Inside the Covert War In Ukraine
VICE News spoke to Ukrainian special forces soldiers about their secret operations, including targeted assassinations behind enemy lines.
Midnight on the edge of Eastern Ukraine's bloody conflict is marked by red fireworks and dogs barking at the crackling of gunfire.
Avdiivka is a small city in the Donbass region, littered with bullet holes and drones that are visible at night amidst the constant tracer fire trying to blast them away.
The pro Russian separatist and Ukrainian lines haven't changed much in the last year here. It's a complete stalemate with some of the wooded fighting positions resembling World War One trench lines. And into that intractable position, a covert war has taken root.
Since the start of the conflict over Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin deployed his unidentified "Little Green Men," the term given to the armed soldiers without official insignia who showed up in the now Kremlin-controlled peninsula. And it's widely believed that those kind of Russian soldiers are among the separatists in the Donbass region.
But the clandestine activity cuts both ways. On a recent trip to Avdiivka, VICE News was given rare access to Ukrainian commandos fighting on the frontlines of the now two-year-old conflict. Bumping along Eastern Ukrainian roads in an old Brinks-styled armoured vehicle retrofitted into a bulletproof iron cage with no seat belts, I interviewed these elite soldiers earlier this summer.
We were there for an investigative documentary on the effects of Canada's training mission in Ukraine—but conversation quickly turned to their own missions, covert or otherwise.
Wearing balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles, they spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear Russian intelligence agents could identify them.
These guys reminded me of other western special operators I've spoken to in the past. Much more existential with their thinking on war and killing than the average enlisted soldier, but with the added value of feeling like they've also done some seriously secretive, brutal operations before. The Ukrainian commandos constantly asked me what I thought of them and my answer was always the same: "You all look really tired of fighting."
They nodded to that answer every time. They were all too familiar with the terrible soldier food we ate, made up most mostly of imitation kolbasa, and the shell craters we'd periodically drive over, sending everybody's head into the rusty iron roof of the armoured vehicle.
In a subsequent interview, one member of the Ukrainian special ops says commandos execute targeted killings behind enemy lines in the Donbass region, which entails identifying and eliminating specific members of separatist forces.
"Targeted killings" is special forces parlance for surgical operations to kill enemy senior ranking officers or other targets like snipers and bomb makers.
According to the same soldier, Ukrainian special operators also sabotage or destroy separatist-controlled infrastructure to disable the performance of their enemy on the battlefield.
"Ukrainian Special Operation Forces are used to making some diversions deep inside the enemy's territory," said the source, adding that this includes sabotaging gas stations or destroying "supplies or expensive military [technology], like electronic warfare or signals intelligence stations." He also says such operations are often misreported in Ukrainian media as successful "pro-Ukrainian guerrilla" attacks, but that his unit "know the truth."
Their actions in the broader context of the Ukrainian conflict came to light when Russia accused the same types of Ukrainian commandos of hatching a plot to sabotage critical infrastructure within Crimea. Russian authorities allegedly captured a man named Yevhen Panov, but Kiev denies he's one of their special forces operators.
Russia accuses Panov of being a member of a Ukrainian intelligence circle in Crimea promoting potential "terrorism" and "sabotage" on the peninsula, including the killing of a Russian intelligence employee and soldier. Russian authorities supposedly captured Panov with explosives.
Another Ukrainian commando alleged to me in the field that he's not only fought, but killed Russian elite Spetsnaz operators within the Donetsk region—Spetsnaz is Russia's version of elite American Navy SEALs or Delta Force. The Kremlin strongly denies that report.
VICE News reached out to a Russian diplomatic source about the presence of Spetsnaz in the Donbass region, but they have yet to reply.
Conversely, the same Ukrainian special forces operators deny they ever enter Crimea, against Kremlin allegations, for two reasons.
"First, because of political decision," he told me, referring to orders from Kiev not to enter the Russian-controlled territory out of fear of escalating an already volatile stalemate between it and Moscow. "Second, because of tactical situation in Crimea. The peninsula is full of Russian [Federal Security Service], police and army. Our guys are not the 'suicide squad.'"
Matt Rojanksy, Director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. and a specialist on the conflict in Ukraine, says current fighting in the Donbass region can only be seen as a "war" with a "slow boil".
"Things have stabilized into a kind of World War One or late 19th century style trench warfare," said Rojansky in an interview with VICE News. "And it's been killing a lot of people and it's also been destroying the infrastructure, basically blocking any ability for a ceasefire to come into effect or rebuilding to take place. Rebuilding power lines, water supplies, schools. The kinds of things you would need to serve a population."
The current Minsk Protocol—the international ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists — is seen as a failure, with observers attached to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reporting daily artillery shelling, mortars and gunfire exchanges between both the Ukrainian military and separatists.
I witnessed similar heavy fighting during that escorted visit to the frontlines of Adviivka's Prom Zone—the most active area of fighting in the entire conflict. Several Ukrainian commandos said they considered the Minsk agreement a "joke."
The intensifying geopolitical stalemate means extended tours on the frontlines of Eastern Ukraine for regular Ukrainian soldiers, an outcome of the conflict changing the role of the USOF on the ground and professionalizing the overall Ukrainian military.
"At the very beginning of war, [Ukrainian Special Forces] often was used as conventional stormtroopers, because of lack of well-trained and experienced soldiers. Most of our special guys have taken part in [the] liberation of Donbass cities," he said, adding that through Western-assisted training and combat experience, regular troops can now take on more offensive missions on special separatist targets.
By the same token, it would seem almost unthinkable that any of these potential covert targets for the Ukrainian military would be in Crimea. That would almost certainly provoke an all out war with Russia. Yet members of the Ukrainian special forces said to me they see Donetsk as territorial Ukraine and thus, fair game for operations.
Ultimately, any total war with Russia would likely end one way.
"If we declare official war with Russia, this war will last maybe one week," said the Ukrainian commando. "Because we can say truly Russia has more powerful forces."
With files from Sofi Langis