By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“He’s the enemy! He came to my home. I didn’t go to his…in Russia,
they’ve been fighting wars all their lives…in Afghanistan and in
Chechnya. You can’t say the enemy is weaker…There can’t be any
doubt about pulling the trigger…Every trip may be our last.”
— Ukrainian sniper Kuzya, of the Ghosts of Bakhmut team
The ferocious and ongoing Battle of Bakhmut, Ukraine, began on August 1st, 2022, with a massive Russian ground assault after three months of artillery shelling. It has since become one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Russo-Ukrainian War so far, with at least 20,000 men killed and 80,000 wounded on each side. Last year, the front lines degenerated into positional trench warfare, with high casualties and no significant advances. As the Ukrainians gradually withdrew, this changed into fierce, urban warfare, and by May 20, 2023, most of the shattered city had fallen to Russian forces.
Bakhmut has no inherent, strategic value in itself, and the troops and resources that Russia has expended in assaulting it are out of all proportion to its importance. The city’s capture can best be described as a symbolic victory for the Russians, compared by some Russian media outlets to the historic Soviet victory in the 1945 Battle of Berlin. Yet the savage battle rages on, even today, and a single, 20-man team of elite Ukrainian snipers has taken the war back to the Russian troops occupying the city, with their special unit known as the “Ghosts of Bakhmut.”
Since February 2023, the Ghosts have officially been credited with 558 confirmed kills in combat. Their commander, using the simple callsign of “Ghost,” has personally accounted for 113 kills against Russian troops. He became a sniper in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and was formally trained by American, British, Canadian, and Lithuanian sniper instructors in 2016.
“It’s nothing like American films that romanticize the work of snipers and show it as very glamorous,” Ghost has stated. “We work 24 hours a day; we don’t differentiate between day or night. There are no weekends. You’re totally exhausted, all the juices are squeezed out of you, and when you come back from a mission, you’re a complete mess…We are thrown into the most hot spots. When there is an offensive or a counteroffensive planned, our task is to go in first and clear the area.”
The team, which is actually part of the prestigious Separate Presidential Brigade, deploys to their target locations in American-made Humvee vehicles, before silently approaching the combat zone, the “zero-line,” on foot, stalking through the fields and forests on the outskirts of the city, where they seek out high-value targets. Counter-sniper missions are among the most difficult and dangerous, because the Ghost states that, “It’s the task of hunting the hunter.” The Ghosts of Bakhmut engage enemy targets from as close as 230 feet, to as far as 1.5 miles away, with a 1.5-mile kill in early October 2023.
Their primary weapon is the Barrett M107A1 sniper rifle in .50 BMG, but the special team also employs the Barrett MRAD in .308 Winchester or .338 Lapua Magnum, and Ukrainian rifles such as the Zbroyar Z-10 in 7.62x51mm, and the Snipex Alligator in 14.5x114mm. In November 2022, a Ukrainian National Guard sniper from the “Omega” special forces unit, with a Snipex Alligator, scored the third-longest-range sniper kill in history at 2,710 meters (2,964 yards), or 1.68 miles.
All of their shots are recorded electronically via video through the sophisticated, infrared sights of their long-range rifles, mostly at night, and the team continues to observe a fallen target for three to five hours to ensure that the Russian soldier is dead. After the primary target is eliminated, they also kill any other enemy troops in the vicinity. Most of the Russian troops occupying the city currently are seasoned paratroopers from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division and 106th Guards Airborne Division, and some Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) units.
Ghost handpicked the 20 members of his sniper team, stressing that, “One has to be sturdy, one has to be very resilient, very focused, psychologically very resilient, and obviously patriotic…You learn how to calculate, you do the math. You learn how to camouflage yourself, you learn about the environment. You can shoot perfectly well, but if you can’t survive, there is no value in that.” Only 10 percent of their training is oriented toward marksmanship. The rest is geared toward combat survival. In fact, he has never lost a single sniper in battle, and only he and one other man have been wounded in action, but both returned to the fight. Together, the small team has earned nine medals, of three different types, for bravery over the past nine months.
“I am absolutely confident in each and every man who works with me,” he continued. “We are absolutely self-reliant. Every element of our task is fulfilled by our own members. We have our own drivers, we have our own truck repairers, everything that we do, we are doing ourselves. We are not relying on anyone outside of our unit. Which is probably why we are all still alive and together.”
The Ghosts of Bakhmut wear MultiCam uniforms, and have become experts in tactical camouflage, even being so careful as to dodge Russian drones buzzing overhead, searching for Ukrainian snipers. In the fields around the city, the Ghosts must be exceptionally well-camouflaged, and may spend up to 16 hours at a time in any given position on the battlefield, waiting for an opportunity to strike a target.
Ghost is fully aware of the extreme physical and psychological demands of their exceptionally hazardous missions, usually within the range of Russian artillery. “As long as we have fear, we’re acting like humans, and we are more reasonable. As soon as somebody has lost their fear, that’s the beginning of the end.”
On November 1st, 2023, journalist Maria Kholina of RBC Ukraine visited the front lines near Bakhmut, and personally interviewed a noted, Ukrainian paratrooper sniper, nicknamed “Shadow,” from a different sniper team. His observations are very similar to those of the Ghosts of Bakhmut:
“I joined the 77th Airborne Brigade about six months ago. My proficiency in shooting during training exercises led to this transfer to the sniper unit…The situation here remains complex, with constant engagements…Snipers perform various tasks, including artillery adjustment and direct engagement with the enemy…no one interferes with us.”
“We observe, select our target, watch, and wait,” Shadow continued. “We typically focus on live targets, while for vehicles, we work more on providing artillery guidance…Drones don’t fly when it’s raining, so it makes our work easier…We arrive by car, and then walk from there. We walked six to seven kilometers at most. Sometimes a sniper lies in position for half a day to wait for a target…And we succeeded in the end.
“To be an effective sniper, one must possess endurance, patience, good health, and knowledge of mathematics and geography…The tactics employed by Russian forces in Bakhmut have remained consistent. They keep throwing cannon fodder at us…There are combat engagements and assaults every single day, with Russians dropping like flies as a result.
“The trenches are filled with Russians. The city of Bakhmut is in ruins…I don’t know why they won’t let go of this city…But they are dying here massively…The morale among Ukrainian soldiers remains the same, to kill as many Russians as possible. And we will do just that.”
On a related topic, the Ukrainian defense industry has recently produced a new type of jacket, which blocks body heat radiation, and makes the wearer almost invisible to Russian thermal cameras and night scopes, providing an “invisibility cloak.” This is especially useful for sniper teams. The infrared image below shows three Ukrainian soldiers, one on the left, wearing the new uniform, and the other two in standard clothing.
The new invention is part of the “Brave1” program, a Ukrainian government initiative to promote innovation in battlefield technology. Production capacity for the jackets is currently limited to 150 units per month, but they are ready for mass production. The jackets redirect at least 90 percent of a person’s radiant body heat. It’s not clear whether these new unforms have been issued to the Ghosts of Bakhmut team yet, but this bold initiative would certainly make them less detectable and more efficient in combat.
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Warren Gray is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism, and is an NRA member. He served in Europe (traveled to France) 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, historian, and hunter.