The full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation forced Ukrainians to use all available forces and means to defend themselves. Among them were units of the Special Operations Forces of Ukraine (SOF). Operators, trained by NATO specialists, quickly became a thorn in the side of Russian soldiers and commanders. In this article, we discuss several examples of activities of Ukrainian special units. The analysis should be treated as a collection of examples and an introduction to the discussion rather than as a comprehensive presentation of this topic. There will probably be much more extensive studies in the future.
The Special Operations Forces were created in 2016, as part of a comprehensive reform of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as a direct result of the failures during the War in Donbas. They were formed in the merger of various special units subordinate to the army. As a result of the reform, all these units were separated as a standalone type of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and are under their own command.
Recent years for Ukrainian special forces have passed under the sign of significant modernisation and training under the supervision of the best specialists from Canada, Denmark, or the United Kingdom. In 2019, the 140th Special Operations Force Centre obtained a certificate enabling participation in NATO Response Force (NRF). For the first time in history, this right was granted to a non-member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). More information about the organization, training and equipment of the SOF can be found here.
The initial phase of the invasion
This article is divided into three parts.
- The first covers the beginning of the invasion until the withdrawal of Russian forces from central Ukraine.
- The second describes the offensive in Donbas. Due to the change in the nature of activities resulting from the transfer of the burden of the war to the east, special units had to adapt to the situation.
- The third refers to the time when Ukraine took over operational initiative, initially in the south, and then in the northern part of the front. Yet again, SOF operators had to face new challenges, this time during strictly offensive actions.
The first phase of the invasion is the rapid progress of Russian forces along the main communication routes. After a few days, however, offensive operations were halted as a result of the strong resistance from Ukrainians. The invasion forces, in particular those in the Kharkiv and Kyiv regions, bounced off the defensive positions around major cities. The Russian command did not foresee such a situation and the first wave of offensive units was not followed by another, the aim of which would be to secure the territory. As a result, the supply lines and flanks of the aggressors remained exposed, becoming an ideal target for special units and troops operating in irregular form.
Ukrainian special forces as a thorn in the eye of the invader
In the first stage of the invasion, the Russian army tried to circumnavigate the capital of Ukraine, attacking at many different locations. Due to this, however, its lines became significantly stretched. The woodlands north of Kyiv became the site of numerous ambushes set by the Ukrainian special forces.
Below we can see SOF operators with Russian equipment that has been neutralised or taken over. Precise strikes on Russian convoys and positions were extremely important in slowing down the attack on the Kyiv direction. The photographs come from the turn of February and March 2022. The pictures show, among others, a variant of the BTR-80 transporter, the T-80BVM tank or the Ural-4320 truck. They were most likely taken in the vicinity of Kyiv, which would be indicated by the “V” sign.
One thing worth paying particular attention to is the armament of Special Forces operators. One of them uses the PKM machine gun, another has an intercepted AK-12 rifle. However, the most interesting fact is the relatively common use of the Malyuk assault rifle produced in Ukraine. It is a bullpup rifle (a grip-less system) based on Kalashnikov rifles.
Ambush in Hostomel
Since the beginning of the invasion, Ukrainian special forces have carried out precise strikes aimed at Russian heavy equipment. An excellent example of such operation is the destruction of the WDW convoy (Russian airborne troops) in Hostomel. The ambush of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, considered to be elite units, caused heavy losses in people and the destruction of 3 BDM-2 vehicles and one BTR-D. The video with the result of the fights can be seen here (Caution: graphic scenes!)
Various information about the location where the above video was captured circulated on social media. Many claimed that the ambush occurred in Irpin or Hostomel. We decided to identify this location. The best hint turned out to be the tweet shared by the military intelligence of Ukraine about this event. It stated unequivocally that the fighting took place near the glassworks in Hostomel. This allowed us to precisely geolocate the discussed place – street photos in Google Maps come from 2015. The road in the recording is tarmac, not made of setts. Also, the colour of the façade of one of the buildings is different.
Obviously, marksmen play an important role among SOF operators as well. Many of them use unusual weapons such as, among others, the Zbroyar Z-10 sniper rifle manufactured in Ukraine. It uses a 7.62×51 mm NATO cartridges. In the photo on the left, we can see a sniper in a secured position who uses this rifle equipped with a silencer. On the right, we can see an operator with the SIG 716 sniper rifle with a silencer. His extraordinary camouflage is worth paying attention to.
One example of the actions of Ukrainian snipers is the following video (Caution: graphic scenes!) It depicts the use of a thermal imaging sight to eliminate the enemy. It is an extremely advanced equipment, especially useful during night activities, although its effectiveness during the day is also highly praised. Shots are fired from a distance of 706 meters, according to the data displayed. Most likely, the two Russian soldiers (red figures) were eliminated.
The second phase of the invasion
After transferring the entire burden of the fighting to the east and south of Ukraine, special operations also had to be adapted to the specificity of the local front. Stretched columns and exposed wings of the invaders became a thing of the past. The Russian army extended the front, trying to push the defenders kilometre by kilometre. Strikes on selected sections were preceded by heavy artillery fire.
The primary role of the SOF was to mark targets for artillery, including the M777 howitzers provided by the USA, HIMARS multiple rocket launchers and M270 systems (provided by Germany and the United Kingdom), French CAESAR self-propelled howitzers and Polish Krabs. Of course, operators also had their hands full with special activities of a different kind.
With surgical precision
The following video is a great example of identifying high-value targets. Ukrainian special forces were able to locate and identify a modern Russian communication station (R-439-OD or P-260-O). Then, exact coordinates were sent to the 92-nd Mechanized Brigade. The enemy’s position, along with precious equipment, was neutralized by precise indirect artillery fire. The whole situation took place on 1 June, 2022, in the Kharkiv Oblast (the exact location is presented in the material).
Kraken’s long tentacles
The volunteer unit called “Kraken” was established on the very first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was founded by veterans of the Azov Regiment in the Kharkiv region. The unit is controversial, especially in terms of its political connotations. Members of the unit are accused of extreme right-wing and nationalist views. The unit denies these accusations, but the fact remains that its founder, Konstantin Nemichev, is an activist and politician associated with the extreme right. Many soldiers of the Kraken Regiment are his sympathisers and, like him, come from Kharkiv.
However, it is difficult to treat it as a fully-fledged special unit (although it is presented this way in social media and by members of the Kraken), because the volunteers have never undergone the training that operators of this type of units receive. Nonetheless, it is a phenomenon and does not fall directly under the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but reports directly to the Ministry of Defence. Therefore, it often participates in missions carried out by special units of the Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR) of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. This was the case during the operation of the liberation of Ruska Lozova in the Kharkiv Oblast in April 2022.
The video (Caution: graphic scenes!) from the liberation of the village was shared on Telegram. In the video, we can see preparations for the mission, reconnaissance and mortar fire. Then, there is an onrush on the city, which was successful. We can also observe the search of buildings after the fighting, where the Russians left their equipment, ammunition and food rations. In the final scenes, assistance for the civilian population and its evacuation from dangerous areas was shown.
To the rescue
In addition to the actions strictly directed against the Russian army, SOF operators also carry out hostage recapture missions. At the beginning of July 2022, GUR units successfully completed such an operation. It took place in the occupied Kherson Oblast. As a result, a soldier of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, a former police officer and three civilians were freed. The video (Caution: graphic scenes!) with the activities of SOF operators was published by the official GUR account on Twitter.
Snake Island has become an example of Ukrainian resistance to the Russian occupier. Despite multiple attempts to secure the island, the efforts of the Russian troops failed. Regular Ukrainian artillery shellings and air strikes eliminated the units located there over and over again. This forced the invaders to retreat from the island.
On 7 July, 2022, Ukrainian special forces landed on Snake Island. They then searched and secured the area. The last stage was the hanging of Ukrainian flags, including one large flag mounted right in the middle of the island. After completing these tasks, the soldiers returned to the base without loss. Here you can see a video showing the above-mentioned activities.
This operation had virtually no military significance, but it was extremely important in the propaganda war. It ridiculed the Russian invader and became perfect content for strengthening Ukrainian morale, as Snake Island has been one of the symbols of the current conflict from the very beginning.
Ukrainian Special Forces in Crimea
The activities of Ukrainian special forces in Crimea are shrouded in mystery. We do not know exactly how long and with what intensity special operations forces have been active on the peninsula or what specific tasks they have been performing. There are strong suspicions that they are indeed present there.
In the first days after the mysterious attack on the Russian Saki base in Crimea on 9 August, 2022, there was information that special units could have been responsible for this. This information was provided by The Washington Post, quoting an anonymous representative of the Ukrainian government.
After some time, however, the Ukrainians themselves, via the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Valery Zaruzhny, reported that this was a missile strike. Yet, the specific type of weapons used was not reported. Numerous Western specialists suspected such a scenario, especially after analysing satellite images of the attacked area. Most probably, data gathered by SOF operators was used in identifying targets and selecting the precise moment of attack.
Photographs from the missions of Ukrainian Special Forces in Crimea also appeared on the web. They were shared by the highly reliable @calibreobscura Twitter account. Below you can see a collage of these photos.
There are also many indications that the Special Operations Forces of Ukraine are responsible for the “psychological war” in Crimea. Oleg Cariow, a Russian collaborator, informed about mysterious phone calls that were supposed to wreak havoc among the civilian population of the peninsula. Unknown perpetrators were supposed to call holiday resorts to report an alleged evacuation. A list of “Ukrainian saboteurs” living in Crimea also circulated on the web, in fact comprising former FSB officers. Such actions carried out by special units are an important part of the war.
The third phase of the invasion
The transition to a counter-offensive by the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the southern front became the starting point of the third phase of the war. This time, Ukrainians began to have the operational initiative. On 29 August, an offensive on the Kherson direction was announced. Taking advantage of the situation and the relocation of key Russian troops to the south, on 6 September the Ukrainian army launched an attack in the Kharkiv Oblast. It turned out to be surprisingly effective, and in just a few days the key cities of Kupiansk and Izium were liberated.
An important role in these activities was played by Ukrainian special units serving as the vanguard. Their tasks became much more dynamic than before. Once again, operators had to prove their effectiveness.
Trolling – mind games
On 5 September, pro-Russian social media accounts began sharing a video of SOF operators on the riverbank, who allegedly had been killed in action. They were supposed to be eliminated during a raid at the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant. The video was shared, among others, by Vladymir Pozdniakov, a Russian propagandist (his Telegram account is currently private).
As it turned out, it was a joke directed at the Russians. The real video lasted a few seconds longer than the one shared on pro-Kremlin channels, and at the end the “dead” Ukrainians stood up at the recording person’s command, laughing.
According to Aric Toler, a member of the Bellingcat group, Pozdniakov himself was frustrated with the situation. Clearly annoyed, he also announced that he would ban anyone who mocked him for making a mistake. Shortly after, when the fact of him being deceived surfaced on social media more broadly, he changed his account preferences to private. Also, numerous pro-Russian Twitter accounts deleted the video when it turned out that they fell for Ukrainian trolling. Such actions are also important in the ongoing psychological war between the occupier and the defenders. Mocking the enemy is an effective tool in raising one’s own morale and weakening the morale of the enemy.
During the rapid Ukrainian progress in the Kharkiv Oblast, special forces in the front lines often overtook retreating Russian troops. This allowed them to set traps and lure enemy soldiers into them.
A good example is the ambush of the Rosgvardiya (National Guard of the Russian Federation) units, whose primary duty in Ukraine is securing the occupied territories. This includes, among others, identifying and arresting pro-Ukrainian activists, fighting guerrillas or breaking up possible protests of civilian population.
During the retreat from Balakliia, one of the Rosgvardiya units (most likely a special unit of SOBR) fell into an ambush set by SOF operators as part of the Ukrainian offensive. The full extent of the loss is unknown, but photos show damaged and abandoned Ural and KAMAZ armoured vehicles. You can see more in this video.
The Special Operations Forces of Ukraine play an important role in the ongoing conflict. The training and determination of SOF operators are crucial and allow them to perform the tasks in an effective manner. As the above examples show, from the very beginning of the conflict, soldiers of the special forces have been performing their tasks with full dedication and commitment. Their high effectiveness is an excellent example to follow and analyse for units from all over the world.
At this time, we do not have much information about their activities and probably once the war is over, a lot of additional information about unusual operations performed by SOF operators will surface. For the time being, special units are a pride of Ukraine and a very important part of the Armed Forces.
Grey Dynamics: https://greydynamics.com/ukrainian-special-operations-forces-uasof/
The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/06/03/ukraine-kraken-volunteer-military-unit/ oraz https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/08/10/ukraine-russia-crimea-beach-blast/
Główny Zarząd Wywiadu Ministerstwa Obrony Ukrainy: https://gur.gov.ua/en/content/koordynatsiinyi-shtab-z-pytan-povodzhennia-z-viiskovopolonenymy-v-khodi-spetsoperatsii-z-polonu-zvilneno-p-iatokh-ukraintsiv.html
Naval News: https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/07/ukrainian-navy-special-forces-spearhead-daring-snake-island-mission/
Yahoo! News: https://news.yahoo.com/ukraine-atacms-himars-missiles-161843626.html
Le Monde: https://www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2022/04/13/in-ukraine-putin-deploys-his-national-guard-to-occupy-and-clean-up-cities_5980457_4.html
Institute for the Study of War: