SOFREP recently had the opportunity to ask a few questions of a friend who was just returned from Ukraine. As I’ve written before, it is very difficult to discern what is actually happening amongst the chaos and confusion of the battlefield. Throw some war-time propaganda into the mix and it can become almost impossible to discern reality. Thankfully, we were able to interview a neutral third party who actually met with Ukrainians to find out what is going on.
If you have questions or anything to add to this post, please hit us up in the comments section below. Here is our brief interview.
What is the current size, strength, and disposition of Russian military and irregular forces in Ukraine?
At least 5,000-7,000 regular Russian forces (Artillery units, tanks, BMPs/BTRs, trucks, logistics, VDV…), around 300 SOF units, although “Spetsnaz” is a very common word and the role of Alpha guys working plainclothes is totally different from the former Crimean SOF “Sokil” working as advisors.
Irregulars are at least 20,000 guys including local Ukrainians, international volunteers, Russian volunteers (tons of neo-Nazi guys from Moscow and Saint Petersburg), and mercenaries from Chechenya and Dagestan.
In your view, what is Kiev’s assessment of Russian military and political objectives in Ukraine?
Kiev’s government is still reacting to all the changes in tactics employed by the Russian military and intelligence services. As soon as they are close to victory (like in Donetsk and Lugansk just before the “humanitarian aid”) a new front opens up. The latest front to open is the offensive for Mariupol and the risk of a land corridor from Russia to Crimea.
In my opinion, they still won’t want to believe that Russia will push all the way to Odessa, and are constantly trying to reach a minimum for setting an arrangement. Ukraine’s military GS are full of former Soviet officers, most of them with deep family and economic ties with Russia and the their military industry… so their assessment of Russia’s intentions are a bit biased.
What is the US State Department’s interaction with the Poroshenko government at this time?
The State Department is trying to keep as much distance as possible from the current situation. Very little support and if it comes it goes through the Department of Defense via Poland.
Did you come across a lot of foreign spooks and other suspect characters in Ukraine?
Lots of journalists, very few foreign guys trying to reach the right people to obtain information. I was able to meet with an Ukrainian SOF Veterans Association, and they told me I was the first foreigner to meet them to talk about the war. It was weird as most of them served in Afghanistan along with their Russian counterparts and they still keep talking through social networks even with the ongoing war.
Tons of Russians… like TONS of them, everywhere, they just told everyone that are Ukrainians but have family/live abroad.
What do you think Russia’s military objectives are in Ukraine? Are they going to attempt to surround and land lock Kiev, or are they simply going to dump arms and mercenaries into the country to de-stabilize the region?
Probably both… The Donbass “insurgency” started just as a way to make the Ukraine forget about Crimea and to worry about a bigger problem, but their military industry, coal mines, and the access to Azov’s Sea rights for gas extraction are too sweet to let them pass.
Kremlin is right now thinking of establishing a “friendly new country” from Trandsniester to Donetsk as a great opportunity. They just need to keep this scenario going until winter.
How is morale holding up amongst Ukrainian forces? What type of Western assistance are they receiving?
Morale is very low in military units, some of them were trapped without supplies (water, food, ammo, fuel…) for weeks while being attacked by Russian artillery. Some units were completely annihilated. Volunteer Battalions depend of their own, but tensions with UA Military are clear, claiming to being the most exposed in combat while not receiving armor or artillery support.
Very few help, most of the modern Western gear and weapons were in Ukraine before the Maidan, most of the new stuff is being crowdfunded or made by volunteers (UAVs included). The Ukrainian military industry really needs help to start working again. When Crimea was taken over, 13 of the most modern factories changed hands, 7 in Lugansk, 5 in Donetsk.
A few countries with old Soviet stuff are sending spares for Su25, An26, T72… but very little in terms quantities. Croatia is going to send more helicopters, just like Hungary sent (through a Czech company) old T72s so the Ukrainians can update them.
Were you able to speak to anyone and gather accounts from the front lines?
Yeah, from Donbas, Aydar and Kyiv battalions, 95th Airborne Brigade and one SOF unit from SBU. Incredible mix of characters, from 40-something combat veterans with experience in Chechenya with Russian units, to a 19-year old working as a SIGINT guy using Zello and exploiting info on VKontakte.
What role is social media playing in the conflict? Is the internet or certain services shut down or taking off-line at certain times?
A brutal role. The Kremlin has a huge propaganda machine rolling all day long, tons of Twitter bots… rumors appear and vanish in minutes, like claims of some new artillery unit being stolen from a Ukrainian depot… and suddenly the same system (in use by Russia too) crosses the border without any markings.
Comms are available almost country-wide, but no secure lines. Russian ELINT/EW units (specially from VDV) were popping along and across the border to shut down comms just before any attack. It is like an insurgency with UAVs and better artillery and SIGINT that the regular forces exploit.
(Featured Image Courtesy: RTE)