The leader of Ukraine’s secretive Special Operations Forces (SOF) visited Bakhmut on March 4 where he met with members of SOF teams and commanders of regular army units that are the mainstay of Ukrainian defenses in the besieged city.
Brigadier General Viktor Khorenko said the main goals of his trip to the city, which has been subjected to almost continuous Russian assaults since August last year, was not only to observe the situation in person but to coordinate continued full support to those elite soldiers participating in the defense of the embattled city. He voiced the view that “communications between all formations in our special forces are critically important. If we respond right away to the needs of soldiers, then we’ll get maximum results on the battlefield.”
Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut and its surroundings are under heavy pressure from massed attacks by Russian infantry. On March 5, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said that Kyiv’s military leadership is debating on whether or not it is time for a phased withdrawal from its forward positions as holding present positions becomes ever more costly.
Who are Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces?
On July 25 last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky on appointed Khorenko to command all Ukraine’s special operations forces, a tiny and select 1,000-member formation within Ukraine’s regular army.
Ukraine’s SOF were one of the first formations in the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) to train jointly with NATO counterparts. Primarily intended as a covert formation focusing on behind-the-lines operations, the concept was modeled on similar units in US, Polish and Lithuanian special operations forces. Since 2015 they have regularly trained with these and other counterparts.
Using classic “commando” tactics, the SOF traditionally carries out behind-the-lines ambushes, kidnapping enemy commanders and destroying critical enemy infrastructure such as bridges and ammunition depots. Under Khorenko, the Ukrainian SOF have built up a reputation of military competence and a readiness to attempt high-risk missions. On Aug. 16 Zelensky appointed Khorenko as a member of Ukraine’s top military command committee, the “Stavka”.
Khorenko gave no public details on the numbers of SOF troops deployed to Bakhmut or tasks assigned to them. However, by doctrine and reports on SOF’s record over the last twelve months of, it is probable that SOF teams would be more likely to disrupt Russian attacks, command and control with raids and ambushes, than by holding fixed fighting positions.
“All formations from the SOF participating in the defense of Bakhmut are executing their missions exactly. Our fighters are working continuously in extremely difficult conditions and are doing everything possible, so that the number of enemy forces is reduced every day,” Khorenko said.
On March 3, the Commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces ,Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky said that the AFU would use “all means available” to hold ground in and around the city during his own visit to Bakhmut. He reiterated previous Ukrainian official statements that Kyiv intends to use delaying tactics designed to inflict maximum Russian casualties.
Ukrainian media and individual soldier accounts say that AFU losses in Bakhmut, though substantially less than that of the Russians, are high and continuing. A soldier assigned to a combat brigade recently rotated out of Bakhmut told Kyiv Post in a video interview that, after two weeks’ holding forward fortifications on the line, under almost continuous Russian artillery and ground attacks, his battalion was still capable of fighting but seriously depleted in manpower.
Ukraine’s Special Forces command on Friday published images and text describing a raid during which a team of fighters overran a Russian behind-the-lines positions in a night attack, killing five soldiers. The Ukrainian military information Telegram channels on Sunday and Monday widely reported that the engagement recently took place in the Bakhmut sector.
Video published by the AFU on Thursday, and widely passed on by major Ukrainian news platforms, showed video which was described as “kills” of Russian troops by SOF snipers in the Bakhmut sector. Images showed two figures throwing themselves flat following a single sniper shot, and then hit repeatedly by follow-up rounds as they lay motionless in open ground. Unconfirmed reports said seven Russian soldiers died and three more were injured in the night-time engagements.
Kyiv Post analysts evaluated the recently-published official Ukrainian content as appearing to be credible but not immediately possible to verify.
On Monday President Volodymyr Zelensky led a meeting of the military high command council "Stavka", following which his office issued a statement saying the national military leadership had discussed the situation in Bakhmut and decided that the city's defense should continue, based on top generals' advice.
"Evaluating the progress of defensive operations, the President asked (AFU senior commander Valery) Zaluzhnhy and (Ground Forces commander Oleksandr) Syrsky regarding further actions in the Bakhmut sector. They spoke in support of continuing defensive operations and further strengthening of our (Ukrainian) positions in Bakhmut," the statement said in part.
Official AFU photo: Viktor Khorenko, commander of Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces (SOF).
General Viktor Khorenko, commander of Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces (SOF), confers with staff during a visit to a command post in the Bakhmut sector. Mar. 34 SOF official photo.
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