Hamish de Bretton-Gordon
September 13, 2023
The war in Ukraine appears on the surface like no other, with small flying drones attacking ancient tanks, sea drones attacking bridges, and the wide scale utilisation of makeshift yet high-tech equipment. But for all these developments, the art of warfare remains unchanged. The aim is still to use any method to unhinge and dislocate your enemy in order to defeat them. The oldest form of warfare – the clandestine operator behind enemy lines, creating confusion, fear and logistical mayhem – is in full swing in this campaign.
What is most striking is the emergence of what appears to be replication of the Allies’ “Special Operations Executive” (SOE) from the Second World War. And its effect – the death from a thousand cuts of the enemy – is looking as successful in 2023 as it was in the 1940s. Then, as now, incredibly brave men and women conducted operations to gather intelligence, allowing for sabotage attacks where the opposing country least expected it.
Just as the SOE blew up railway lines and heavy water plants supplying the Nazi war machine, the Ukrainians are evidently doing similar in Crimea and behind Russian lines in other parts of the country. Mysterious fires at arms factories, explosions in seaports, fighter jets destroyed: much of this cannot happen without a competent intelligence-gathering operation, coupled with fantastic logistical fighting ability. The effect of Ukrainian drone strikes on the Russian effort has become palpable, with the enemy struggling to anticipate when and where the next one may come.
That is one of the key aims of special operations – to crush morale. No surprise, then, that we hear stories of Russian soldiers drinking away their sorrows, or even defecting. These young, largely untrained conscripts fear the prospect of daring Ukrainian raids, crossing vast rivers to capture them. Ukrainian commandos, with their ever increasing skill and capability, have been exemplary in such efforts.
By contrast, the bravado of the Russian elite – some of whom must now holiday in Crimea, rather than their villas in the Mediterranean – is dulled every time the “iconic” Kursk Bridge is shut after its weekly attack. They may now also live in fear in their homes in Moscow, which have come within the reach of drones.
Such fear, struck into the heart of high Russian society, is what’s most likely to end the “special military operation”. It is only the elite who have a voice in Russia and are listened to by Putin and his politburo. It is they who will most likely conduct regime change in Moscow and end the war in the hope of saving their own skins and fortunes.
The weapons used to conduct war may have changed, but the spies, the saboteurs, and the special forces required to conduct operations deep in enemy territory have stuck to similar tactics. And they carry the same risks, with little hope of survival if caught. In Ukraine, they are utterly crucial to the campaign, sapping the will of the enemy. This must at least be as important as the Western tanks and missiles used to fight in broad daylight.