A Ukrainian special operations unit is waging its own brutally effective war against the invaders
March 23, 2023
Even before the Ukrainian armoured assault vehicles left the treeline outside Orikhiv, the Russians knew they were coming. An enemy reconnaissance drone had spotted the column, guiding the big guns as they opened up from their emplacements. Two of the Ukrainians’ American-made M113 vehicles turned into fireballs and the rest were forced to beat a swift retreat.
President Putin’s troops here in the Zaporizhzhya region have had months to fortify their positions against such assaults. They sit within striking distance of its capital, Zaporizhzhya city, a key industrial hub on the Dnipro river that had a pre-war population of about 750,000.
Yesterday the Russians underscored the danger by targeting a nine-storey apartment complex in the city. Fired from positions barely 20 miles away, their missiles killed at least one person and wounded 25, two of them children. “Russia is shelling the city with bestial savagery. Residential areas where ordinary people and children live are being fired at. The terrorist state seeks to destroy our cities, our state, our people,” President Zelensky said of the attack, one of a slew of missile and kamikaze drone strikes that killed another seven people in a Kyiv student dormitory yesterday and hit key infrastructure sites across the country.
The Ukrainian army is under pressure to drive the Russians further from Zaporizhzhya and make a breakthrough in the south before they can completely repair the Kerch bridge, which was sabotaged with explosives in October. Much of the road that joins Crimea to Russia has been unfit for heavy transport vehicles for months as a result.
Yet the aborted Ukrainian attempt to drive the Russians from their positions at Orikhiv last week is a grim preview of the decisive battle building in southern Ukraine. A successful strike to the south, at Melitopol, could cut Putin’s land bridge to Crimea in two. Ukraine would recover the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant and control of the mouth of the Dnipro, both of which are essential to its economy and its survival as a sovereign state.
The problem is that, after Russian withdrawals from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Izium and Kherson, an attack here is obvious. Also, ammunition is running low as a result of the fierce artillery duel around Bakhmut. Missiles for Ukraine’s celebrated Himars launchers are in short supply and the West has refused to supply longer-range rockets that could strike Russian logistic hubs, now moved out of their reach.
Among the increasing number of Ukrainian special operations units barracked inside Zaporizhzhya city, some recently moved in from Donbas, the full frontal strike at Orikhiv was decried as senseless. There are better ways to dislodge the Russians, they argued.
The soldiers of Ukraine’s Thor special operations group planned their own attack on enemy positions. “These ones are to wound the Russians,” Aleksander, 30, told The Times. A massive, muscular fair-haired warrior from Kyiv, he fidgeted with a plastic container as he spoke, packed it with mining explosives and fitted tail fins to ensure it drops straight from its drone onto its detonator. “Take an arm or a leg, he will be a burden on the state forever. It’s better than killing them. He will remind the Russian people of the cost of Putin’s war. And that they might be next.”
An enormous 3D-printed drone sat folded on the floor near a television, designed specifically to carry five 82mm mortar rounds. They were to be unleashed on the enemy through a device that looked like the chamber of an oversized revolver.
The 27 men of the Thor group are a tight band of brothers from across Ukraine who have fought together since they first gathered in Kyiv to defend the capital from Russian tanks in February last year when Putin ordered tanks and troops across the border. Formally a police special operations unit, they operate in close collaboration with Ukraine’s military intelligence, the GUR.
The unit embraces entrepreneurial spirit — each had a small business before the war — and know each other as veterans of Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation in Donbas from 2014 to the full-scale invasion last February.
They have the freedom to select their missions, where they barrack and when they fight. Potential targets appear on the unit’s tablet through an application synced to a CIA satellite, the unit’s commander, who also gave his name as Thor, said. “We select targets in the program, and targets can be placed there both by the CIA satellite and by our own satellite, which our volunteers pay for. Information is collected from all kinds of sources there. We choose, then we arrive and conduct our own reconnaissance.”
Thor, 36, is technically a private, elected by his men as they fought the Russians on the outskirts of Kyiv. Despite involvement in intense fighting in Kyiv, Kherson, Bakhmut and Zaporizhzhya, they have never suffered a casualty. Ammunition is provided by the GUR, they said, but they have had to scavenge for food and weapons. Recent successes had secured for them a British-made M777 howitzer, as well as 82mm and 120mm mortars. “Our group does not act in the same way as the army does,” Thor said, grinning as he stood over a flaming barbecue in the yard of a house leased to them by volunteers. “Because if we act like an army, then we will quickly run out of luck.” The crash of incoming shells echoing somewhere in the near distance underlined his words. “Someone can give an order completely without understanding what he is doing. After all, the army still has a mentality like a hangover from Soviet times.”
Thor is from Berdyansk, a port city on the Azov Sea now occupied by the Russians. After being one of the first units to enter Kherson during its liberation last autumn, he decided to fight on the Zaporizhzhya front in an attempt to hasten his return home.
During the eight months they fought in Kherson there were gun battles every day, he said, but the strength of the Russian lines had turned the current front lines into a different kind of warfare. “Most of our missions now are bomb drops and artillery adjustments,” he said. “Our best days are when we can find ammunition for 82mm, 120mm mines, M777 shells and anti-tank guided missiles. Then we launch everything we have.”
Unlike their world-weary, pale and sallow brothers in Donbas, the men of Thor are fresh-eyed, fit and healthy. Sharing a shower room with seven housemates can cause disagreements, their commander conceded, but it is a far cry from the stench of fear, sweat and mud in the trenches near Bakhmut, visited by Zelensky on Wednesday in an effort to boost morale. “We consider ourselves little brothers to the army. They do the main work, we can help,” said Thor. “We live in a normal house, eat normal food. The army guys sit in the ground underneath, Hell above, and eat rations. That’s tough. We have endless respect for those guys.”