Balasynovych posted on Telegram that the landing operation had been defeated:
“The battles that lasted all night are over. Russian paratroopers landed with parachutes in the fields, forests and villages of our community. The worst was on Decembrists Street, there were fights, the street was on fire. They dreamed of capturing our airfield to deploy their troops, but our 40th Brigade was powerful and repulsed the attack. ”
That implies the personnel of the fighter brigade were active in the defensive operation. The brigade does incorporate a security company, as well as communications and technical support battalions and two fighter squadrons.
Vasylkiv mayor says Ukraine’s 40th Brigade together with local home guard war parties have successfully repelled the Russian landing operation near the key airfield south of Kyiv.
By dawn, after a night of fierce action, fighting is dying down.
— Illia Ponomarenko (@IAPonomarenko) February 26, 2022
Given the wide dispersion parachute landing operations are prone to, it’s quite possible many paratroopers remain dispersed in the area around Vasylkiv and may potentially attempt to regroup.
While confirmation of the Il-76 shoot downs remains less than satisfactory, it nonetheless remains instructive that Russia apparently attempted an airborne operation that by contemporary conventional wisdom would surely be deemed unacceptably risky or even highly unwise—particularly given the continued activity of Ukrainian fighters and air defense missiles which Russian mission planners should have been aware of.
On the one hand it speaks to a greater willingness in the Russian military to liberally gamble the lives of its forces on gambits hoped (likely incorrectly) to accelerate the fall of Kyiv and lead to early war termination.
It also appears to reflect a general under-estimation of the Ukrainian’s will to resist and ability to inflict serious losses even using fighters and air defense missiles that are mostly less modern than those operated by Russia.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.