Special Operations: East Of The Red Forest


June 18, 2019: In Ukraine, as part of ongoing military reforms and reorganization, a Jager (light infantry) brigade is being created for the Ukraine Special Operations Forces. Described as similar to the American Ranger Regiment that is part of SOCOM (Special Operations Command), the Jager brigade uses an existing infantry brigade but replaces conscripts with upgraded volunteers. The Jaegers will receive upgraded equipment and intensive training. The Jagers will be assigned to the provide security, and timely intelligence, about what is happening along several hundred kilometers of the northern border with Belarus and Russia. In this area, the terrain consists largely of thinly populated marshland and ancient forests. The western end of this border zone contains the abandoned (and restricted) area around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that blew up in 1986 and is now encased in a very expensive structure built since then. The reactor complex is surrounded by 2,600 square kilometers of depopulated territory that includes the city of Pripyat and a short stretch of the Pripyat River (that comes south from Belarus). This exclusion zone has come to be known as the “Red Forest” and is full of animals who have adapted to the high radiation levels. The area is constantly monitored and regularly visited by intrepid tourists who carry radiation detection devices indicating how much radiation they have been exposed to. The Jager Brigade is mainly concerned with the forests and marshland east of the Red Forest.

The Jager Brigade will not have a lot of personnel, at least not initially. The core of the brigade is several hundred Special Operations veterans plus several hundred selected volunteers from among career (non-conscript) troops. In addition, the Jagers are recruiting personnel who have a forestry or wilderness management background, including young men who grew up in this forest and marshland frontier area. The terrain and lack of population and roads have made this a borderland, even after Ukraine lost its independence in the 14th century and was eventually absorbed into the Russian Empire.

The Jager Brigade will be a major expansion to Ukraine Special Operations forces which, in 2016, became the fifth branch of the armed forces. At that point, the Special Operations command had fewer than 5,000 personnel. This was one of many changes made to the Special Operations units since small numbers of special operations troops proved crucial in stopping the Russian-backed separatists who were trying to take control of the two provinces that comprise the east Ukraine Donbas region. Mainly because of the timely and effective intervention of a few hundred special operations troops at key points during the early months of combat, the pro-Russian separatists (reinforced by a growing number of Russian troops and even some Russian commandos, or spetsnaz) failed to achieve much. Since 2014 the Ukraine special operations forces have lost nearly a hundred dead in combat and most of those were suffered during 2014 as the Russian advance was halted and the special operations even took back some key areas the separatists had already seized. Because of that separatists agreed to a ceasefire in early 2015 but some fighting has continued and the Ukrainian forces continue taking back territory from the demoralized separatist forces.

In part because of what the special operations forces accomplished in Donbas, in late 2016 Ukraine increased the budget for its Special Operations Forces fivefold. More importantly they borrowed a technique made famous by U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) to get the most out of that additional money. The American Special Forces, Rangers and Delta Force commandos have long operated with what amounted to the freedom to buy whatever they needed. The Americans found SOCOM procurement procedures so useful that in 2002 the RFI (Rapid Fielding Initiative) was established for the entire army. RFI recognized that the American army did not always have the best weapons and equipment available and that the troops and low-level commanders had a better idea of what was needed than the senior generals and politicians. RFI was intended to do something about that and do it quickly. Since the Russian invasion in 2014, Ukraine has a need for RFI and better equipped troops. But Ukraine also has lots of corruption problems, even now that there is a war on with Russia. But the Ukrainian Special Operations troops are keen to maintain their uniqueness and know that if their “RFI” powers are tainted by corruption they will not only lost it but their reputation for being special. If the Ukrainians can make RFI work for them then the concept will be more acceptable in a lot of other places.

When Ukraine became independent in 1991 it inherited military units that were stationed in Ukraine, minus non-Ukrainian personnel who went back to where they were from. Because of this and much lower defense budgets, the new Ukrainian military started small, but with far more equipment than it needed. The Ukraine military went through several major reforms and reorganizations in the 1990s through 2010. After the 2014 Russian invasion, there was another major reorganization in 2016. Through it all Ukraine retained several Spetsnaz units (two brigades and a naval Spetsnaz unit) they had inherited from Soviet period. Ukraine dropped the term Spetsnaz and a lot of the other Russian practices, like using a combination of career soldiers and conscripts.

The Spetsnaz units always contained a lot of conscripts, which is in sharp contrast to Western commandos (who are volunteer careerists). But the conscripts were carefully selected and were volunteers for Spetsnaz duty. The Spetsnaz considered these conscripts as potential long-term operators and the short service of these men was considered an extended tryout. The veteran Spetsnaz learned to make the most of the constant influx of conscript operators. GRU (army intelligence) Spetsnaz Brigades in Chechnya suffered about ten percent casualties for each tour. The brigades were usually under strength. Moreover, entire brigades were not sent into Chechnya, so there were only a few hundred Spetsnaz there at a time. The Spetsnaz were there mainly to collect information on the rebels, locating their camps and travel routes. Artillery or bombers are called in to do the actual attacks. When the Spetsnaz do run into rebel units, they inflicted far more casualties than they took.

Russia doesn't send more Spetsnaz to Chechnya because these units spend a lot of time training and are needed elsewhere, especially in Central Asia and for counter-terrorism duty in general. Some are held ready for emergencies like the Ukraine operations. Moreover, duty in Chechnya is grueling, as the Spetsnaz don't have all the special equipment and specialized helicopters that Western (especially American) commandoes have. Russia also considers their Spetsnaz as a strategic reserve for emergencies and thus likes to keep at least three of the seven GRU brigades in reserve, training and ready for any unexpected emergency.

The Russian Spetsnaz suffered a lot of problems in the 1990s and by the end of the decade, there was a serious consideration to major reorganization and reduction in the Spetsnaz forces. Fortunately the planned 2009 cuts to GRU Spetsnaz were rescinded. Apparently the fact that the first Spetsnaz units were the ones working for GRU and their long history of successful operations (many still top secret) did count for something. After success in Chechnya and Georgia (2008), the GRU Spetsnaz had several successful ops to build on. The GRU Spetsnaz were the first (in 1957) of the Spetsnaz units created and have after the Soviet Union collapsed demonstrated that they not only can fight Islamic terrorists but also carry out complex political operations as well. But so can the Spetsnaz who came from other parts of the former Soviet Union.

The successful initial Ukraine (Crimea) operation will go down as one of GRU’s biggest successes. The subsequent effort to seize Donbas was foiled mainly through the efforts of the Ukrainian special operations troops.


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