November 24, 2022
During the Battle of Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill paid tribute to the Royal Air Force pilots who, though heavily outnumbered, managed to thwart Adolf Hitler’s invasion plans. In an Aug. 20, 1940, speech to the House of Commons, Churchill delivered one of his most famous quotes: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
More than 80 years later, Churchill’s words seem quite fitting to describe the role played by Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) in helping turn the tide of the war, starting with the Battle of Kyiv and continuing through the Kharkiv and Kherson offensives.
The motto of Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces is “I Come At You!”—a quote attributed to Sviatoslav the Brave, a grand prince of Kyiv in the 10th century. Known for his courage, Sviatoslav managed to defeat powerful armies. The motto is displayed on the SOF’s emblem which displays a silver wolf with a gold belt behind which is a wreath of silver leaves.
On July 29—which is Special Operations Forces Day—Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Your exploits are not openly spoken about, and your faces always remain hidden, but we are all confident in the high level of your training, hardening, invincibility of spirit, courage and determination. “On this day I also would like to mention SOF soldiers who died in the battles for independence and the sovereignty of our state. Eternal memory to them! We all thank the soldiers in gray berets for the worthy fulfillment of their mission to protect the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Ukraine!”
THE BATTLE OF KYIV
Russian President Vladimir Putin envisioned a shock and awe campaign that would capture Kyiv within 72 hours and topple the Ukrainian government. In the initial hours of the invasion, Russia’s elite VDV paratroopers, using about 30 helicopters, conducted an air assault on the Antonov airport near the Ukrainian town of Hostomel, about 20 miles from Kyiv. The Russians were so confident they wouldn’t meet any resistance that the airborne attack took place without supporting ground forces or barrages of long-range missile fire to weaken the Ukrainian defenses. Ukrainian defenders opened fire with machine guns as well as anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, downing at least three helicopters. But several hundred Russian paratroopers took control of the airport.
Ukrainian artillery, drones, and bombers struck the runway to prevent further landings. And then Ukrainian Special Operations Forces, supported by a mechanized brigade, attacked the airport, preventing Russian cargo planes from bringing in heavy equipment and reinforcements, frustrating them and making a quick capture of Kyiv difficult.
As fighting raged in Kyiv suburbs, special forces units attached to Ukraine’s military intelligence service sneaked behind Russian lines to blow up parts of a dam on the Irpin River to release a torrent of water that flooded the Russian forces and created a muddy quagmire impenetrable for tanks, blocking an attack on Kyiv from the west.
Ukraine’s SOF then played a key role in halting the 40-mile convoy of armored vehicles and supply trucks that Russia sent from Belarus to support the attack on Kyiv, disrupting Russia’s supply lines. A lot of damage was done in a series of night ambushes carried out by a team of 30 Ukrainian SOF soldiers and drone operators on quad bikes, The Guardian reported.
The commander of the Aerorozvidka drone reconnaissance unit, Lt. Col. Yaroslav Honchar, told The Guardian that the Ukrainian fighters on quad bikes were able to approach the advancing Russian column at night by riding through the dense forest on either side of the road leading south toward Kyiv from the direction of Chernobyl.
The Ukrainian soldiers were equipped with night vision goggles, sniper rifles, Javelin anti-tank missiles, remotely detonated mines, drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras, and others capable of dropping small 1.5 kg bombs.
The Guardian wrote: “This one little unit in the night destroyed two or three vehicles at the head of this convoy, and after that it was stuck. They stayed there two more nights, and [destroyed] many vehicles,” Honchar said.
The Russians broke the column into smaller units to try to make headway towards the Ukrainian capital, but the same assault team was able to mount an attack on its supply depot, he claimed, crippling the Russians’ capacity to advance. “The first echelon of the Russian force was stuck without heat, without oil, without bombs and without gas. And it all happened because of the work of 30 people,” Honchar said.
After suffering heavy casualties and huge equipment losses, Russia decided to cut its losses and announced in late March that its forces would abandon the attack on Kyiv and refocus on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. In a David vs. Goliath struggle, Ukraine had managed to win the Battle of Kyiv.
HOW U.S. SPECIAL FORCES TRAINED THE UKRAINIAN SOF TO RESIST THE RUSSIAN INVADERS
When Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, its special forces consisted of the remnants of Soviet Spetsnaz units based in the country. Then in 2011, the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych dismantled the Special Operations Forces. (Never forget that Paul Manafort was paid millions of dollars to serve as Yanukovych’s political consultant.)
After Yanukovych was ousted in the February 2014 Maidan Revolution, Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatists in the Donbas region. At the time, Ukraine’s Chief of the General Staff, Viktor Muzhenko, described Ukraine’s forces as “an army literally in ruins.”
In September 2014, the new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko decided to accelerate the process of forming again the Special Operations Forces. At the end of 2015, the Ministry of
Defense made the Special Operations Command (known by its Ukrainian initials as the SSO) a new and separate branch of the Ukrainian armed forces.
By this time, the U.S. had established the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine operating out of a former Soviet base in Yavoriv in western Ukraine. The main focus of the training was to transform Ukraine’s regular army from the rigid hierarchical Soviet model to a modern NATO-style fighting force with a bigger decision-making role for NCOs and junior officers.
But at the same time, U.S. Green Berets and special forces troops from other NATO countries began training their Ukrainian counterparts in carrying out unconventional warfare and guerrilla tactics.
Some elite Ukrainian commandos received special training in the U.S. from the CIA in intelligence gathering and insurgency tactics. Yahoo News wrote: One person familiar with the program put it more bluntly. “The United States is training an insurgency,” said a former CIA official, adding that the program has taught the Ukrainians how “to kill Russians.”
By 2017, Ukrainian commandos had started taking part regularly in joint exercises with special forces from the U.S. and other NATO members in Lithuania, Germany, and the Black Sea region.
And by 2021, two Ukrainian SOF units had been declared eligible for being deployed as part of the NATO Response Force, becoming the first non-NATO special operations units to receive such certification.
By the time the Russians launched their full-scale invasion, Ukraine had built up a Special Operations Force of about 4,000 troops, with land, sea, and airborne units. Gen. Richard Clarke, who recently retired as head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told The Washington Post: “When the Russians invaded in February, we’d been working with Ukrainian SOF for seven years. With our assistance, they built the capacity, so they grew and they grew in numbers, but more importantly, they built capability,” in both combat assaults and information operations.
To prepare to repel the Russian invasion, each Ukrainian SOF brigade last year created and trained a ‘resistance company’ recruited from the local population in areas such as Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and the Donbas that were likely to be Russian targets. As a result, Clarke said, “If you’re a Russian soldier today, your head must be on a swivel because you don’t know where the threat is. They can’t look at any Ukrainian and know if that person is an enemy.” “We come at you” was a video released by Ukraine’s SOF before the Russian invasion:
HOW UKRAINE’S SPECIAL FORCES CARRIED OUT THEIR MISSION
Due to operational security, the full story of what missions have been carried out by Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces is not known. For example, we don’t know their possible role in attacking Russian airfields deep in Crimea or blowing up the Kerch bridge connecting the peninsula with Russia.
The tasks assigned to Ukraine’s SOF include taking part in raids behind enemy lines, collecting intelligence and building intelligence networks, undertaking hostage or prisoner rescue missions, helping partisans stage attacks, and carrying out psychological operations. Many of the combat videos and intercepts of Russian soldiers’ phone calls posted on social media have been the work of the SOF’s psy-ops units.
Rescue of Melitopol mayor: After capturing the southern city of Melitopol, Russian forces abducted Mayor Ivan Fedorov after he refused to collaborate with the occupiers. A few days later, Ukrainian special forces rescued Fedorov in a mission whose details have not been revealed. Zelenskyy spoke with Federov after his rescue, declaring “We don’t abandon our people.”
Battle of Severodonetsk: After losing the Battle of Kyiv, Russia shifted its focus to the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine in an effort to complete its occupation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Ukraine needed to hold off the Russians to buy time to train its newly mobilized troops and begin to deploy the more advanced weapons systems it had started receiving from the U.S. and its allies.
Russian forces began the offensive against Severodonetsk in early March, but did not take control of the city until June 25. The Institute for the Study of War said the battle had tied down Russian troops which could have been used elsewhere in the war, saying that Russia had “concentrated the vast majority of its available combat power to capture Severodonetsk and Lysychansk at the expense of other axes of advance and is suffering heavy casualties to do so.”
Ukrainian special forces, skilled at urban combat, ventured out at night to attack Russian units in house-to-house fighting. Battle of Mariupol: Russian forces surrounded the southern city of Mariupol and drove the Ukrainian defenders into the sprawling Azovstal steelworks. In late March, the defenders were running low on ammunition and medicine.
On March 21, two MI-8 helicopters carrying Ukrainian Special Forces fighters flew barely 20 feet above the ground into the Azovstal compound, bringing crates of Stinger and Javelin missiles and medications. The helicopters evacuated wounded soldiers on the return leg.
Six more helicopter resupply missions were carried out before it became too dangerous to continue. One flight brought in dozens of reinforcements for the besieged garrison. The Azovstal defenders were able to hold out until mid-May when they were ordered to leave the plant. But the defense tied down thousands of Russian troops who could have been deployed elsewhere on the southern and eastern fronts.
Carrying out reconnaissance missions: Special Forces scouts use drones and missions behind Russian lines to seek targets. They would then coordinate with Ukrainian artillery to destroy the target.
Liberation of Snake Island: On the first day of the invasion, Russian troops captured Snake Island in the Black Sea. The last communication heard from the Ukrainian defenders was: “Russian warship, go f-ck yourself.”
On July 7, Special Forces combat divers approached the island in underwater vehicles and then surveyed the coastal area for the presence of mines. They then called in engineers who removed any mines and other traps left behind by Russian troops when they left the island a week earlier following Ukrainian attacks. The commandos then raised their unit’s flag and Ukrainian flags on the island.
Supporting partisan activities in occupied territories: SOF soldiers have helped form partisan groups in Russian-held territories which have carried out acts of sabotage, assassinated Ukrainian collaborators and Russian officials, and provided intelligence on Russian troop positions, equipment, bases, and depots for targeting.
The Kyiv Independent published a detailed report on how Ukrainian special forces worked with local partisans in the town of Kadiivka in the Luhansk region in early June. The local residents informed their Special Forces contact that Wagner Group mercenaries had set up a base at the local stadium.
After verifying the information, the Special Forces called on the Ukrainian military to hit the base with artillery, killing up to 200 mercenaries and destroying their weapons depot.
Videos from the site were published by Russian propagandists after Ukraine hit it. There was disagreement among Ukrainians about what weapons were fired, although the Special Forces contact believed recently acquired U.S.-made HIMARS were used.
Going on offense in Kharkiv and Kherson: When Ukrainian forces launched offensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, Special Operations Forces wreaked havoc behind enemy lines just as they did during the Battle of Kyiv, only then Ukrainian forces were engaged in a defensive battle.
On Nov. 11, the headquarters of the Special Operations Forces of Ukraine announced that its troops had been the first to enter the southern port city of Kherson, where they were greeted by hundreds of residents holding Ukrainian flags in the city center. “A moving meeting filled with joy: members of the Special Operations Forces of Ukraine are in the liberated city of Kherson. The emotions of Ukrainians who have been stoically waiting for the liberation of the city and are welcoming their defenders today are just incredible.”