This article was sent to SOFREP by an individual who served as a foreign volunteer in the Ukrainian Army for over a year. His views regarding the efficiency of the Russian Army are quite interesting, especially given the latest Putin-mania/Russian love that has spread through the Internet, depicting the Russians as an unstoppable force.
As a former professional soldier in my own country’s NATO army, I found myself embroiled in the conflict in Ukraine by my own choice in late July, 2014. While technically I was a “volunteer,” I viewed myself as a professional soldier serving in a foreign country’s armed forces. Far from trying to make this some kind of dramatic personal narrative, I will attempt to portray a picture of the Russian soldier from my own limited point of view—that of an opponent.
At this point, I’d like to sidetrack a bit so as to make some things more clear to the reader. The Ukrainian “volunteer battalions” should not be seen as militias or irregulars, but rather as a sort of “Rough Riders”-style unit, a unit formed by volunteers, yet armed and supplied by the Army and subjected to the regular command structure, having normal combat duties at the front line. The foreign volunteers themselves, again, should not be seen as the like of all these colorful characters that join the Marxist and Arab irregular militias in the Middle East, but rather like the Swedish volunteers during the Winter War, integrated normally within their unit and most of the time taking up a front-line role either in operations or training. The opposing forces can be divided easily in two parts: the bandits who initiated the rebellion and the Russian regulars who intervened later that same year.
The bandits, no matter what the pro-Western propaganda claims, were not mercenaries or Russian regulars posing as rebels. Many Russian nationals flocked to their banner from the onset of the rebellion out of pure patriotism. Of course there were exceptions, but these were just that—exceptions. That doesn’t mean that Russian military advisors or SOF units didn’t directly aid them in the beginning of the conflict. The military effectiveness of said bandit militias was horrendous.
The Russian regulars who eventually had to intervene when the bandits were on the verge of collapse changed the course of the war. These were conventional military units from the Russian Federation’s standing army. After the brief intervention, the regulars fell back to act mostly as QRFs and a general deterrent to any further big-scale offensives by the Ukrainian Army, leaving the bulk of the fighting again to the bandit militias. The fighting included “famous” battles such as the battle for the Donetsk airport, where the Ukrainians were quick to blame the “elite Russian units” for their own military forces’ failure, as they did for most of the conflict.
Enough with the intro. It was clear from the beginning that there was some sense of professional military leadership behind the bandits. During the assault of Marinka on the outskirts of Donetsk, on the 4th of August, with two infantry battalions and tank support, the meager opposing bandit forces had no chance of actually holding the city. Instead of going jihad on us, they did the sensible thing: placed mines, harassed us, and withdrew. While a sound plan operationally, they failed to be effective on the ground. While my squad approached a building that the enemy had been shooting from, we took cover in a small ditch. Six RPGs and 200 PΚΜ rounds later, we stormed the building. While the enemy was nowhere to be found, they had apparently called mortar fire on our position in the ditch, which only arrived an hour and a half later, when we were already inside the building.
Later that day, we attempted to attack a blockpost (fortified checkpoint) on the road from Marinka to Donetsk. The Ukrainian forces being nothing more than a Soviet relic back then, we advanced in columns of infantry behind a tank and a BMP through the single road of a village, a village that was not secured before, and, of course, with nobody advancing by the flanks at the same time. Obviously the enemy was not waiting for us at his blockpost, but had instead prepared an ambush inside the village. Despite only having 10-15 guys with small arms, they managed to rout an infantry column of 60 men with a T-64 and a BMP (although most of the credit for this success has to be claimed by the Ukrainians’ complete lack of radio communications).
My educated guess is that the ambushers were the same guys who had withdrawn from Marinka earlier in the day, since the only sensible course after securing the city was to destroy the enemy blockpost controlling the road. They were following a logical plan.
Despite the leadership that obviously existed at the higher echelons, the bandit infantry itself was horrible. People driving in the middle of a road trying to ambush an army column, only to get arrested in turn. People surrendering after the first tank barrage before the Army even approached. People emptying their magazines at 400 meters and then withdrawing. They were clearly not soldiers. Gradually (especially after the Russian intervention) the bandit forces grew better.
Tasked with defending the heights around the village of Shyrokina in the first days of September, we came under an intense artillery barrage on the morning of the fourth day. A probe by an enemy BMP was followed by a few mortar hits at the east of the village. At that time we couldn’t help joking that maybe they would have zeroed in on us by late afternoon. Less than seven minutes later, we were in our foxholes as the enemy artillery had zeroed in on us for a 200-meter radius. That artillery officer was no bandit. Upon that realization, Ukrainian morale plummeted and we fled three hours later.
I remember a two-day battle at the same village of Shyrokina in February, 2015. The Ukrainians had been occupying the village for four days, having secured it after a local counteroffensive, but they didn’t go so far as to even lay mines on the approaches or at least post anti-tank weapons. Russian regulars attacked the village in the early hours of February 14th following a day of skirmishes around it. They attacked in force after massing uncontested behind a tree line, moving across the open ground with tanks and infantry, simply ignoring any fire from our positions. They were inside the village fighting it out with the Ukrainians within minutes. In the chaos that followed, the Ukrainians initially collapsed. The running battle at the village degenerated into individuals trying to make it back to the heights at the entrance of the village where the Ukrainian tanks were dug in.
While the Russians were again following sound tactics (tanks and IFVs were blocking off the roads with infantry swarming in the buildings before moving on to the next road and repeating), their squad-level efficiency left much to be desired. In two cases that I know of, Ukrainian combatants trying to make it back found themselves suddenly face-to-face with an equally surprised Russian soldier. In both cases, the Russians went down, and as apparently nobody was following them, the hapless Ukrainians continued their flight to the tanks. Why were those Russian soldiers on their own? Where was the rest of their team?
The Russian squad-level command and control simply vanished during the running battle within the village. The Ukrainians had no squad-level command and control (or even a defensive plan) to start, with so no point comparing the two. Russian infantry attempted to establish itself at the biggest and sturdiest building in the village, but failed after being raked by the Ukrainian T-64s on those heights. The Russian tanks were too scared to go out from behind the buildings lest they become exposed to Ukrainian fire.
Later the same night, my team had to go back into the village in an effort to find two MIAs. As we were going down a road, unsure of where the Russian positions were, the dogs in the village started barking (typical). Immediately, a hail of fire followed. The bullets hit randomly around us, so we didn’t even bother taking cover. It was clear they had no idea where we were and, being edgy and fearful of the night, they simply shot at the sound of the dogs. My guess is that post was manned by bandits, as the regulars probably withdrew after the morning assault.
The next day we launched a counterattack that ended in a fiasco. Simply ignoring contact by small arms fire on our left, our BMP turned right at a small road, with our horde following it blindly. It was met within 50 meters by a Russian T-64 with infantry support. The tank missed its mark three times and, skipping the literary details, it was enough for our horde to dissipate and find cover. During the flight, the Russians didn’t make any attempt to press their advantage. Still too afraid of those tanks up on the heights. Both sides were oblivious to the fact that there was a ceasefire in effect since 0000 hours that day.
The months that followed were marked by skirmishing in and around that village. Toward the end of May, we took up doing small raids on the enemy positions. On an approach toward an enemy trench, due to the chronic failure of Ukrainian communications and planning, we had to hold our position for more than two hours while only about 100 meters from the enemy. As was bound to happen, the Russians eventually caught wind of something going on. Instead of opening fire at random as they had done many times before, they called in reinforcements and woke up their mortar crews. An enemy element came to a building as close as 30 meters from us. Yet they waited.
When the firing eventually commenced, we managed to keep the guys at the near building suppressed with small-arms fire and the guys in the trench equally suppressed with our PΚΜ. It took them mere seconds to start firing back, though, from the moment the machine gunner ceased fire to pull back, missing him only by inches. This was a stark contrast from two months earlier when they were strafing at barking dogs. The days of bandits emptying their magazines at 400 meters were apparently over.
I could go on and on about how in many recon missions we believed the Russians were much more vigilant and prepared than they actually were, how even in daylight they seemed to ignore obvious approaches, how they strafed random tree lines at night “just to be sure,” etc., but I think the reader has gotten the picture by now. The fault generally lies with the individual soldier himself, rather than the officer’s planning. But what would you expect from an army whose “special forces” propagandistic displays of capabilities rely on acrobatics and fancy martial arts? A good Western army regiment would be enough to win this war on its own.
To summarize, I hold the Russian soldier inferior in all regards to the soldiers of first-class NATO armies. His squad-level efficiency is no better than the Argentines in the Falklands War, and his professionalism only makes a dim appearance when his officers are around. Yet he is capable of aggressive actions, and characteristically of the Slavic race, he is generally not a coward. Despite the Russian Army reform after the Chechen Wars, which has been hailed so much by various “military analysts,” I am not sure if the average “contract soldier” is better trained than the average conscript soldier in the old Soviet Army. While the Ukrainians I am serving with certainly cannot be held up as an example for Russian military efficiency, they, sharing much of the same culture with their erstwhile Russian friends, go a long way toward being compared with a warrior culture based on professionalism, the kind evident in many Western soldiers.
Featured image courtesy of REUTERS/Maks Levin