Only a few years ago, the Ukrainian military was hard-pressed to counter the Russians and their Donetsk separatist lackeys that were encroaching on eastern Ukraine. With Crimea lost by a combination of hybrid warfare, special operations, and Western diplomatic and political ineptitude, the future of Ukraine looked dire. Since 2014, however, the Ukrainian armed forces have undergone a significant reorganization—with significant Western help—and now they’re reaping the benefits.
In early December, Ukrainian special operations forces (SOF) were invited to participate in exercise Combined Resolve XI, a large multinational exercise organized by the U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) involving 16 nations and close to 6,000 troops. Despite the large number of participant countries, SOF units from only five countries participated. Ukraine was amongst them. The other SOF units came from Bulgaria, Romania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and the U.S., which was represented by the 10th Special Forces Group.
Speaking about the exercise, a Ukrainian major from the 3rd Special Operations Forces Regiment, who had to remain unidentified for operational security (OPSEC) reasons, said, “The main achievement for us is the coordination of SOF with NATO conventional forces. We were able to observe targets for the brigade tactical operations center and disseminate information concerning those targets and call for fire. We also conducted special reconnaissance and direct-action missions on high-value targets with multinational special operations task units.”
From the American side, a Special Forces operational detachment (ODA) commander acknowledged the immense progress Ukrainian SOF has made in the last few years. “[Ukrainian operators] understand the importance of special operations forces and conventional forces integration,” said the Green Beret captain. “Ukrainian SOF dedicated two of their personnel to act as liaison officers at the brigade level to facilitate communications with units on the ground. The brigade often relied on SOF to identify strategic-level targets, coordinate the passage of friendly lines during limited visibility, coordinate resupply missions, and share intelligence about major enemy movements.”
The success of the exercise and the increased capabilities of the Ukrainian forces are yet another testament to the country’s pivot toward the West, which may very well lead to NATO membership in a few years. The anonymous Ukrainian SOF officer suggested that very idea: “We took part in the operation planning process, support, and command and control of operations according [to] NATO planning templates,” he said. “Now we have advanced experience for performing tasks together with NATO units and also in joint forces operations. We are thankful to our partners from the Green Berets for their work in training and mentoring Ukrainian SOF. The knowledge and skills given to us are invaluable. We are expecting to participate in more exercises and trainings [sic] with our U.S. and NATO partners in the future.”
The exercise took place in the U.S. Army Europe’s Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany.