Ukrainian special forces take no prisoners in cross-border raids — and have grown only more ambitious
August 8, 2023
The driver of the Russian army lorry would not have noticed the rifle barrels protruding from the roadside foliage. Far from the border with Ukraine, he was speeding along a deserted country road towards the city of Belgorod. He may not have heard the first shots clatter into the cab as the six-man Ukrainian special forces team opened fire, sending the lorry jolting off the road and into the tree line, where it came to an abrupt halt. The Ukrainians emptied their magazines into it; they were a long way from home and could take no prisoners.
They snapped pictures of the driver, bloodied and limp. They removed a map. Then they were gone, back into the undergrowth. The men of the elite Shaman Battalion have been carrying out such raids on infrastructure behind enemy lines for more than a year. Now they have revealed to The Times a new task: assassinating senior Russian officers. “We have an increased number of targets, missions on specific people or targets, such as buildings where a general or somebody like that is located inside Russia,” said “Intelligent”, 30, a sergeant involved in planning the missions.
He showed a video of the ambush and added: “We’ve carried out more than ten operations like this in the past six months and we’ve been successful.”
Ukraine claims to have killed 15 Russian generals since the war began. Moscow has confirmed the deaths of six, most killed near the front lines. Shaman, which answers to the GUR, Ukraine’s military intelligence, would not name their targets but other sources have provided clues.
In June, Russian channels reported that Colonel Vladimir Kuznetsov, commander of the 1009th motorised rifle regiment, was ambushed and killed in the Belgorod region while driving a service vehicle alone. Last month Lieutenant-Colonel Andrei Skuratov of the FSB security service was reported to have been killed when his vehicle hit a mine in the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine.
Shaman troops sometimes escort pro-Ukrainian Russian partisans across the border before breaking off to conduct their missions, a major in the GUR said. “Sometimes other groups may claim our kills,” Intelligent said. “The kill teams that work best are six-man squads deployed by helicopter,” he added, a US Black Hawk fitted with a pair of M-240 machineguns.
For other missions the teams have to walk there and back, which is why the soldiers endure a gruelling 30-mile training hike with a full pack before they are considered eligible.
Reconnaissance is key, said Intelligent. “You know Russians love money and hate their generals, so we can get a lot of useful information from inside the ranks. And we have a lot of useful kits. The guys will always carry FPV Kamikaze drones; sometimes they can take out even a very strong vehicle.”
How attacks have escalated
Good intelligence, provided by western partners and by human assets in the field, has allowed Shaman to grow far more ambitious than when The Times first encountered them last year. “Since you met ‘Handsome’ and ‘22’ we’ve gone a lot further, with a lot bigger targets,” Intelligent said. “Sometimes we think it’s freaky, it’s too big for us, but we still do it. Including airbases. Well, that really is a massive target with a lot of serious guarding. So it can’t be only the people who went on the mission. There need to be people in the city, our sources, or in the base, in the Russian military. All of that can make it work.”
In December, explosions rocked the Engels-2 and Dyagilevo airbases, home to the Tupolev Tu-22 and Tu-95 strategic bombers used to strike Ukraine. Engels-2 is in Saratov, 450 miles east of Ukraine, and Dyagilevo is barely 150 miles from Mocow. Several Russian airbases in Crimea have also been targeted but Ukraine maintains an official policy of neither confirming nor denying responsibility.
Shaman’s activities provide a possible explanation for some of these attacks.
Brotherhood, daring and simple good luck are all central to Shaman’s success, the sergeant believes — but things do not always go their way. “I don’t remember how many funerals I went to this year. No one is Iron Man, you know, it’s just regular guys.”
As an operations planner, the deaths of his brothers carry a particular burden. “Everybody who is involved in planning missions sits around afterwards and asks, ‘could we do something different, could we have done something else, would he be alive if we did?’”
From Snake Island to the trenches of Bakhmut
The GUR major said that even those operations that do not end in immediate success can help to achieve the desired end goal. On May 8 last year Shaman teams, backed by Alpha Group troops from the Security Service of Ukraine rappelled from eight helicopters onto Snake Island, tasked with capturing it from the Russians after a series of Ukrainian strikes on the garrison and the ships supplying them.
“There was an epic battle with about 100 Russian marines, supported by some special operations special forces,” the GUR major said. Both Shaman and Alpha suffered two killed each, with one helicopter shot down, before deciding to withdraw. The Shaman commander was wounded in the ear. “It was not successful in terms of controlling the island that day, but it was successful if we are talking about the whole duration of the operation. Because this mission showed it is possible to land on it, and we got first-hand information about the enemy disposition on the island from direct contact.” The Russians withdrew from the island six weeks later.
Shaman was a small special operations outfit before the war began, but its reputation for heroics from Hostomel airport to Snake Island has attracted hundreds of eager recruits wanting to join, swelling it to battalion size.
That has meant taking on some less glamorous tasks, however. For three months they served in the trenches at Bakhmut, ordered to preserve the “road of life” supplying Ukrainian forces inside the city during the Russian siege. Shaman soldiers would have to help hold the line, assaulting and retaking trenches lost by other units in order to drive the Russians out of range. “Wagner just kept sending men over the top. The battalion was killing 40-50 people per day — visually confirmed, it wasn’t just artillery fire, you could see them fall through the rifle sights,” the sergeant recalled. “We were not enjoying killing the enemy. But then you think that those guys, if they would come through, will rape more, will kill more, will steal more and would hurt people who are not like us, who can’t protect themselves.”
The battles in the trenches were a bloody mess best forgotten, the major said. One soldier, Gizo, was sent at dawn to lead a team to retake positions from Russians who had been pounded with artillery fire. “The sun was rising and you’re looking at a scene from a horror movie — parts of weapons, parts of bodies, too many bodies of the enemy. You’re moving along the trench, looking for any sign of movement. But there are so many weapons, so many rifles, it’s hard to tell who is active and who is not,” the major said, retelling Gizo’s story. “He told me the Russians had made dugouts to either side and he’s in there, looking side to side for where they’re hiding.”
As the sun came up, Gizo noticed one rifle barrel trembling and swung his own weapon around to fire a full magazine into the dugout behind it. A return bullet caught him in the forehead. “But he had a GoPro camera strapped to his helmet and the bullet separated into two parts, entering his face and not his brain. It’s crazy, he just has a small hole in his head and he survived.”
Intelligent was a lawyer before he joined Shaman the month after the Russian invasion, but said he had discovered more meaning in the trenches of Bakhmut. “Personally I don’t consider myself a hero but the guys who I’m serving with, they are living heroes. I saw a situation where one of our guys got wounded and asked for help, but you absolutely couldn’t go there because it was totally in the open and Russian snipers were working on that plateau. Our guys went to get him anyway. It comes from our commander that you know you should do everything to save your brother. Yes, sometimes we have examples where that costs another life. But we have a higher principle, a higher purpose.”