By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2022

“I said (to Vladimir Putin)…‘I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.’ He looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’”

— Vice President Joe Biden, New Yorker interview, 2014

“President Obama’s afraid of Putin. Physically, tangibly, change-the-diaper afraid…terrified…the Obama administration (including Joe Biden) is utterly, profoundly unprepared… respected by no one, and feared by no one…Never before has a U.S. presidential administration combined such naked cowardice, intellectual arrogance, and willful blindness. We don’t have a president; we have a scared child covering his eyes at a horror movie. And Putin knows it.”

— Retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, New York Post, September 30, 2015

“I Come at You!”

— Motto of the Ukrainian Special Forces, 2016

The ongoing, Russo-Ukrainian Crisis of 2021 to 2022 began on March 3, 2021, exactly six weeks after Joe Biden’s inauguration as president of the United States, when the Russian Federation massed approximately 100,000 troops and military equipment near its border with neighboring Ukraine, in the greatest force mobilization since Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and annexed it as part of Russia. This crisis was later renewed in December 2021, with Russia again massing 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. Commentators have called this the most-intense crisis since the Cold War, with numerous, diplomatic talks failing to defuse the situation.

Now, in early 2022, the Russian deployment currently consists of about 127,000 troops, or roughly 14 percent of the entire, Russian armed forces, comprised primarily of the 41st Army (mostly T-72B3 tanks), headquartered at Novosibirsk, and the 1st Guards Tank Army, normally based near Moscow, but repositioned to the west, reinforcing the 8th Guards and 20th Guards Armies, already positioned closer to the Ukrainian border. Additional, Russian forces were reported to have moved into Crimea to reinforce existing units there.

The Russians have at least 900,000 active-duty troops (plus more than a half-million paramilitary forces), compared to Ukraine’s modest 255,000 (still the third-largest force in Europe, after Russia and France), and Russia has 11 times the military budget of Ukraine, which has more than tripled their own budget since the Russo-Ukrainian War began in Crimea in 2014. According to the Kremlin, all Russian ground troop commanders now have recent, combat experience, mostly in Syria, as do 92 percent of military pilots.

But the Ukrainians also have a lot of recent, combat experience due to the continuing War in Donbas since 2014, and Ukrainian troops have deployed on peacekeeping missions to Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Liberia, Mali, Moldova, Sierra Leone, and Sudan, which are hardly insignificant assignments.

The timing of this massive standoff could not have been clearer. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a notorious strongman, a former lieutenant colonel in the dreaded, KGB intelligence service, who has no respect whatsoever for Joe Biden, and no fear of U.S. reprisals for his actions. After Biden’s inauguration, Putin keenly detected the very same weakness and indecision from Washington that had been hallmarks of the Obama-Biden administration in the past, and thus the leadership of the U.S.-led, NATO alliance was in similar disarray.

In fact, when Biden suggested in a December 30, 2021, 50-minute phone call that the U.S. could impose additional, economy sanctions on Russia, Putin smugly retorted that such a response would “cause a total severance of relations” between Russia and the United States, as well as with the West, in general. He effectively called Biden’s bluff, since this is clearly not what the timid, U.S. administration wants.

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov recently wrote that Putin’s real goal in this latest crisis is to create fear, panic, and disunity within the U.S. and NATO by destabilizing Ukraine, attempting to split Ukrainian society, and promoting the separatist movement in the eastern regions. Reznikov does not think that the Russian Federation genuinely intends to invade Ukraine, because standard, military doctrine normally calls for at least a three-to-one, numerical advantage in troop strength before launching offensive operations, and much more than that to hold and occupy a conquered nation. Russia simply does not have nearly enough troops (almost a million required) forward-deployed for such an ambitious invasion to succeed.

Vladmir Putin fears two things only: When properly led by a strong and decisive president, which we currently lack, he truly fears the overwhelming might of the U.S. Armed  Forces, and by extension, also when properly led, he fears the combined might of the 30 nations of the NATO alliance, and being “encircled” by many NATO nations. Putin genuinely does not want an all-out war against either the United States or NATO forces, which he knows that he would surely lose.

During the 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO declared that Ukraine will become a member of NATO whenever it wants, and whenever it meets the criteria for accession. However, Ukraine it still not a NATO member as of 2022, so Article 5 of the NATO charter (“An attack against one member is an attack against all members”) does not apply.

This pro-NATO status with Ukraine, although it is not a member yet, leaves Putin with a real dilemma. NATO nations, including the United States, are supplying Ukraine with weapons, but at the same time, keeping the country at arms’ length, fearing Putin’s wrath if they do too much to help Ukraine, like trying to appease an angry bear, which is the national symbol of the Russian Federation. But once Ukraine becomes a full-fledged, NATO member, all bets are off for Putin trying to reintegrate it into the Russian sphere of influence. So, he must act soon, and act fast, before yet another, former-communist nation falls to Western influence and joins the NATO fold.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby announced on Sunday, January 30, 2022, that, “Vladimir Putin could possibly invade…at any point now…Putin has a lot of options available to him…and he can execute some of those options imminently…it could happen, really, honestly, at any time…One of the things about sanctions is once you trip that, then the deterrent effect is lost…(But, the U.S. is looking at) sanctions and economic consequences the likes of which we have not looked at before…One of the last things they (the Russians) want is a strong and bolstered NATO on their western flank…You’re going to see the United States and our NATO allies bolster our capabilities on the eastern flank of the alliance.”

On that very same day, Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova warned that, “If Ukraine will be further attacked by Russia, of course they will not stop after Ukraine. That’s why it’s in the interest of Europe and all the democratic world to help us to defend ourselves, but also to show that the international rule of law still works…It’s an attack on democracy, and I believe nobody is safe if Ukraine will be attacked…We are sovereign, and we are fighting for our independence.”

On Monday, January 31, 2022, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas bluntly stated that, “Weakness is provocative, and Joe Biden has given our adversaries like Vladimir Putin every reason to believe that he will respond to a crisis with weakness. That’s what he did for 50 years as a senator and vice president…look at how we got into this situation…The real reasons why Vladimir Putin has sparked this crisis is he wants to fulfill his long-held ambitions. First, he wants to reassemble the Greater Russian Empire. He doesn’t want any successful democracy on his borders, because he’s afraid his own people will look at democracies in places like Ukraine and Georgia and say, ‘Well, why can’t we have that here in Russia?’

“So why has (Putin) sparked this crisis now? It’s because Joe Biden has projected weakness to him for the last year and appeased him…of course, the Afghanistan debacle exposed Joe Biden’s inept and incompetent, military leadership as commander-in-chief. It’s that series of appeasement and weakness over the last year that has caused Vladimir Putin to think now is the time to go for the jugular in Ukraine…Putin’s view of Joe Biden is central to what’s happening in Eastern Europe right now.”

Short of an all-out war, Putin may decide to launch minor, short-range incursions into the already-embattled, separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and on January 19, 2020, Joe Biden unwisely announced to the entire world that, “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do.”

This brief comment openly revealed that the U.S. and its NATO allies were deeply divided on the question of how to respond to a “minor incursion” into Ukraine, and the remark was widely criticized by Ukrainian officials, some world leaders, and members of the U.S. Congress, for implying that lower-level, Russian aggression would not be met with a forceful response. A wise commander never tells the enemy his weaknesses.

In such an eventuality of limited, Russian aggression, it would likely be the Ukrainian Special Forces that react, with a variety of anti-tank weapons, including U.S.-supplied, 127mm FGM-148F Javelin missiles and 83.5mm M141 Bunker-Defeat Munitions (BDMs), as well as their own RPG-7/16/18/22/26/29 series of rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and Corsair, Skif, Barrier, and other anti-tank weapons.

The Russian Federation’s deployed forces near the Ukrainian border are heavy on main battle tanks, especially the T-72B3, and although there have been no major, tank battles since World War Two and the Korean War, the Russian psyche is still deeply imbued by the everlasting memory of the ferocious Battle of Kursk, only 55 miles from the Ukrainian border, during July and August 1943, the very first time in the war that a German, strategic offensive was halted before it could break through enemy defenses and penetrate deeper into the Russian heartland.

It was the largest tank battle of the war, with 420,000 casualties on both sides, and more than 8,000 tanks destroyed, but resulting in a strategic, Soviet victory, despite horrific losses. (When I was first assigned to West Germany in 1982, the landlady who owned my rented house was Mrs. Wolf, the widow of a German colonel who was killed in action at Kursk.) So, we must not underestimate the Russian willingness to launch an offensive comprised primarily of heavy tanks.

In addition to overt warfare, Ukraine has relied upon its Special Forces for various activities, such as intelligence gathering, fighting fraud and organized crime, countering terrorism, electronic warfare, and responding to mass protests. The country, however, has been plagued by rampant corruption (such as the factual, Hunter Biden-Burisma Holdings scandal of 2020, now smugly labeled by Democrats as a “conspiracy theory”) in the past, even within its armed forces and Ministry of the Interior, which resulted in many special operations units and commanders being removed. Some of these dismissed troops actually joined the separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, and fought alongside the ethnic-Russian separatists and Russian SpetsNaz commandos.

Today, the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces Command (SSO), based in Kyiv (formerly Kiev) and founded on January 5, 2016, consists of over 4,000 professional soldiers (no conscripts) under the command of Major General Hryhoriy Halahan. An additional 1,000 troops are to be added, beginning in January 2022. Its primary units are the 3rd Separate Special Purpose (SpetsNaz)Regiment (“Prince Sviatoslav the Brave”) at Kropyvnytskyi, in central Ukraine, with three SpetsNaz detachments, the 8th Separate SpetsNaz Regiment (“Iziaslav Mstislavich”) at Khmelnitskyi, farther west, with four SpetsNazdetachments, and the 140th Separate Special Operations Forces Center at Khmelnitskyi, which is the most-elite, Special Forces unit of the Ukrainian armed forces, similar to the U.S. Army’s Delta Force.

There is also the 73rd Maritime Special Operations Center on Pervomayskyy Island, along the southern coast, with three separate units, equating to Ukrainian Navy SEALs, and they are, in fact, nicknamed “Seals.” And the Ukrainian Air Force’s 35th Mixed Aviation Squadron at Havryshivka Air Base/Vinnytsia International Airport in west-central Ukraine actively supports the SSO with Аn-26 Curl transport aircraft, and Мі-24V/VP/P Hind-E/F, Мі-8T/MT/MTVHip-C/H, and Мі-2 Hoplite helicopters.

An additional, special operations unit is the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) Alpha Group, or Spetsgruppa Alpha, formed in 1990, and similar in role to paramilitary units of the American CIA, British MI6, or Russian FSB Alfa Group. Finally, the National Guard of Ukraine has the 18th Operational Regiment, and Special Forces Detachments “Scorpion,” “Omega,” “Vega,” “Ares,” and “Odessa.”

The SSO’s official motto is Іду на ви! (“I Come at You!”), which was also the famous motto of Sviatoslav I (“Sviatoslav the Brave”), the Grand Prince of Kiev and ruler of Ukraine from 945 A.D. to 972 A.D. Their official emblem is a prowling, silver wolf, bearing the bold motto on a golden scroll beneath, and worn on a light-gray beret. Similar, gray berets are worn by U.S. Air Force Special Reconnaissance teams, the ultra-secret, British Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), the Lithuanian Aitvaras special operations force, and Poland’s elite, Grom special operations force.

SSO troopers have worn the standard, 2013 pixelated, woodland-camouflage uniform in the past, but the ever-popular, MultiCam pattern has been seen more often lately. Aside from the anti-tank weapons already described, here are the other weapons and equipment of the Ukrainian SSO command:

Assault Rifles: The Fort-221 carbine used by Ukrainian Special Forces is a license-built copy of the Israeli CTAR-21 bullpup weapon with 15-inch barrel, but chambered in 5.45x39mm instead of the usual 5.56x45mm. The IPI Malyuk (“Baby”), also known as the Vulcan-M, and also made in Ukraine, is a nearly-identical copy of the Fort-221 or CTAR-21, with a 16.33-inch barrel, in either 5.45x39mm or 7.62x39mm models, adopted for service in 2016. The AK-74 in 5.45mm is also in use, as the nation’s standard, assault rifle, and its compact AKS-74U (often suppressed) variant is the Ukrainian Army’s standard carbine, used by Special Forces and vehicle crews.

Submachine guns: The Fort-224 submachine gun is a copy of the Israeli MTAR-21/X95 carbine, chambered for 9x19mm. There is also a new, ultra-compact, Fort-230 submachine gun/personal defense weapon, since 2021, looking somewhat like an H&K MP7A1, which is sure to attract military interest.

Pistols: SSO commandos use the Glock-17 pistol in 9x19mm, the locally-manufactured, Fort-17 service pistol in 9x18mm, and the suppressed Makarov PB in 9x18mm (also used extensively by Russian SpetsNaz troops.) Ukraine also recently (2021) introduced the new, Fort-20 pistol in 9x19mm, for potential, military use in the future, and the Fort-28 is a 5.7x28mm weapon, very similar to the FN Five-seveN, also with military potential, but not yet adopted for service.

Sniper rifles: These include the Zbroyar Z-10 (or UR-10) in 7.62x51mm NATO (also favored by the 79th Airborne Brigade) with 20-inch barrel, the Dragunov SVD in 7.62x54mmR (the nation’s standard, sniper rifle), and the Barrett M107A1 in .50 BMG, since 2018. In addition, Canada has exported a number of PGW Defense LRT-3 .50-caliber rifles to Ukraine. The country also manufactures some of its own, new sniper rifles, in the form of the brand-new, PG-14.5 Night Predator (suppressed) in 14.5mm, the Snipex T-Rex in 14.5mm, and other interesting, indigenous designs.

Light machine guns: SSO troopers favor the Fort-401 in 5.56x45mm, a highly-modified version of the Israel IWI Negev NG-5 machine gun. Ukraine’s standard, light machine gun is the RPK-74 in 5.45mm.

Medium machine guns: The nation’s standard-issue, medium machine gun is the combat-proven PKM in 7.62x54mmR.

Heavy machine guns: Limited quantities of Russian DShK and NSV heavy weapons in 12.7x108mm have been transferred from Lithuania, and the U.S. has sent M2HB heavy machine guns in .50-caliber.

Combat vehicles: Ukrainian Special Forces use the locally-built, Varta Novator four-door, armored personnel carrier (more than 100 acquired), with a 6.7-liter, turbo-diesel engine generating 300 horsepower. U.S.-supplied, M1113 or M1114 Humvees are also widely employed. Other possible vehicles include the Ukrainian-produced, Kozak-2M1armored personnel carrier, and the BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle.

Meanwhile, there are approximately 165 U.S. troops (65 Special Forces advisors and 100+ Florida National Guard advisors near Kyiv) currently deployed to Ukraine on training missions, along with 200 Canadians, 53 British soldiers, 40 Poles, and 26 Lithuanians. The U.S. Special Operations Command-Europe (SOCEUR) officially announced on Tuesday, January 18, 2022, that, “The bottom line is that our training mission in Ukraine is ongoing,” even in the face of the enormous, Russian military build-up along the border. Vladimir Putin knows with absolute certainly what will happen if any of those 484 NATO advisors are killed or wounded, even accidentally, during a Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that fact alone serves as a major, deterrent factor against launching a huge, offensive operation, especially against the capital city of Kyiv.

The Biden administration has thus far ruled out the direct involvement of U.S. troops in any potential, Russo-Ukrainian conflict, but that restriction is likely to disappear if American soldiers begin returning home from Ukraine in gray, military caskets. The New York Times reported on Friday, January 14, 2022, that the White House was seriously considering a plan to covertly train, fund, and arm a resistance movement inside of Ukraine in the event of an occupation, aiding Ukrainian resistance fighters by providing training inside of NATO countries such as Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

During the Cold War, NATO, the U.S. Special Forces, and the CIA created a vast network of clandestine, stay-behind units (Operation Gladio, from 1956 to 1990) in many European countries, tasked with conducting intelligence and reconnaissance operations, as well as guerrilla attacks behind enemy lines, in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion. The precedent has already been set, and CIA paramilitary officers are already apparently working with U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Ukraine, training Ukrainian SpetsNaz commandos to initiate the necessary actions for establishing a widespread, resistance network.

The eventual outcome of the current, Russo-Ukrainian Crisis may be uncertain for the present, but what is absolutely certain is that the Ukrainian Special Forces will be at the very forefront of this international standoff, fully prepared to make the Russians pay very dearly in blood and fire for every inch of Ukrainian ground that they may take.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (including Eastern Europe) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: